What do you do when you are feeling OK, that you don’t do when you are depressed?
Whether depression is a new struggle for you, or one that seems to have always been there, there likely will have been moments in your life where you felt more hopeful, at peace, or positive.
I would like you to think about the kinds of activities you did (or considered doing) in those moments which you find yourself not doing when depression is impacting how you feel.
These are the types of things which, although they seem unappealing or overwhelming because of depression, can actually help lift you out of it, if you begin doing them again.
Which activities made you happy and which made you feel successful?
Generally speaking, the activities you have stopped doing will fall into two camps; the things you did or planned on doing because you believed they would make you happy, and the things you did or planned on doing because you felt they were important (and doing them made you feel capable).
An example of the first kind of activity might be inviting a friend round for a cup of tea. And an example of the second might be washing the dishes. When depression takes hold, you may believe that inviting a friend round would not make you happy and that cleaning the dishes is unimportant.
But it is crucial that we do attempt both kinds of tasks anyway, despite our change in beliefs. This is because these tasks once made us feel good or feel a sense of achievement. Despite how depression may make you believe this will not be the case again, it can be. And believing in that is the key to becoming unstuck.
List activities that made you happy when you were not depressed.
Begin by making a list of the kinds of activities you did or considered doing when you were feeling a little better, that made you happy and that you have stopped doing or stopped doing as much of.
Once you have your list, number them in terms of how easy you think they could be for you to do now. Begin with the activity that you believe would be the easiest and gradually build up, aiming to tackle 1 task every day, or as often as you feel able.
If you get to a point where you don’t feel any of the tasks left on your list are possible, aim to repeat two of the tasks you have already done each day instead, until the next task on your list feels manageable.
See how far you can get over the course of a month and see how engaging in these types of activities affects your mood.
List activities which made you feel good about yourself when you were not depressed.
After spending some time focusing on the kinds of activities which make you happy, you should be starting to sense the grip of depression weakening. This is an important shift because you have been able to prove to yourself that you can feel some of the joy you once did before depression. You have evidence that it is possible to feel better.
Now is the time to build on that momentum and to list some capability building activities which you did or considered doing when you did not have depression. Just like you did when you focused on activities which made you feel happy, order your list of activities which make you feel more capable in terms of which seem the easiest.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive to try and tackle tasks that are (probably) not that fun, doing these tasks can help you overcome depression just as much as the tasks you have been completing to bring you joy.
Whilst the tasks you focused on first likely brought you enjoyment and possibly a sense of connectedness to others, these new tasks bring you a sense of accomplishment. These tasks can help you feel like actually, you CAN do the things you once believed you could not, and that by doing them you are proving that you CAN take care of yourself and take on depression.
Aim to tick one thing off your new list every 2 to 3 days, or as close to this as you feel able. But do not stop moving up (or going back over) your happiness list. It is important to maintain both at the same time.
What to do if everything seems too difficult.
When you have depression, you are likely to have less energy and less motivation. This is normal, and just one of the reasons that people feel “stuck” in their depressed state.
If you find yourself feeling like even the tasks you have identified as being the easiest are still too difficult for you, you may be basing your expectations of what is possible for you now on what is possible when you are not depressed.
For example, just because when you were not depressed you could hoover the whole ground floor of your house, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be able to do the same when you are feeling depressed.
Try breaking tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks. If it takes you a week to hoover the ground floor then that’s how long it takes, the point is that depression once told you that you couldn’t do it at all, and you proved it wrong!
Another way to overcome feeling like tasks are insurmountable is to make them time based rather than goal based tasks. So, for example, instead of deciding to hoover one downstairs room a day, you could set your task as “hoover for 20 minutes”.
The task is now about the amount of time you are dedicating to it, so if you don’t manage to do a whole room in 20 minutes then it doesn’t matter, because you still ticked off your task for the day.
Time based tasks can be broken down too. This means you could decide to hoover for 10 minutes in the morning, take a break, and then hoover for 10 minutes in the afternoon. You are in charge of how you want to approach your tasks, because you are doing them for you, no one else.
What to do if you don’t know how to tackle one of your tasks.
Problem solving is another one of those things which can become more difficult with depression. This can mean that when you look at your tasks, they seem too complex, or you don’t know where to begin.
Something like going to see a movie at the cinema could have been something you were able to arrange before depression, but now you seem to have forgotten how to approach the task or thinking about how to approach the task seems too difficult.
There are a few things you can try in instances such as this.
- Think about your previous experiences. Have you ever done this task before? If so, what were the steps you took? If not, do you know anyone else that has done it? Could you ask them to tell you what steps they took?
- Think about what would make solving your problem easier. Do you find that you think better on a full stomach, or after a cup of coffee for example? Or perhaps you find it easier to make decisions after you have done something enjoyable first. Think about what you need to do to get yourself in the right problem-solving headspace.
- Consider if there is anyone you would find it helpful to work with when solving the problem. This isn’t someone who will make decisions for you, but someone who can talk to you about the steps you are thinking of taking.
- List anything any everything you could do which might be a way of possibly solving your problem, no matter how practical or impractical.
For example, if you were trying to problem solve going to see a movie, you could consider visiting the cinema’s website as well as visiting the cinema in person and asking a member of staff to help you.
Once you have tried these steps, try and pick a solution which seems the most achievable. It may not be a solution to the entire problem, but as long as it moves you in the right direction then it is a positive step.
Given the example above, you may decide to visit the cinema’s website and gather information for 10 minutes. In that 10 minutes, you may aim to find out what movies are on and their showtimes, but not actually book a seat for any of them.
Once you have decided on your course of action, break this action down further. That may look something like this:
- Find your laptop and charger (because websites are often easier to use on a laptop than a phone and you would rather use the website than visit the cinema).
- Set yourself a 10-minute timer on your phone (because you want to try and spend 10 minutes looking for information).
- Have a cup of coffee (because this helps you think more clearly).
- Complete a breathing exercise (because this helps calm your mind and focus you on the task).
- Start the timer and Google search the cinema.
- Find the right link on Google.
- Spend 2 minutes looking at the website that loads and try and work out what your next step should be.
- Find the movies that are playing.
- Read about them.
- Find the showtimes for one that looks interesting.
- Stop if the timer goes off before you are finished. (You may decide to carry on, but you don’t have to, you have already taken a step towards solving your problem).
Don’t let negative automatic thoughts hold you back from achieving.
In previous articles I have talked about how negative automatic thoughts can trigger or worsen a downward negative spiral. Beginning down a negative spiral or feeling your spiral speed up can make it difficult to stay focused on achieving progress.
Having negative automatic thoughts can also make you feel like although you have taken action, you are not getting any better (because you assume you wouldn’t be thinking negatively if you were getting better).
But having negative automatic thoughts does not mean that you cannot take action and neither does it mean that what you have achieved is somehow inconsequential. Negative automatic thoughts are a very common and very persistent part of depression, they are not going to vanish instantly.
However, you shouldn’t let this hold you back from taking those steps forward. Negative automatic thoughts can, and will diminish in power and frequency if you challenge them.
Allowing negative automatic thoughts to derail your efforts sends the message that these thoughts are true. But as we know, more often than not, negative automatic thoughts are actually highly biased. Seeing negative automatic thoughts for what they are (a symptom of the depression) and challenging their truth can help you stay on track.
Find a way of tracking your progress that works for you.
A common way people are told to keep track of their progress is to write a diary documenting how they felt before completing a task and how they felt afterwards. But this doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.
Another way of tracking your progress is to take a photograph of your achievements. Perhaps taking a photo of a pile of dirty dishes compared to a smaller pile of dirty dishes and some clean dishes drying on a dish rack. You could also take photos of the things that you tried to make yourself happy, such as a photo of two cups of tea from when you invited a friend over.
You may also want to consider a mood diary app, which is where you input your mood and the activity you are doing at the time (such as Daylio). Alternatively, you may decide to have a catch up call each week with a friend where you tell them about all the things you tried that week. Whatever works for you to help you keep track of how you are making progress, is the right way.
A weekly counselling session can help you track your progress.
Another common way that people keep track of their progress in overcoming depression is to speak to a counsellor each week about how their week has gone and what they managed to try.
Speaking to a counsellor is a great option because the counsellor can help you work through anything which has been holding you back from tackling a task on either of your lists, be this not feeling as if you deserve to be happy, or feeling that even the lowest ranked task is too difficult for you to achieve.
If you would like to discuss counselling to become unstuck and overcome depression, then you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07588 117305.
Thank you for reading, and take care of yourself,