Many people struggling with depression feel stuck, unsure of what to do or how to move forward. Counseling, medication, and mental health programs are not always available or affordable, and taking big steps can feel even more difficult for someone with depression. Identity Counseling Psychology is a counseling and psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, made up of a group of licensed therapists who specialize in treating people with depression. While counseling has helped many people dealing with depression to cope with and find relief from their symptoms, there are some key steps that you can take on your own to start feeling better.
In his book, “The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs,” clinical psychologist, Dr. Stephen Ilardi, introduces and explains his 6-step Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC) program for treating depression. We see great value in his approach, and have outlined Dr. Ilardi’s 6 keys to battling depression below. We also provide real life ways that you can implement these 6 steps into your life to help you take action against your depression and start feeling like yourself again. Although these steps can be taken on your own, Dr. Ilardi recommends checking with your doctor before making any major lifestyle changes. If you are battling depression and want to move forward, try these tips to start taking action and recovering from your depression.
1. Create Healthy Sleeping Habits
One step that you can take to start feeling better if you’re going through depression is to create better sleeping habits. Sleep and mood are highly interconnected, and sleep disruption is a known trigger for depression. Even for those who don’t have a mental health disorder, a few nights of poor sleep can have negative consequences, like feeling cranky, pessimistic or worn out. Consistent sleep deprivation or disruption can be even worse, causing confusion, brain fog and other serious physical and mental health problems. Despite how important it is, most people don’t usually get a good night’s sleep, sleeping only 6 hours per night instead of the suggested 8 or 9 hours. Poor sleeping habits often lead to increased caffeine use, which only harms the sleep cycle even more, as caffeine makes it harder to fall asleep.
Once depression takes hold, it can be difficult to move forward and make progress in getting better, especially because poor sleep can not only cause depression, but depression can also hurt our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and partake in the deep, quality sleep that we need to function at a high level every day. If you are experiencing depression and it’s been affecting your sleep, we encourage you to try some of the following habits that promote healthy sleep:
- Only use your bed for sleeping
- Create a consistent sleep schedule
- Avoid napping during the day
- Keep a cool, dark bedroom
- Avoid caffeine after the morning
- Avoid alcohol at night
- Try not to think about stressful or upsetting things before bed
2. Engage in Physical Exercise
There are over a hundred studies documenting the significant antidepressant effects of physical exercise. For many Americans, modern life is far too sedentary. Between commuting there, sitting all day through work or school, and commuting home, it’s hard to find time for substantial physical activity. Even if you don’t have depression, the benefits of exercise are worthwhile. And if you do have depression, physical exercise is even more important to add to your routine. A lot of the chemical changes in the brain brought about by popular antidepressant medications to correct depression-related chemical imbalances can also be brought about by physical exercise.
Exercise changes the brain’s chemistry by increasing activity levels for important neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin. It also increases the brain’s production of an important growth hormone, called BDNF, which is known to decline during depression. After regular physical exercise, people typically experience positive results like increased energy that are also helpful in overcoming depression.
Effective physical activity can include:
- Weight lifting
3. Keep Your Mind Occupied
Depression is closely linked to a toxic thought cycle called rumination. Rumination is the habit of dwelling on negative thoughts or memories and going over them again and again in your mind. While we all can undoubtedly benefit from self-reflection and learning from our mistakes, excessive or chronic rumination can become incredibly painful and plays a large role in depression. Some depressed people spend hours per day ruminating, going over the same unbearable thoughts, causing their depression to spiral even more out of control.
You can only ruminate when your mind isn’t otherwise occupied, and any stimulating or engaging activity can work to interrupt unhealthy rumination. Spending time alone is the biggest risk factor for rumination, and everyday situations like getting stuck in traffic, feeling bored at work or school, watching mindless television, or eating a meal alone can lead to unchecked and dangerous rumination.
Most people aren’t aware of their rumination and don’t realize that they do it, how often they do it, or that others do it too.The best ways to avoid harmful rumination are to recognize when you’re ruminating and try to shift your attention, and to set yourself up for success by limiting your triggers or situations that put you at risk. For example, if you know that your mind often wanders during your drive to work, make a playlist of your favorite music to listen to during the ride.
Engaging activities that can interrupt rumination might include:
- Listening to music
- Listening to a podcast
- Playing an interactive game
- Conversing with a loved one
- Watching videos or reading books about your passions and interests
- Social interaction, especially in a group setting
4. Maintain Social Connections
People who lack supportive social connections are at an increased risk for depression and tend to have a harder time coming out of depression. In today’s fast-paced world, it can be hard to block out time for meaningful social bonds, and we often end up spending far too much of our leisure time alone. This can be due to increasingly demanding work schedules and competitive office environments, and it can also have to do with technology, which without a doubt promotes social isolation, getting worse with each new invention and upgrade. Now we can have our groceries delivered instead of going to the grocery store, and can access thousands of movies and TV shows through streaming services instead of going to the movie theater. Technology is multiplying our opportunities to be alone everyday, and this can be especially harmful for someone with depression.
Depression causes people to withdraw even further than they already may have from those around them, leading to feelings of loneliness and diminishing their support systems for recovery. It’s human nature to self-isolate and take time for rest when feeling unwell. Most of the time, for example if you have the flu or a virus, taking some time away would be helpful and lead to recovery. However, when it comes to depression, being alone makes things worse, and is only an obstacle in getting better.
Here are some helpful steps you can take to build yourself a social support system and start making meaningful connections:
- Give to those in need
- Become a pet owner
- Get involved involved in your religious community
- Volunteer in your community
- Join a sports team
- Get to know your coworkers outside of the office
5. Increase Your Sunlight Exposure
Millions of Americans and Europeans, especially those living in northern latitudes, suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a condition that causes people to become depressed during the winter, and it’s triggered by reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter, cloudier days of winter.
The reason that less sunlight exposure can cause depression is because your brain keeps track of the amount of light you get each day and uses that information to set your body clock. When you don’t get enough exposure to bright light, your body clock gets out of sync, throwing off circadian rhythms that regulate important biological functions like energy, sleep, hormonal levels, body temperature and appetite. The disruption of these rhythms is harmful and can trigger depression.
Bright light stimulates the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which affects mood, stress response, and behavior. People who work from sunrise to sunset don’t get enough natural sunlight, which is significantly (over a hundred times) brighter than indoor lighting. As little as 30 minutes of natural sunlight can be beneficial in resetting your body’s clock and getting back in sync. However, this isn’t always realistic. We’ve listed some tips below for getting the important benefits of bright light that our bodies need in general, and especially in order to recover from depression.
- Try spending at least 30 minutes outside each day
- Start using a light box
- Take a Vitamin D supplement
6. Consume More Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are certain fat molecules that the brain needs to function at its best. Our bodies make some of these fats on their own, but others can only be acquired through what we eat. Among the most important of these dietary fats are omega-3 fatty acids, which are mainly found in nuts, leafy greens, fish, and wild game. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids have been on the decline over the years, and with the popularity of grain-fed fish and cattle, there are less and less easy ways to get enough of this important fat. This trend has been harmful, as those who don’t get a sufficient amount omega-3s are at an increased risk for depression and other mental illnesses.
Clinical research has shown that using omega-3 supplements to help treat depression can be extremely beneficial. The human brain needs a steady supply of omega-3 fatty acids to function properly anyway, but if you have depression, increasing your intake of omega-3s can be key to recovery and prevention. You can do this by:
- Making conscious diet choices
- Taking a fish oil supplement
- Taking a plant-based DHA/EPA supplement