There’s no doubt about it, depression sucks. It can lead you into a vicious cycle that is tough to break. In episode 264, I received a question from a listener who has been struggling with depression and feelings of hopelessness, wanting to know what they can do to help lift themselves up. In this post, I take a look at some of the key points to consider and dive into my top tips to get you back on track.
Hi, I was wondering if you would discuss my question on your next podcast! Here it is:
My depression has been worsening and the hopelessness is sucking me in deeper. How can I start to counteract this feeling and find joy in the little things again?
Great question. This is a good opportunity to talk about some of the depression basics, so here we go. First off, if you are going through this alone, share with someone. Start with one. Even if it’s just a friend or family member. Don’t go it alone.
Start with the basics
Next, you will want to check in on your basics. These are often the first things to go, and like many things in depression, it’s sort of paradoxical. Doing the things that you have stopped doing will help you to feel less depressed… but you stopped doing them because you’re depressed. So start with just one or two things. I’m talking about getting some sunlight during the day, getting your sleep under control, exercising, and not eating like a total garbage human. If you want more info about sleep, check out episode 180. Each of these will give you steps in the right direction and are basically free to do. These will help to get your body under control, which will in turn have a positive influence over your emotional functioning.
A couple of major symptoms of depression are a lack of motivation and something called anhedonia. Anhedonia is basically the inability to feel. Things that once were enjoyable or pleasurable for you fall flat. You may even find that the scale doesn’t get tripped in either direction and you don’t really feel a lot of sadness from things that are sad either. It’s basically just a pure state of blah. The lack of motivation is another big one. People often tend to feel less inspiration to do activities and less overall physical energy as well. This leads to a reduction of activities, which then increases depression, and you fall into a vicious cycle.
Train your brain to feel pleasure again
The approach to dealing with this is what we call behavioral activation. This means basically letting the action come before the emotion. A lot of times, we wait to be in the emotional state that we feel like we need to be in before completing an action. This can be something like going to the gym or watching a movie we wanted to watch or something like sex where we feel like we have to be totally in the mood first. A lot of times, once you get started with an activity, the feeling catches up. With behavioral activation, you are basically trying to train your brain to feel pleasure again. There are legitimate neurological changes that occur when you are significantly depressed and you are trying to tell your brain to wake back up by force feeding it things like dopamine and serotonin.
Essentially, what you do is start finding activities that used to be happy or pleasurable for you or things that you think should be and doing them even though you don’t feel like it. You can start by finding some easy wins. Things that you aren’t already doing that have a mild level of challenge given your depression and a high level of reward. I go through a worksheet to find these easy wins in my book. From there, you want to continue thinking of more activities and develop a list. Then you just start treating it like your job and working your way through the list. I know it seems silly and pointless, but that’s exactly what depression wants you to think. Depression wants to keep itself safe, so it’s going to tell you that this is pointless and that you are wasting your time because there are legitimate well-thought-out reasons that you feel so bad.
It’s normal to have a hard time getting started with this. One trick that you can use is the 5-minute rule. That’s where you commit to only 5 minutes of an activity with the understanding that you can abandon it after 5 minutes if you absolutely hate it. You can endure many things for just 5 minutes. But what you often find is that once you get started, the motivation to continue magically appears. You may also need to borrow some motivation or accountability from others. For some people making plans with others or asking them to nag them a bit helps to get their butts moving because they don’t want to let other people down. Ideally, you don’t have to rely on shame to feel motivated, but at this point take what you can get.
Pay attention to influence and thinking traps
Watch out for your influences as well. If you are trying to find the motivation to go for a nice long walk today, it’s going to benefit you more to listen to an inspiring podcast or watch an uplifting youtube video than listening to your sad playlist up until you leave. There’s a good chance that you have fallen into some negative, self-defeating thinking patterns as well. A very common one is the mental filter thinking trap (check out the common thinking traps handout if you haven’t yet). In my book, I call this Shit Colored Glasses. Everything you see has a gross tinge to it due to your depression. You filter out the neutral or positive aspects of a situation and only see the stuff that supports the negative way that you already feel.
Personalization is another big one, as are mind-reading and all-or-nothing thinking. You can work on this in a number of ways. Simply making a conscious effort to learn your common traps and look out for them can help. If you want to go more in-depth, you can use something like an ABC thought log to address them in a more structured way. You can also intentionally start learning more about depression and coping strategies. There are so many great free and affordable resources out there from books to courses to other podcasts. One interesting one that a patient of mine has really resonated with recently is a book called Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. It presents a lot of fundamental psychology principles in a way that is fresh and seems to stick well with people.
Final thoughts to consider
If there is a productivity element to your struggles, that may need to be addressed as well. Perhaps you need to work on the way that you’re approaching your to-do lists or start breaking up tasks that you have been putting off into smaller steps so they can stop making you feel so guilty. Perhaps there are lifestyle changes that need to happen. Are you surrounding yourself with people that are negatively impacting your mood or draining you? Are you in a job that is unfair and abusive, which understandably makes you feel bad? All legitimate things to do something about.
Since motivation is probably hard to come by, try to look out for things that you can do to set yourself up for success when you are feeling less shitty. For example, setting the coffee maker on a timer the night before. And of course, there are also professional avenues like therapy and meds. No shame in using those.
You can absolutely make a dent in this. You don’t have to do everything at once. I just wanted to give you some ideas. Tackle things one at a time. Build as you go and start that positive snowball effect. Remember that you aren’t doing anything wrong by struggling right now. Obviously, you’d rather feel better but you also didn’t ask to feel this way. You are doing the responsible thing for trying to try. You can do it.
You can listen to this on Episode 264 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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