The New York Times published a recent article detailing the increasing frequency of depression, why this is happening, and how medical professionals diagnose and treat patients with depression. The article was informative and highlighted possible over diagnosis in particular. However, if you really are one of those people suffering, you want to alleviate your sadness as quickly as possible. There are five surprising ways that those who are depressed can help themselves to heal.
1. Change your feelings of sadness. You want your feelings of sadness to change, but you cannot simply will a feeling to change. Feelings can only be changed indirectly—that is, by changing your underlying thoughts and/or behaviors. As for your thoughts, ask yourself some questions: Is this thought irrational? Am I thinking worst case scenario? Or, is this thought really helpful right now? Examine the thoughts that trigger sadness more closely, even write them down, and then consciously construct a more rational alternative thought. You don't have to think like a positive "Pollyanna," but if your thoughts are unrealistic, then a more realistic thought will help you feel better. For example, when you are home alone and think, "I feel so lonely all the time," this thought could be re-framed as, "I feel lonely at times by myself at home, but I also get to do what I want, when I want." This language is less absolute and considers the positive side of being alone as well.
2. Change an underlying negative belief system. Negative belief systems keep you mired in depression. When we have such a belief system, we tend to look at the world through a depressing filter. We find evidence that supports those beliefs and ignore that which doesn't. Often what is ignored is just as, if not more valid. For example, I have seen several clients with themes playing out in their lives such as, "I'm not good enough," or "I'm not worthy." These fundamental beliefs can hijack your thoughts, sabotaging your efforts to get better. But you can change them over time. Help yourself by recognizing whether you have such a belief system that is causing your depression. If so, an experienced mental health professional, with cognitive-behavior training is best to assist you with further change.
3. Take action to stop the downward spiral of depression. Many of my patients wallow in their depression, even though they know some actions can make them feel better. For instance, it is well documented that exercise helps alleviate symptoms of depression. But sufferers of depression often put off exercising until they "feel motivated." If you wait to feel "good" to exercise, you may be waiting a very long time. On the contrary, when you force yourself to engage in a "feel good" behavior, you start to experience the small successes that will break the negative cycle and put you onto a more positive trajectory. Acting "as if" or "fake it till' you make it" is an age old behavioral technique that demonstrates this positive feedback loop as well.
4. Externalize your deression. Your problem is separate from you, so treat it as such. You can even choose a name for the problem, like "The Dark Cloud," or "The Agitator." Give it an identity outside of yourself. You can also ask yourself, what does "depression" make you do? What rules does "depression" make you live by? Does it make you stay in bed all day, or isolate you from your loved ones? Attribute the unfavorable aspects of depression to this separate entity, not to you. Externalize it so you can separate it from who you are underneath, or who you want to be. Recognize that if you don't find a way to differentiate it from who you are, depression can become so internalized that it starts to be seen as the only truth and story you can tell about yourself. It prevents alternative views or possibilities. The problem is the problem. You are not the problem!
5. Find exceptions to times you are depressed. This can be periods of time in your life or even a day during the past week. What was different during those times? What was happening that you may not be paying attention to now? If your depression is chronic, think about the times you are able to best cope. What specific thoughts or behaviors are you doing when you manage depression well? These exceptions are clues to what can help you feel better, that you may have been overlooking.
It is well established through research that talk therapy combined with medication can offer a lot to help someone dealing with depression. A qualified therapist can guide you through the suggestions listed and personalize a treatment plan that can get you through situational or chronic depression.
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