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7 Ways to Make Gains in the Depths of Depression

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

With the winter season in full swing, the days are short and cold, and the nights are dark and long. Whether it’s you or a loved one, seasonal or chronic, mild or severe, depression often touches all of us in one way or another.

It fills you with an empty darkness. Nothing seems to matter anymore. Life loses its meaning and a sense of hopelessness saturates your every cell. In the midst of such bleakness, how can you ever begin to claw your way back up? During times of such heaviness, any progress toward healing, however small, is an impressive achievement. But where to begin?

1. Prepare to self-care.

Preparation is key. In those moments of clarity when the oppressive veil of darkness lifts, make a list of a few things you do that make you feel good. Ask a loved one or a therapist for suggestions, but keep in mind not everything works for everyone. To truly heal, you must find what works for you. Create your own healing plan. Add, subtract and change the plan as you discover new techniques to try. Each of us is a constant work in progress. Medication, books, therapy and advice from external sources are important for educating yourself, but to find lasting peace, you’ve got to keep trying until you find what works best for you.

But what exactly does self-care mean? The answer is different for everyone. Find what feels good for you. What brings you joy? What makes you feel cozy and peaceful? I have been given many suggestions throughout my years of recovery. Some helped, some didn’t. Some made such a difference I make sure to incorporate them into my everyday life. Not everything is going to resonate with you. That’s OK. But the more you try, the more you’ll find. My self-care routine is an ever-evolving list I enjoy constantly tweaking. I have found yoga, meditation, Youtube videos and healthy eating are essential to my personal well-being.

You may find something like knitting or tai chi works best for you. Maybe listening to classical music followed by a nap is best. Maybe a boxing class or regular support group meetings work for you. You may find watching your favorite episode of Family Guy does the trick. It doesn’t matter what’s on your list as long as you consciously carve out time for activities that allow you to feel joy. Whatever it is, your best self-care plan will be one that continues to lift you in times of happiness, and help you emotionally detach from the darkness when depression rears its ugly head.

2. Rate your to-do list.

Although it often feels next to impossible to maintain any kind of productivity while you’re depressed, it’s important to keep moving forward, even if it’s at a glacial pace. A creative strategy designed by Jessica Gimeno helps make productivity feel less difficult with a rating system. Discovering this rating system was my first step toward taking back control of my depression. First step? Make a list. Then, evaluate.

Evaluating the urgency and level of importance of each item on those pesky to-do lists may help you organize your priorities and help make the impossible feel possible. Jessica states, “Being depressed means falling behind and falling behind leads to more depression.” For those of us who know the struggle, we can probably relate. It’s a very steep downward slope. But when you’re depressed, the thought of doing anything feels overwhelming and impossible. So what can we do?

First, Jessica says to focus on getting the important things done. Take a look at the list you’ve made and decide the importance and urgency for each item. From one to three stars, how imperative is it to complete this task? Is it a one-star task that could be put off until you’re feeling better? Do you absolutely have to mow the lawn or can that wait a few days? At first, I didn’t have many tasks I deemed important enough to give three stars. But feeding my dog and taking him out always earned a level three. Even if I didn’t care about taking care of myself, I always found the strength to take care of my best buddy.

Another way to maintain your productivity and help stave off falling into a deeper depression is to knock off the easier items first. Although nothing seems “easy” when you’re depressed, just the act of writing down and organizing your to-do list could be a good first step.

From level one to level three, categorize the items on your list. Getting dressed and going to the market may feel next to impossible which may garner a level-three difficulty. Even though getting out of bed may feel impossible at times, doing something with more of a level-one difficulty, like taking a few conscious deep breaths could be a good starting point. For me, brushing my teeth was an important task I knew I could eventually talk myself into, even if it took hours. Even if I crawled right back to bed afterward, I knew I still did something productive for myself and it helped. And who knows, sometimes that small victory may inspire you to complete another task, like making a snack or taking a shower. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, acknowledge and honor the importance of baby steps.

Jessica’s rating system allowed me to regain a bit of myself while being forgiving of the fact I’m not at my usual caliber when depression strikes. Her website also has good tools.

3. Does it feel counterintuitive? Try it anyway.

Depression wants to eat up your soul and leave your carcass lying on the couch in the fetal position, backlit only by Netflix asking, “Are you still watching?” Exercise and socializing probably feels counterintuitive. Even thinking about it can feel counterintuitive. That’s your cue to try it anyway. Depression wants to rob you of your light. Do something, however small, to try and keep that light shining, even if it’s just a flicker.

4. Get moving.

Any kind of movement, let alone exercise, probably feels impossible. But can you try going outside for a 10-minute walk? If that feels like too much, can you bend over and touch your toes, breathing deeply for 10 breaths? For five? When I was in the depths of my depression, going outside in the fresh air and counting my breaths for a few minutes counted as my movement for the day. And even though it didn’t initially seem like it, looking back, those few minutes helped. It led to five minutes of yoga a couple times a week, which then led to 30 minutes of yoga a day.

A lot of times in the midst of depression, doing something somewhat physical that will help alleviate the dark emptiness, even for a moment, can be the life jacket that keeps you from drowning in the darkness.

5. Share the burden.

Talking about it? Pass. Depression wants you to bottle it up and keep that oppressive darkness all for yourself. Talking about it only helps dissipate the dark feelings and and that’s the last thing your depression wants to have happen! For me, it feels like any attempt at talking about it gets me choked up to the point where it feels as if two shadowy hands have risen up to strangle me. Try anyway. With a supportive friend, family member, therapist or even an online crisis counselor supporting you, you may begin to realize you’re supported and not alone. Sharing the burden of your pain helps to cut it in half and make it feel more manageable, even if it’s just for a few moments.

Even if you’re not in the mood to talk about your feelings, do your best to make time to be around the ones you love. Depression wants to isolate you. The last thing you might want to do is be around people, but surrounding yourself in a safe space with those you trust may boost your mood enough to keep you going.

6. Self-love.

Always. Don’t just practice self-love when you’re depressed and then stop when you start to feel better. Prioritizing yourself should always be at the top of the list, regardless of how you’re feeling.

When your mind turns into a runaway train of darkness, author and self-love master, Louise Hay, suggests to observe yourself as if your mind were a frightened child in pain. Her book, “You Can Heal Your Life” is a master class in self-love. When it comes to taming your negative thoughts, think of your mind as a cute, little, chubby-cheeked toddler, alone, scared and acting out because of that fear. How would you comfort that child? What would you say? Would you treat them as you normally treat yourself, judging and berating? Or would you soothe the child, give them a hug and tell them they’re safe? If you’re not into kids, how about an abandoned puppy? The idea is to trick your mind into giving the love and empathy you usually deny yourself. Even if you feel ridiculous, even if you’re only able to for a moment, that moment of love makes all the difference, even if you can’t immediately see it.

Whenever my mind begins to get on that runaway train to Depressionville and Anxiety Avenue, I pretend my brain is that scared little child. Or my dog when he hears fireworks or thunder. I visualize myself wrapping up my blob of a brain in a cozy blanket. I rock it, speak softly to it, tell it that it’s going to be OK. It may sound silly, but becoming the observer in that sense has allowed me to emotionally detach. I can then begin to uncurl myself from the stranglehold depression has. I have found it also helps with panic as well. Sometimes it works well enough I feel that overwhelming heaviness begin to dissolve and I can move on with my day. Sometimes it helps for just a few moments. Either way, love helps.

7. Forgiveness.

Sometimes, it feels like nothing you ever do will help lift the weight of depression off your chest. When all else fails, forgive. Forgive the fact you’re letting the calls go to voicemail. Forgive the dishes in the sink. Forgive you can’t remember the last time you showered. Forgive the disease and forgive you can’t seem to lift yourself out of it. Allow yourself to be just as you are. Be present with yourself. Exactly as you are right now. Direct your focus to the present moment. Then the next moment. Then the next.

At my worst, that’s how I survived. Taking it second by second. Moment by moment, for hours, days, weeks, months, years. It felt tedious and never-ending. But somewhere along the line, I began to stop resisting the pain. I observed it and began to honor it. No, it doesn’t feel good. It feels just as bad as it’s always felt. But that’s OK. It’s OK to not feel OK. That’s what this disorder is. Recognize that and stop judging yourself. Forgive. Stop criticizing. Forgive again. You are doing the best you can and that is enough. Trust in that and have faith with forgiveness, ultimately comes freedom.

You can follow my journey at Eileen Conroy.

Unsplash image by Allef Vinicius