A Therapist’s 12-Step Guide to Creating Motivation When Depressed
Creating motivation when feeling depressed can be one of the most difficult things a person can do. An episode of depression can be physically and emotionally draining. The simplest of tasks seem to take maximum effort, and sometimes even beyond the maximum. Some may feel lethargic. It may be tough to make meals, clean up at home, take showers or even get out of bed.
Navigating motivation when depressed can be tough because the instinct is often to wait for the energy to return — that if you give in to the urge to stay in bed for a few days, maybe you’ll be reenergized and recharged, hoping you’ll have exorcised the depression demons.
Unfortunately, it’s not usually as simple as this. If everybody tried to wait out their depressive episodes, some people may be in bed for years. Unfortunately, fully giving in to our depressive urges can actually have a way of reinforcing them.
Actively doing almost anything doesn’t sound desirable when feeling depressed, let alone confronting our depressive urges. While it’s important to give depressive symptoms the attention they need and to understand and learn about what’s underlying your depression, the concept of “mind over matter” can help create motivation when depressed. (Keep in mind, this isn’t meant as a cure, as much as a way of creating motivation in the midst of dealing with depression.)
I have seen with many people that the combination of psychotherapy along with creating a change in mindset using small, manageable steps can help shift the experience of depression. While this may not replace taking the steps to reflect and learn more about what’s causing the episodes, these steps can help us move forward with our lives while we continue to work on the underlying issues.
Let’s look at some steps that can help:
1. Opposite action.
In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), opposite action is the idea of pushing yourself to do something that you know is good for you in order to prevent the reinforcement of a bad habit. For example, if you want to stay on the couch and watch TV all day, when realizing this only gives into depression, opposite action would say to get up and go out, knowing it would be a healthier choice. It’s very much a “just to the opposite of your unhealthy urge” technique.
2. Set an alarm.
This isn’t only for getting out of bed. The alarm can be for anything that marks a symptom of depression. You might set an alarm to wake yourself up at a certain time to make sure you get out of bed in the morning, or you might set an alarm to signal a meal time if you’re missing meals, or signal time to do laundry, or run a particular set of errands, and so on. The alarm serves as a cue to draw your attention to a target area where you want to become more active in change.
3. Make your bed.
Getting out of bed can be very tough with depression. The first step to take is to sit up on the bed, put your feet on the floor and visualize leaving all of your troubles and thoughts behind you in the bed. Then, get up and make your bed, leaving the troubles behind for the day. Making the bed is essential in this process, as it signals to your brain that there isn’t an option to get back in the bed for the day. As you make your bed, it can also be helpful to imagine the troubles you’ve left behind dissipating as the covers are pulled up.
4. Wash up.
The more routine-setting steps you’re able to add on after you make your bed, the better. Try washing your face and brushing your teeth, or showering to help wake you up. With these kinds of steps you’re training your brain to understand that you’re getting ready for “something,” rather than simply a day lying around.
5. Get dressed.
This is another important step in separating from the bed to the day. Sitting around in pajamas on the couch is still possible, even if you escape the bedroom. Getting dressed decreases the urge to lounge because again you’re reinforcing in your brain that you’re getting ready for something.
6. Go outside.
This can be one of the toughest steps for people who struggle with depression — actually leaving the house. One of the problems with this step is that people are easily held back by not having a place to go. “OK, I can go outside … but then what?” So for this step, the idea is to not have a place to go. The goal is simply going outside, not the particular place you go once you’re outside. Go outside, close the door behind you, and do whatever comes to mind — a walk around the block, down the street, pacing in front of your house, getting in your car and driving on an errand, and so on. It can be anything or nothing at all, but the goal is to spend at least 10 minutes outside before going back in.
7. Choose one exercise.
Getting your body moving is a good way to start feeling energized. Choose an exercise that works for you: walking, running, swimming, jump-roping, etc. Whatever you choose to do, make it a point to do it every day when you go outside. And if it’s an indoor exercise (like a treadmill), do it before you go outside.
8. Make a list of activities.
Brainstorm activities that you’d enjoy doing. Include things to do at home and out with people (even if opportunities to include people may be limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, they could be good to include on the list for later on). Try to generate a list of things that includes others and that gives you some time to yourself. The activities can be a mix of productive (e.g. work-related) activities, and hobbies and self-care.
9. Schedule activities.
Schedule the activities throughout the week. Try to plan out either one or two weeks ahead of time and actually write the activities into your calendar with specific days and times. Spread them out as much as possible and make sure to stick to the schedule.
10. Daily necessity schedule.
This schedule is if you’re having trouble getting motivated to do your daily activities such as eating, cooking, showering, or other household chores. For this, you’re creating a daily home schedule. Choose the specific times you’re going to do each activity every day. It can be as specific as you feel you need: time to get dressed, brush your teeth, start cooking, eating, showering, turning off the tv before bed, and so on. This is to help you get your daily necessities actually functioning on a routine basis.
11. See family and friends.
Of course, the opportunities to see family and friends may be limited at the moment, but this step may be helpful for once it is more possible again. This one is more about the people than the activity. Being around other people is often helpful for mood improvement. Schedule specific dates and times with friends and family, outside of the house. The more you can remove yourself from the environment of depression (usually the home and bedroom), the better.
It’s important to keep in mind that the desire to stay inside and lay around isn’t what causes depression — it is a symptom of depression. Psychotherapy remains a vital and necessary step throughout the process of dealing with depression. Even if you’re able to cope with some of the motivational issues through active steps, the internal issues that are causing the depression still need to be addressed in order to decrease and help resolve the depression, both in the present and for the future.
What’s most important to keep in mind is that you’re likely not going to feel like doing anything discussed above. If you’re going to wait to “feel like doing it,” then it may not happen. Using opposite action will be the necessary first step — knowing in your mind that it will be good for you to take the steps to move forward. By also engaging in psychotherapy, you’re still able to give appropriate attention to what’s happening inside of you, including if medication may (or may not) also be helpful. You do have the power to increase your motivation and to move forward through depression. It may take some effort, but the opportunity is there for you to reclaim your life.
Visit www.nathanfeiles.com to learn more about Nathan Feiles’ practice.
Photo by Åaker on Unsplash