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4 Small, Practical Changes to Find Relief From Depression

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The devastating nature of depression can be exhausting, debilitating, lonely and in some cases, life-threatening. If you’ve been struggling with depression for any length of time, your pain is worth taking seriously. You matter, and how you feel matters. However convinced you are of the contrary, you have worth, you are loved, you are not invisible and you are not damaged beyond repair. You aren’t alone, and you don’t need to carry this burden alone.

There is a way out of the dark, but it will not happen on its own. It is going to require some level of intentional action.

So, pause and hear me out for a moment.

Two things to know when you hear something like that:

First, I do not have answers for you, nor will I pretend to. Depression is an illness, likely born from multiple elements, and “treatment” looks different for everyone. There is no substitution for real, professional help, and there is no shame or weakness in seeking it. There are things you can do to help alleviate some of the weight on your own, though; my only intent is to share ideas with you, based on personal experience.

Second, the guilt that is associated with depression is not valid. It’s very likely you’ve received some level of insensitive advice in this regard. In opening up about my own struggle with depression, I’ve heard things like:

“Focus on positive thoughts.”

“You have to stop being so negative, nobody likes a downer.”

“You should be happy, some people have actual problems to worry about.”

“You need to be more grateful. Appreciate what you have and stop creating problems that don’t exist.”

Here’s my stance on all that:

People can only provide a specific capacity of understanding, based on their own personal experience. Loved ones are, more often than not, well-intentioned, and trying to help. That doesn’t give them any sort of credential to guilt or shame you, though. Please, seriously consider who you open up to. If the counsel of a friend or family member comes from a place of love and concern, is devoid of judgment and suggests healthy, reasonable steps for getting help, consider taking their response to heart.

I’ve been in your shoes. I still find myself there at times! I know when depression takes over, it is overwhelming, disheartening and frustrating. I am not here to shame you into pointless practices or offer glib advice.

There are some common features of depression that show up across the board. Of those, there are specific areas I’ve found most influential on my own well-being. Making small, simple changes (and being consistent with those changes) has drastically improved my quality of life. In fact, when I find myself slipping back into depression, it is often because I’ve stopped being consistent in one or more of these areas.

Again, this is not to say depression is simply caused by a lack of sleep or chronic stress, or that addressing such things will be a cure. Addressing these areas can help, though, and my hope is you might experience some relief.

1. Sleep.

Whether it’s too much, not well or not enough, the quality of your rest will impact concentration, attentiveness, productivity and emotional regulation, just to name a few. Please, if nothing else, protect this area of your life. Make a concerted effort to assess the quality of your sleep.

  • Consider your routine; what brings you peace, or makes you comfortable? Can you implement those things regularly as you wind down?
  • Get outside as much as possible throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be labor intensive by any means, but get yourself some natural light.
  • Set boundaries on the purpose of your bedroom. Try to avoid working, completing homework or otherwise engaging in anything business related in the space you’ve designated for rest.
  • Make sure your room is a comfortable place for you.
  • If you struggle to turn off the “to-do” list, then make an actual list on paper before you lie down and, again, leave it in another room.
  • Consider limiting screen time before bed. This is overstated and hard to do, but makes a serious difference.
  • Set boundaries on conversations with others. Winding down is important, so give yourself the time alone.
  • Be aware of lighting; overstimulation won’t help. Keep very few lights on as you wind down, and make your room as dark as possible when you lie down.

2. Stress. 

If you are regularly subjected to high levels of stress, it’s likely a serious detriment to your mental health. The trouble is, this looks different for everyone.

  • Identify the sources of chronic stress in your life. Write them down, make a list.
  • Consider your options. What is within your power to change? Even small changes can make a difference. Make a plan to reduce exposure to stressors, where possible.
  • Identify your response to stressors. Stress itself is inevitable, to some degree. How we respond to it, though, is within our control. Make a list of healthy coping strategies, and try committing to one or two of them.
  • Delegate where you can. You don’t need to do everything on your own. It’s not healthy, and it’s not necessary. Please don’t place that expectation on yourself.

3. Exercise. 

Getting some level of movement in consistently can improve mood, focus, memory, appetite, creativity, emotional regulation, sleep and more.

  • Exercise does not have to be intense, painful or time consuming. It’s very likely you’re already low on energy and motivation. Don’t make this an unattainable goal. It doesn’t take much.
  • Make simple changes to your daily routines to increase movement throughout the day. Park farther from your destination, take the stairs instead of the elevator, etc.
  • Put on some good music, or grab someone you love and go for a walk. Doesn’t matter how far you walk, or how long it lasts. Before you get home, make a plan for your next walk.

4. Food. 

Nutrition plays a huge role in our ability to fend off depression. I’ll be honest, when I’m starting to spiral, this is the area I have the most trouble. I lose my appetite completely, along with all motivation to take proper care of myself; I write this portion with experience for you, and as a reminder for myself. If we aren’t getting the nutrients our bodies need, they cannot do what they are supposed to do.

  • You are looking for balance. Bad bacteria thrive on sugar, so the more you cut out, the better. Shoot for healthy fats, protein, fruits and vegetables.
  • Implement foods that will help boost production of serotonin. Cheese, eggs, pineapple, salmon, nuts and turkey are some great options. Serotonin plays a huge role in your mood, but it also impacts quality of sleep. Low levels of serotonin could increase impulsivity, drive cravings toward sweets and carbohydrates, and contribute to poor regulation of mood. In other words, individuals with depression, who are likely low in serotonin, generally experience issues (with sleep, appetite, etc.) which promote a cycle, keeping them in a depressive state. For this reason, it is so important to be intentional about choices regarding sleep and food.
  • Alcohol is a depressant; be aware of alcohol consumption.
  • If you’re interested in learning more about how nutrients and supplements support mental health, look up the term psychobiotics, and/or nutritional psychiatry.

If this looks overwhelming, break it down. Four areas: small, practical changes. One at a time, if need be. I know it’s difficult and exhausting, but you are worth it.

Unsplash image by Neal E Johnson

Originally published: April 13, 2020
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