As a therapist I see many individuals dealing with depression. Feeling overwhelmed, fed up, or hopeless are all common experiences and while others can’t see depression externally, it is felt intensely by those who are in the midst of it's grasp and can have profound effects on behavior. At it’s worst it can feel like an enormous boulder on top of someone who has all the desire and reasons for moving forward in life, but can’t because of the weight.
What ensues naturally without some sort of professional intervention tends to be an energy sapping fight with depressive symptoms with attempts to reclaim life coming in short bursts, but ultimately turning into discouragement and exhaustion when long-term changes aren’t accomplished. The reality of long-term change is it takes a while and often comes from a steady, consistent effort over a period of time. Unfortunately a depressed individual can lose the drive to keep moving forward at that slow and steady pace, and when results take time it’s common to quit “before the miracle happens” so to speak.
If you find yourself or someone you care about stuck in a similar dilemma, trying to find motivation and meaning in life, while feeling hopeless and lost, here are 5 tips to keep in mind along with a few strategies to try:
1. Thoughts are just thoughts and not the truth of things: One of the more challenging things about feeling depressed is thoughts can be bombarding and feel heavy, which can lead to less action. The more you hear a message “there’s no point,” or “things won’t work out anyway” the more influence those thoughts can have on your ability to engage with your life. Thoughts can feel very true and important, especially the bullying ones, but shifting to a stance of seeing thoughts as simply thoughts and not the truth of things can be extremely effective in defusing from the intensity of the thought and freeing up energy to do other things. Working with a trained mental health professional on mindfulness skills can assist in this process.
2. It’s possible to live from the feet up instead of the head down: This can be a radical idea for those dealing with any mental health concern and can be very beneficial for those trapped under the “depression boulder.” Often times when our thoughts show up and bully us around telling us "we can’t do something" or "we won’t succeed even if we try," the impulse can be to resolve those thoughts and the unpleasant feelings that come along for the ride before we take action. The secret here is you don’t have to feel better to take action. A “feet up” stance to living turns things on their head (pun intended) and prioritizes the movement forward over wrestling with the slippery slope of the depressive mind.
3. Action may need to come before you feel better: This next tip is crucial to recovery from depressive disorders. Taking action has been shown to be the most effective treatment for depression and it can be one of the most difficult thing as well. Sitting in the depths of depression it can be common to fantasize, “If I only felt better I could pursue the life I want,” or “If things would only work out and I got a break, I’d feel so much better.” These thoughts can be dangerous in their impact on behavior because it puts the necessity on resolving feelings before action is possible. Keeping in mind that action is the most effective medicine, finding ways to view your circumstances in a way that places action as the priority can be healthier and lead to more positive outcomes for the depressed individual. Understanding that action will have to take place before you feel better can be a huge insight when looking for solutions. Linking your own purpose to action can be helpful as well. Knowing why you might pursue something and what values pursuing a goal may be in line with for you personally can assist in moving forward even when you aren’t feeling “better” or when things are downright unpleasant.
4. Searching for the positive takes more work: From an evolutionary standpoint we are built to notice the negative far more than the positive. It’s what kept our ancestors alive. The ability to scan an environment and decipher all the potential threats and hardships was incredibly effective in the wilderness or in early tribal communities. Add to this predisposition the depressed perspective and things can seem downright bleak almost all the time. The glasses worn by depressed individuals tint the whole world in the depressed shades of hopelessness and mediocrity. When this is your reality it seems like the negative thoughts, feelings, and reminders are everywhere around you. When you do contact something uplifting, or take action that you can be proud of, the negative mind looking through the depression tinted glasses often won’t see the good or will discredit it in favor of what seems much more important or relevant, the negative thoughts.
5. Addressing the “bad” feelings requires less work, not more: Here is where we get into the paradox of depression treatment. In our culture it’s common to value fighting against or battling something unwanted. We combat obesity, there’s a war on drugs, and we fight cancer just to name few examples. With mental health disorders, the battle is often the problem or at least amplifies the distress. If you are busy battling against or arguing with your depression you are basically caught in a tug of war with the disorder, one that may feel rewarding as you use your strength to pull against what’s on the other end of the rope attempting to pull you in, but ultimately this strategy keeps you standing in place, digging in, and using all your energy and effort to fight with depression. Meanwhile you’re no closer to living life or doing the things that actually assist in helping like taking action (see point 3). What if you did less and dropped the rope? Instead of using all your effort to fight with depression or the depressed thoughts, you simply noticed they were there and went on about your life, maybe taking the action you choose.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT the strategies utilized involve letting go of struggle and using energy instead to move in a valued direction in your life that connects you with the things you find meaningful and care about.
For more on depression check out: 5 Tips for Building Resilience, if you have Depression.
*To learn more about ACT you may want to check out “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life” by Steven C. Hayes, a workbook designed to get unstuck and start moving toward a more meaningful life in the face of challenging mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Andrew Taegel is a provisionally licensed professional counselor and has extensive training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness Based Psychological Interventions. Andrew has a private practice in Columbia, MO offering counseling for anxiety, depression, and grief concerns. He is the president of the Missouri chapter of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Sciences, and facilitates a local Acceptance and Commitment Therapy peer consult group. Andrew also specializes in men’s grief work and assists those going through the many losses involved in divorce. To learn more about Andrew visit: www.andrewtaegel.com
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I am a therapist in private practice working to assist those struggling with self-doubt, guilt/shame, addiction, anxiety, depression, and grief to decreasing the struggle with internal distress and commit to actions that move them closer to the things they value most.