(I would like to start with two quick disclaimers. The first: if you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts and you’re reading this, take a moment and reach out for help. Call 1-800-SUICIDE, visit suicide.org for a list of International hotlines, or call 911. You are worth it, they do have time for you, and I will be waiting here when you get back. Second disclaimer: the advice in this guide is based upon my own knowledge and experiences, and I am not a certified health professional. Okay, here we go.)
What is the image that comes to mind when one thinks of the word ‘Depression’? It is often characterized as a void, as darkness, the downward spiral, a veil, and a black cloud. Winston Churchill described his own depression as a black dog. Personally, when my depression is milder, I picture it as shapeless body sitting heavy on my shoulders. When I’m falling into a deeper depression, the image of tumbling down a rabbit hole à la Alice in Wonderland comes to mind, in which I am clawing at clods of dirt to stop the seemingly inevitable plunge towards an unknown bottom. Finally, in the deepest recesses of my experienced depression, I am in another dimension, separate from those I love. Though we may sit together in the same living room, I am trapped neck-down in a swamp of tar, elsewhere.
All this is to say that ‘depression’ is actually quite a broad term that encompasses a variety of different states. One may experience depression as part of the grieving process following the death of a loved one, or in the aftermath of a life-altering event. Just as often, others experience depression for no apparent “reason”, which is why the question “why are you depressed?” so often cannot yield a satisfactory answer. The following tips are applicable to all levels and types of depression, however, the effectiveness may vary by person, state of mind, and circumstance. Also note that surviving depression is an ongoing effort for many people, myself included, but that’s not to say there won’t be those transcendental moments replete with meaning that gives life its lovely sheen. We’re never permanently condemned to a single state of mind, or, phrased in another way: This too shall pass.
1. Get your Basics Covered
Unless we’re living in circumstances in which we have little or no control over resources, it’s crucial to eat, drink, and sleep. Sounds obvious, right? But with depression, these basic human needs can me sometimes hard to acknowledge, let alone act upon. Eating often requires cooking meals, which sometimes requires more effort than we can muster. When possible, we can call on friends and family to help in this task. If we’re living alone, it’s okay to resort to simple meals. While the adequate intake of food groups and vitamins can go a long ways towards feeling better, sometimes we go through phases in which pasta and tomato sauce is all we can come up with. That’s okay. This state of mind is not a permanent one; they never are. For fluids, water is of course, important. I often forget to consume an adequate amount, so I’ve taken to bringing a cup or bottle with me wherever I go. Finally, sleep can be tricky in that with depression, it’s easy to get too much or too little, and sometimes, paradoxically, both. Personally, I am prone to ruminating throughout the night, and if I’m not careful, I can sleep away the day. To quell the brain-chatter that keeps me awake, I’ve found it useful to listen to audiobooks as I fall asleep. You can access free audiobooks of classic literature in the public domain. And if you need that midday nap, go ahead and take it. You aren’t hurting anybody.
Not my finest culinary moment.
2. Never be Afraid to Get Help
This is such a crucial step, and it is also one of the hardest to take. Why? Perhaps we live in a society that still values certain stoicism, especially in the workplace. We still equate the need for help as a weakness, especially those of us wrestling with concepts of strength and masculinity. Furthermore, depression has a sneaky way of sapping our self esteem. Why should a therapist or doctor care about my problems when someone else may have it far worse? We may ask ourselves these types of questions, convincing ourselves that our problems, and our lives are not worth seeking help for. These are false beliefs. I know this for a few reasons: the first is that if someone came to me and confided their feelings of depression, I would absolutely be inclined to help in whatever way I could, regardless if this person was a stranger or a friend. I believe most people want to help others. The other reason, is that I’ve called suicide hotlines several times, and each time I have been greeted with kindness and support. I’ve talked with doctors and therapists who have also been helpful. And it’s not because my problems are more worthy than anyone else’s, that’s just what the professionals are there for.
If a doctor prescribes a medication to alleviate symptoms of depression, listen to their expertise. Medications can be a valuable asset in getting better. The only thing to watch out for is self-medication, or medications recommended by people who are not professionals, or who have no scientific merit. By this I mean not following the dosages correctly, using street drugs and excess alcohol, and also buying into “snake oils” that haven’t been tested or proven.
Before you make any calls, it might be necessary to google how these suckers work.
3. Acknowledge What is Co-Occuring
When depression throws itself a party, complete with black balloons and a sludgy cake, it makes sure the guest list is a long one. So it’s actually quite common to have depression and something else. For instance, one could have depression with another mental illness, such as anxiety disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder, to name a few. Likewise, depression can manifest itself as a buddy to all sorts of physical disabilities as well. Having awareness about some of these issues will help in the process of healing and of establishing ones’ needs. This will also help family and friends, because when we are able to understand what we need, we are in a better position to ask for it. As an example, my depression is best friends with my anxiety, and this sometimes manifests in a panic attack. Because I know about the underlying anxiety, I can ask my family to tell me exactly what I need to hear. Sometimes it’s just getting a different perspective that can alleviate anxiety, which in turn slightly lessens the burden of depression.
Pictured: me in full panic mode.
4. Exercise if Possible
I say “if possible”, because sometimes due to physical or emotional conditions, it isn’t. There’s no denying the wealth of information supporting exercise as an effective therapy in dealing with depression, even if it’s light stretching and a walk around the block. Whenever possible, physical activity should be considered, but if it can’t be managed for whatever reason, don’t beat yourself up. The last thing a person with depression needs is another reason to feel bad and/or guilty. Again, this state of mind is not forever. If one can’t do yoga today, one can try to do it tomorrow.
I’m fairly certain that gardening plastic plants isn’t exercise.
5. Be Gentle
While there is usually little harm in pushing oneself to make that soup or take that walk, it’s important to acknowledge that our condition does affect us in certain ways. For instance, we may not be able to complete activities or assignments at the same pace as classmates or coworkers. We may not go to as many social gatherings, or we may not stay out as long. This is okay, there is no rule that says one must function at 110% capacity in spite of depression. Taking longer than others to complete a task does not make us less talented or less capable. (Also, I suspect that everyone kind of goes at their own pace, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.) Use kind words and encourage yourself, rather than resorting to verbal beatings. Your health and wellbeing is what matters most.
Treat yourself as you would treat this little guy.
6. Find Meaning in Whatever Ways you can
Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl pioneered a movement in psychology which underlines the importance of finding purpose in our lives. This incredible man survived German concentration camps during WWII by plotting and planning his future, and thinking about his love for his wife. We humans can survive the most arduous times, and Frankl suggests that we do this by finding the concrete meaning of our lives.
This is no easy task when one is depressed however. We tend to lose all sense of perspective. We ruminate on the past, we dread the future (what if it’s more of the same?), we ache in the present. And yet, it’s possible, even in our darkest moments of suffering, to cling to our purpose. It doesn’t have to be grandiose; we may not have the energy to imagine a glittering future full of accomplishments and accolades. But maybe there’s the person we love deeply and want to spare of the suffering they would undergo if we left them. Maybe we have an animal friend in our care who relies on us. Maybe there’s that story we need to tell, or a person we need to help. Maybe it’s a pervasive curiosity to find out what happens next. All reasons to survive are good reasons. We can adapt and change them as we go, because our conditions and circumstances will change as well. For more tips and ideas, visit the post on How to Create Meaning.
Your purpose could be to solve this damn thing for me.
These tips are the things that have helped me survive my depression. It’s not been easy, and I have wanted more than once to give everything up, but I’ve also had many spectacular moments in the midst of everything. My hope is that, if you feel depressed and are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you will find that acorn of courage and strength we all possess inside and reach out. You are and always will be worthy of survival.