By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
I spent many years struggling with depression. After learning some important tools that helped me heal, I became passionate about helping others do the same. If you are feeling depressed, I hope these ideas can help you too.
1. Catching ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts)
We generally don’t have a choice about the types of thoughts that pop up on the screen of our minds. They are usually a result of our personality traits, life experiences, and how we process what happens to us. But we do have a choice about whether we become aware of our thoughts, and what we do next.
When someone is struggling with depression, their thoughts tend to be quite negative, hopeless, and self-critical. This makes it especially important to increase our awareness of the nature of our thoughts.
Tip: If you become aware of a thought that seems unkind or unhelpful, rather than automatically believing it or staying lost in its trance, try praising yourself for becoming aware of your thoughts.
2. Upgrading Unkind Thoughts
Once you become aware of an unkind or unhelpful thought and praise yourself for breaking the trance and catching it, you are ready for an internal upgrade. Depending on how long you’ve believed a thought and how depressed you feel, it might take some time (and support!) to do successful upgrades. But since we get better at what we practice, with willingness and time, you can improve the quality of your thoughts.
When I was in the grips of depression, my mind was regularly playing and replaying unkind and unhelpful thoughts. A typical train of thought went something like this: I’m too sensitive to handle life. I’m not cut out for this. Things are never going to get better.
Not exactly an Oprah pick-me-up! My upgraded thoughts sounded more like I can handle what happens. Everyone has struggles. I am capable of change. I can do things to improve my life.
I learned that even if I didn’t believe my kinder thoughts at first, it was an upgrade in the system and I had to start somewhere. Eventually, I came to believe that there was nothing inherently wrong with me, other than my belief that there was something wrong with me! I learned that self-criticism helped me fall into the pit of depression and self-compassion would help me climb out.
Tip: Once you catch an unkind thought and praise yourself for catching it, try on a new thought that is either kind, or at least not unkind. If you have difficulty, you can imagine how you might speak to a child or a dear friend if they told you they were thinking the same way you’ve been thinking.
3. Distinguish Thoughts From Feelings
Sometimes our depressive thoughts can be so strong and persistent that they can drown out our emotions. Then, important emotions that need attention and compassion get pressed down, or depressed. Learning to identify our emotions and offer them kindness and warmth is a very important aspect of depression relief.
Usually, feelings are one word: sad, mad, scared, lonely, etc. Thoughts are generally sentences, sometimes serious run-on ones! Once you identify your feelings, you can practice offering them the same compassion you might offer someone you care about. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of compassion very often, this might be challenging at first. You can begin by trying on sentences like this: Of course, I feel this way. It makes perfect sense that I feel this way. I deserve compassion, not shame.
Tip: Practice identifying your feelings. Here is a list in case you get stuck. Then, internally or in writing, respond to your feelings compassionately and see what you notice.
4. Do the Opposite of Depression’s Suggestions
As a psychotherapist, I often encourage people to follow their hearts and listen to their intuition. That is, unless they are depressed. This is because when we are depressed, we are not always in the best position to make wise decisions regarding self-care. My “voice of depression” used to advise me to isolate, stay in bed all day, oversleep, restrict my food intake, binge eat, or give up.
I had to learn to do the opposite of what that internal voice was telling me to do. I had to learn that when I was depressed and thought I should isolate, I needed to do exactly the opposite: reach out to a friend or therapist or attend a support group.
When the voice of depression told me to watch TV all day, I had to push myself to take a walk, read or listen to something inspirational. When depression told me to skip breakfast, I needed to do the opposite and eat a nutritious meal rather than set myself up for yet another episode of uncontrollable overeating, followed by even deeper depression.
Unfortunately, depression can zap the energy we need to do the very things that will make us feel less depressed. So learning to do the opposite of what the voice of depression suggests can feel like climbing uphill at first, but with time, our bodies and our voice of wisdom get stronger.
Tip: Stay on the lookout for negative thoughts that contribute to depressive behaviors, or that encourage you to neglect or be unkind to your body. Try doing the opposite (or the kindest action you can think of), even for a short time, and build the muscle of self-care.
5. Finding Safe Support
Not everyone understands depression and knows how to respond in ways that feel helpful, but many people do. If you are struggling with depression, it’s so important to find safe support. The voice of depression might try to convince you that nobody will understand you, but that is just one voice, and it’s not true.
Remember doing the opposite of depression’s suggestion? If depression is trying to convince you that no one can help and there is no hope, it is lying to you. There are people who can help, and there is hope. It might take some trial and effort to find the right person (or people), but they do exist.
I remember reaching out to a friend during one of my darkest days and telling her how low I felt and how dark my thoughts were, and she simply did not get it. She remained totally silent, and I left our conversation feeling even worse. But I didn’t give up, and eventually, I found a therapist who totally understood me. I also began to gather tools that really helped, and now I share these depression relief tools with others.
It’s so important to find people who treat you with kindness, compassion, and non-judgmental understanding. Eventually, you can learn how to treat yourself that way as well.
Tip: If you are searching for a therapist, consider someone with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills as well as mindfulness training. CBT will help you learn to challenge and change your unhelpful thoughts, and mindfulness will help you quiet your mind.
6. One Chapter is Not the Entire Book
When someone is depressed, it’s tempting to think that this is the way it will always be. But life has many chapters, and we don’t get to know what the next one will be if we give up on ourselves. I remember a client who spent years comparing herself to her seemingly happily married friends and feeling desperately lonely and depressed.
Despite my weekly reminders that life stories can change, she was convinced hers wouldn’t. But her story did change. She is now married and enjoying her new chapter in life. Additionally, a few of her previously “perfect and happily married” friends are now divorced. We all experience challenging chapters in our lives, just as we all experience change. Even if our life circumstances don’t change, if our minds change, everything can change. This is why some people have what is seemingly a dreary job and claim to be the happiest people on the planet, while others have literal fame and fortune and struggle with depression and addictions.
Tip: Remember that storms pass, feelings pass, situations pass. Some may feel stronger and last longer than others, but things pass.
If you are battle weary from depression, I hope you will stay on the lookout for any unkind or unhelpful thoughts. Praise yourself if you catch one, and upgrade to a kinder thought. Practice identifying your feelings and offering them compassion. If you have difficulty, imagine how you might speak to a child or a dear friend or wish someone would speak to you. Practice doing the opposite of what the voice of depression suggests. Reach out to safe support people and see how the next chapter unfolds.