Having muddled through bouts of depression for so much of my life, I think I am qualified to talk about what has and has not helped me and others I have known, though I am *not* a medical professional. This is an attempt to help myself and others to understand depression, and perhaps to help manage it. The aim is mostly to build understanding, because there are so many misconceptions about depression and how to help someone who has it. It is *not* an attempt to garner any kind of sympathy or pity. It is also *not* intended to replace professional medical advice in any way. It is a firsthand view of depression, from a long term survivor of it.
Contrary to what some believe, grief, “self-pity”, and depression are not the same things. And, although I have at times referred to my own depression as “self-pity”, it’s not an accurate presentation, so I will try to avoid using the terms interchangeably. I suppose referring to it as “self-pity” is a way of making it seem smaller and more easily managed. But, it gives the wrong idea to those who already think depression is just that. While it might include elements that seem like self-pity, depression is more complex and with a wider range of symptoms. Being sad doesn’t automatically mean a person is depressed, and being able to crack a joke does not mean a person is *not* depressed.
Depression symptoms can range from mild to severe, and a percentage of sufferers can even have symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations. Thankfully, my symptoms are not as severe as that. I do have the fatigue/exhaustion, sleep disruption, anxiety, and pain accompanying the bouts of depression. So, it does go beyond simply “being blue”. I used to hide or mask the symptoms better, but it is just too exhausting. Plus, it doesn’t help anyone, including and especially me.
From talking with others with depression, it seems the first instinct of a lot of doctors is to medicate. This was my experience, as well. I tried several different antidepressants over the years, some worked briefly, but none worked long term, and all had side effects that were as detrimental as the original ailment. Another problem with medicating is that, with several of those medications, the patient is not supposed to suddenly stop taking it. So, any lengthy interruption in health care results in withdrawal. Yes, withdrawal. “It’s non habit forming and non addictive, but if you stop taking it suddenly, there’s a slim chance you’ll drop dead…” That’s not word for word, but…. Read the fine print.
It’s not that I’m against medications. I’m not against them. I’ve known many people who say medication worked for them, and with minimal side effects. Antidepressants just did not work for me, which is probably for the best since I am currently one of the x thousands of uninsured, and would probably only have to suddenly stop taking them (again).
Alcohol also does not work. Sure, it seems like fun at the time–at least, more fun than moping–but it actually worsens symptoms over time. (Plus, it might wreck your liver, and then you’d be doubly depressed!)
Platitudes and clichés also do not help. “Get over it,” “Snap out of it”, “Count your blessings”, etc.. all sound like “Blah blah blah” to someone who is depressed. Depressed people don’t want to be depressed. It’s not a fun place. Also, we already know there are other people somewhere with even worse problems than our own. Reminding depressed people that there are even more depressed people out there.. is not especially helpful. Nor is it helpful to remind us that there are people who are managing even worse problems way more effectively than we are. It’s not really just about the immediate problem itself, you see.
The emotional part of it would be enough, but depression comes with physical symptoms, too. Headaches, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, sleep disorders, chest pain, digestive problems… and that’s just a partial list! It can be utterly debilitating and interfere with every aspect of a person’s life. I think I can safely say that most who live with it would do almost anything to find relief. Some resort to suicide.
“Suicide is not an option” is one of the platitudes often given by well-meaning friends of the depressed. And, it’s not entirely true for anyone with the physical ability. It’s just a really *bad* option, and is the one choice that removes all chance of ever making any other choice. So, it’s not a viable option, and maybe it’s time to replace that cliché with something like… “I hope you’re not considering that. There are always better alternatives.” And, this one is true! There really are always better options, even if they’re not always clearly visible across a bleak horizon.
Of the things I have found to relieve the symptoms, nothing works 100%. However, every little bit adds up. The main trouble is that in the midst of depression, many of these things can seem impossible. Also, it is undeniable that the source of depression for many is some life circumstance, which can be entirely beyond the person’s control.
Having a support system helps. On the darkest days, perhaps it seems I only remember the disappointments. However, I’ve been lucky enough to have friends and family members who understand (or at least try to), and love me even on the days I mistakenly think I could hate the whole world. And maybe I could hate it some days. Sometimes when I look at the news, the world isn’t making a very strong case for itself. But it doesn’t really have to.
The world isn’t bad. Some people and situations are toxic, though. More than once, I traced the trigger of an episode back to specific people or situations in my life. Once I got away from the person/situation, the symptoms improved. Of course, it’s not always possible to remove a trigger. For these situations, I work to change my view of it. Like advertising, sometimes it’s all about the spin. Some things can’t be twisted into a positive, no matter how one tries. Try not to dwell on it. Push it to the side, say a prayer for it if you like, move on to the next problem, and come back to it later if you must.
Diet makes a difference. Meat and potatoes might be yummy, but get off those for a while, and try something more colorful. No, not the orange sherbet, nor the rainbow sprinkles. Fruits and veggies. *Real* fruits and veggies. Not from a can, and not just for a day. Long term. I’m not entirely sure why this seems to help so much. It could be the vitamins and so on, or a subconscious reaction to all the bright pretty colors, or both. It’s probably both. Of course, it could also be the time of year, and all the warm weather and sun I associate with fruits and veggies. But if you are what you eat, and you’re always eating some sad critter…. Just sayin’.
Exercise helps too. But all of these remedies can be much harder to apply than they might seem to someone who isn’t depressed. Nobody is eager to go to an aerobics class when exhausted and everything aches. Frankly, the idea of going to a gym and sharing equipment a bunch of other people were sweating all over… just freaks me out. I’m sorry. I’m sure everyone there is healthy and free of “cooties”, and I don’t have any kind of princess syndrome. But there just aren’t enough of those sanitizing cloths in the world. Oh, plus there are all those people. It’s a strange thing. I used to like socializing more. Now, I tend to avoid crowds. I’m not sure if that is part of the depression, or if it is from the PTSD. Maybe both. The point is.. when I exercise, I exercise at home.
Some swear by meditation and yoga, so much that when I say meditation did not work, they insist I must be doing it wrong. Perhaps I will give it another try one day.
I found some of Daniel Amen’s teachings helpful, in particular the method of challenging “automatic negative thoughts”, based on cognitive therapy. Basically, since “all thoughts are automatic”, and “not everything you think is true” (no kidding!), there are some automatic negative thoughts. Depressed people tend to have more of these. By challenging those thoughts, it is possible to re-train one’s brain to have fewer of those, and have more positive automatic thoughts. This takes a bit of practice. I could be working on it for a long while.
Another exercise is to list daily 5 things for which you are grateful. I admit, the first couple of tries, I was not sure I quite had the hang of it…. “I am grateful for not being that person.. or that person.. or that person.. or…”. I know, I know. I went entirely the wrong direction with that exercise. I’m only human. And, depression doesn’t mean I’ve entirely lost my edge. Plus, being grateful for being me and not someone else is a good thing, right?
If you’re curious about Daniel Amen, he has books, “webinars” on youtube, and his “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” video is below. Although I am not sure all of the suggestions he gives are practical for everyone (there is no one size cure), there is a lot of helpful info: