One of the tricky things about trying to overcome depression is knowing where to begin. It would be great if we could just “turn that frown upside down,” but unfortunately we can’t control our moods with a switch.
Depression can be caused by a combination of psychosocial factors. One is exposure to intense situational stressors, such as losing a job, ending a relationship, or failing a class. Another cause of depression is biased and excessively negative beliefs, such as “nobody likes me” or “I can’t do anything right.” Depression can also be influenced by patterns of behavior. Some people spend too much time doing things that make depression worse. Using drugs or alcohol to cope with unpleasant emotions is one example. Others avoid activities that might be rewarding, and instead spend too much time doing passive things like spending hours in front of the TV or sleeping throughout the day.
Dealing with patterns of inactivity during periods of depression can be difficult because behaviors that used to be rewarding may not seem appealing when things are at their worst. Wishing for spontaneous motivation or that day when you finally “feel like” getting things done can be a dangerous road, because that day may not come anytime soon.
Instead of giving yourself more opportunities to accept that depression is fixed and there’s no getting past it, consider gradually increasing the frequency of activities that bring pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. Although getting out and doing things may seem like a huge chore when you’re depressed, it can be one of the most powerful ways to feel better quickly. Becoming more active can be energizing and mood enhancing on its own, but it also gives you evidence to challenge beliefs of personal ineffectiveness that may be magnified when you’re depressed.
I like to think of increasing activity as a “behavioral antidepressant.” Here are eight suggestions for getting started:
1. Give it some thought.
Think about a world in which your mood is better. What would that look like? What would you be doing? Can you start to do some of those things now?
2. Start with small changes.
Spending too much time on challenging activities can reinforce ideas like “I don’t enjoy doing things” or “I’m ineffective.” Making plans to do manageable activities helps to get the wheels in motion. The process will get easier as the days and weeks go by.
3. Scheduling helps.
Use a planner or online calendar to schedule the things you want to do.
4. Set yourself up for success.
Think about ways to change your physical or social environment to make activity easier. For example, if you’re having trouble leaving the house, make a commitment to spend a small amount of time with a friend.
5. Get moving.
Exercise is one of the most powerful mood-enhancing activities. If it’s been a while, even a 15-minute walk to start the day is a step in the right direction. Getting some fresh air and exposure to sunlight will help, too.
6. Be consistent.
Doing something once or twice a week is less likely to have an impact than daily activity will. Think about one thing you can do each day that will be enjoyable and one that will give you a sense of accomplishment.
7. Be efficient.
If it’s tough to take care of responsibilities, see if you can combine your “pleasure” and “mastery” activities. One idea is to go to a coffee shop and split your time between reading a novel and looking for job opportunities online. Another would be riding a bike to the grocery store to buy some food for dinner. Or you could invite a friend over to catch up while you take care of an important chore you’re less likely to do without company.
8. Track it.
Depression doesn’t disappear overnight, so be patient with the process. It can seem like nothing’s working if you overlook day-to-day changes. Keep track of your mood as you get out and do more. A simple 1-10 mood scale is enough. Be sure to give yourself credit for your effort and record what helps and what doesn’t.
If Inactivity Makes Depression Worse, Do the Opposite
Although it can take some effort to get back to doing things that bring satisfaction and fulfillment, it’s important to remember that boosting activity is a logical alternative to the inactivity that goes with depression. Waiting for depression to go away is the passive approach. Instead, we can do more, and feel better.