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After delivering the “Eyes on the Situation” speech on depression, audience members often ask “How would you help someone with depression?” I’m not an expert. My strategy was to try anything and everything which you can read about here if you have a half-hour. The techniques below are my short list of methods to reduce depressive symptoms based only on my limited experience. Plus, these methods can help anyone who wants to improve their effectiveness or increase feelings of happiness.
Think of yourself like a video game character with a power meter. When you’re depressed your power meter is low like our friend Ken pictured in the red gi. As the image above shows, depression feels like getting kicked in the face. The techniques below will gradually increase your strength over weeks and months when applied consistently. Like Ken, you can boost your power and land an uppercut on life once again.
Professional Techniques: Therapy and Medication
Before I share my recommendations you should know the basics. Therapy and medication are highly effective. The research is strong. The resources to learn more are available. Find a good therapist. Get medication if you need it. I would not have made consistent progress coming out of my depressed period without the guidance of a good therapist.
When considering professional help and medication, you might ask yourself “What will this cost?” Coming from a lower middle-class family I understand. However, studies show up to 80% of people improve in as little as six weeks. That may feel like an eternity, but in the long-term, it’s relatively quick.
If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself these questions before deciding.
- “What will it cost me to delay getting help?” Happiness, relationships, earning potential, the best years of life.
- “What would I give up if I knew these methods would work?” Assume they’ll work. You can always stop later. You can’t get back the wasted years of your life.
- “Who might be willing to invest in me getting help?” That list might be longer than you think.
Power Up #1: Wake Up at the Same Time
Do you wake up at a similar time each day within roughly a one-hour window, even on weekends? If not, monitor how you feel the next time you wake up more than an hour earlier or later than normal. Do you feel tired, moody, or negative? This is an example of depression as an accumulation of both bad circumstances and bad habits. You can’t control everything in your life, but you can control your habits.
Even now after overcoming depression, nothing makes me feel more depressed than going to bed late, waking up late, or waking up without quality sleep. I’m drained. I’m tired. I’m weakened. When I was depressed, I went to bed anytime between 11 pm – 2 am and woke up between 7 am – 12 pm. Those bedtime and wake-up windows are too wide. I recognize that now. I didn’t realize how much it negatively impacted my life at that time.
You can experiment to gauge how your sleeping habits impact you. To make this change, pick a bedtime and wake-up time that feels like it will be easy to follow most days. Brainstorm how you could make it easier on those other days. Then act on your ideas to make it easier.
This process can be hard. If you work odd hours on the weekend, you might not be able to leave work earlier. You could start looking at other job options. Easy to say. Hard to do. Maybe you have more control over your late nights, but you like going out with your friends. Decide what’s more important to you: your health VS your job, your current social scene, or your other “current” constraints.
Once you pick a bedtime and wake-up hours, check out the Power Down routine and Wake Up routine for more tips. Focus on powering down by reducing bright lights like TV, phone, or computers an hour before bed and instead relax with reading, a bath, or listening to music. Wake up with a glass of water, a shower, and getting outside into the sunlight as soon as possible, maybe for a cup of coffee or a little reading or exercise.
After a few weeks of waking up at the same time with seven to nine hours of high-quality sleep, ask “Do I feel more energetic or positive? Is my day a little easier now?”.
Power Up #2: Socialize with Positive People
Who are the five people with whom you spend the most time? Are they helping you get stronger or weaker? Someone smarter than me said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Spend time daily with people that support you, are positive, and make you stronger. Target people that you can connect with regularly, make you feel good, and don’t judge you. Those people might be hard to come by depending on your environment.
Nothing gave me more hope than talking to my family and friends when I was down. They believed in me more than I believed in myself. I was lucky that most of the people in my life were a positive influence and made me stronger.
Consider your friends, family, and co-workers. Who do you want to spend time around? Who listens to you with understanding? If you have five supportive people, you can rotate connecting with each of them once or twice per week to get daily support. You might need to talk to them about what you’re experiencing if you’re reaching out to them more often than normal. That may sound intimidating, but supportive people normally will understand.
To connect more regularly, offer to meet one of ‘your people’ at a place of their choosing. However, you don’t have to meet in person. Phone calls are a great way to connect that’s declining, particularly with Millennials. Texting doesn’t seem to have as strong of a positive impact on your psyche as a phone call, although a flurry of emojis between friends might brighten your day. Try calling someone. Maybe, text them first so they’re not surprised 🙂
One social support technique that pays dividends is scheduling “anchor events” into your week in advance. You’ll subconsciously look forward to these “anchor events” which increases the total psychological benefit compared to a meeting on short notice. Ask to meet someone in a few days or a week. Offer to meet near them for a cheap meal, a cup of coffee, or a walk. Schedule an exercise class together for mid-week, catch live music, or watch a movie.
Power Up #3: Eat Less Sugar
What did you eat in the last twenty-four hours? What did you eat last weekend? Eating high-sugar or refined carbohydrates daily may negatively impact your psyche. Sugar launches you on a rollercoaster ride with your mood grasping onto the caboose for dear life. You might not be aware of this. I can’t avoid seeing the constant feedback from eating sugar since I have a glucose graph on the insulin pump on my hip. My blood sugar drops and I’m cranky and lethargic.
I can’t avoid seeing the constant feedback from eating sugar since I have a glucose graph on the insulin pump on my hip. My blood sugar drops and I’m cranky and lethargic. When I was depressed, I was a carb monster. I didn’t have the glucose sensor that graphs my blood sugar readings at the time. Carb-heavy snacks were easy to find and made me feel good for a few minutes. Then I wanted more.
People who reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates in their daily eating habits often feel less hungry and less moody. That moodiness leads to self-judgment about eating the “wrong” foods. Suspend your judgment. When your blood sugar drops, you’ll reach for what’s convenient. If all you have is high-sugar snacks, that’s what you’ll eat. You’ll repeat the process two hours later when your blood sugar drops again when your insulin’s effect peaks. Those decisions aren’t a reflection of you so much as your environment.
Change your environment. If you opt for the vending machine at work, bring in some peanut butter and a banana or nuts and an apple. Load up on snackable vegetables like baby carrots, cucumbers, and peppers with hummus or guacamole. If you’re worried about your budget, check out this list of healthy foods under $1 and load up on the fruit, veg, and protein.
Check out the following links for more tips on cutting sugar and eating more veg and more fat to stabilize your energy levels and mood.
Power Up #4: Exercise Daily
Did you exercise for ten minutes in the last twenty-four hours? Did you elevate your heart rate for thirty minutes in the last seven days? Exercise can be as simple as walking, but elevating your heart rate weekly is good for your heart and lungs. You may want to exercise more than the questions specified, but if you’re not easily answering ‘Yes’ to both questions this could be a monster power-up for you. Exercise is a keystone habit (i.e. triggers additional habit changes), that provides a natural antidepressant from the dopamine/runner’s high, social connection from group exercise, and extra motivation to eat better and rest adequately.
When I was depressed, I looked forward to training at the Upper Darby Gym so much that I drove two hours round-trip multiple times each week to get there. As much as I disliked the drive the positive gym environment was a bright spot at the end of a hard day. Training was intense and the camaraderie was strong, so I’d feel that post-workout high the whole long drive home.
To make regular exercise easier, I recommend joining a group exercise class like Yoga, Kickboxing, CrossFit, etc near your work or home. Nothing beats a convenient workout that’s planned for you and automatic once you show up. You have to assess whether you’ll show up, spend the sixty to ninety minutes, and pay for it. If this works for you, you’ll get maximum benefits from the group connection and the consistently hard workouts you should get from any good group exercise program.
If group exercise won’t work for you, try solo activities like Walking, Bodyweight Exercise, or Burpees. If you’re struggling with an injury, get to a doctor or scour your social network for a good physical rehab person. Don’t waste life hiding behind an injury. Invest in yourself. Get it fixed. Get after it. People without complete arms, legs, or both get their exercise in and one even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Fix your injury or find a way around it.
Power Up #5: Read Stoicism
Did your emotions negatively impact your thoughts, language, or decision-making in the last week? Have you focused on things you can’t control recently? There’s nothing wrong with emotion or paying attention to what might impact you, even though you can’t control it. Problems occur when you don’t recognize the impacts, so re-read those questions even if you answered them quickly. When you don’t recognize the impacts, you may experience anxiety, relationship issues, and poor performance without realizing the root cause of the issue. Therapy helps you discover and recognize these root issues.
Stoicism is therapy for life. I didn’t use Stoicism explicitly when I was depressed, but I recognize the principles in what my therapist taught me.
- See the world more clearly.
- Focus on what you can control.
Depression distorts reality. Research suggests our view of reality under the best circumstances is not necessarily the most accurate but the most tuned for evolutionary fitness, survival, and reproduction. I like the phrase “perception is reality”, but sometimes it’s not helpful. It might be your reality, but your reality might be tuned for your implosion. Evolutionary fitness improves with our ability to see the world more clearly unencumbered by emotion, cognitive biases, and self-doubt. When we can’t see through the fog of our own incorrect mental frameworks, poor thinking patterns, and anxiety over events we can’t control, therapists help you correct these imbalances
Reading stoicism helps you reframe your perspective similarly, although it may take longer. Stoicism helps you create a mindset to focus on what you control and to see each moment without the cloud of emotion. Practicing stoicism creates a safety net against depression for everyone. It’s a framework for learning how to live a good life.
Below are Stoic quotes that may help you recognize what increases depression or anxiety and reframe your perspective.
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca
“We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius
“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” – Marcus Aurelius.
“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” – Seneca
If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say: ‘He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned’.”― Epictetus
To start your reading, check out these top stoicism books. If you can stand a little old-school writing, I recommend Meditations from Marcus Aurelius, the private diary of one of the most powerful people in the history of the world, or for a modern guide check out The Obstacle is the Way.
Getting Started: Experiment with a Single Power Up
Trying every technique immediately isn’t a good idea. Experiments are easier to execute and monitor when you only change one variable (i.e. one technique). Select one technique and experiment.
If you’re struggling to stick to one of these techniques, ask yourself “How can I make it so easy I can’t say no?” If your exercise plan is too hard to do every day, how about a 5-minute walk or 1 minute of squats instead?
You can reasonably evaluate most techniques effectiveness after two weeks, although medications, therapy, and practicing stoicism may take longer. After two weeks if you’re not experiencing benefits from a technique, ask “Can I learn anything from this?” and then move on to another experiment.
If you’re depressed, find a good professional to guide you. Implement one of the techniques below to accelerate your recovery. Repeat the process by selecting another technique once the last one is easy.
|#1 Wake Up at the Same Time|
|#2 Socialize with Supportive People|
|#3 Eat Less Sugar|
|#4 Exercise Daily|
|#5 Read Stoicism|
Keep powering up.
You’re not alone.
You’re getting stronger now.