The early symptoms of depression are sometimes hard to detect. At first they can appear as little more than a lack of energy or motivation and mood may simply appear like an off-day, to which we’re all entitled. However, if these days become more regular it can be a sign that a depressive episode is on its way.
There is sufficient evidence pointing to the fact that giving into the early signs of depression can result in a longer and more severe depressive episode. Some early interventions may actually head off a depressive episode, which is why a little planning can be useful.
To begin with it’s necessary to give yourself permission to change your normal activity level. You may feel this is inevitable with the early onset of depression but some people actually over-compensate by throwing themselves at work for fear of falling behind. The only thing this achieves is an increase in stress levels and likely over-stimulation. So work activities need to be woven into other activities that are beneficial to health and relaxation.
Feeling overwhelmed by the prospects of a day is also a very common feature of early depression. Sensations of lethargy can be strong so you may need some force of will to counteract these feelings. Even though making a cup of coffee can feel like a half-marathon it is necessary to stay active. Things you might normally regard as a one-step activity probably need to be broken down into achievable goals. Complex tasks can be broken into steps or possibly blocks of time that make them achievable.
Over time people tend to become more familiar with their moods and behavior. This can work to your advantage when you experience the first signs of a low mood. Many people find the morning the hardest part of the day. Recognizing this and working within these limitations is fine. Procrastination is the friend of lethargy so the trick, such as it is, is to plan activities that present some kind of challenge but which are achievable. This last point (achievability) is important as you want to come away feeling a sense of mastery over what you’ve done rather than a sense of failure over what you haven’t. Some people get around procrastination by imposing a structure on their week. For example, they write out a priority list and allocate times when things need to be started or finished.
Lethargy is a strange beast. It leaves people feeling tired all day yet seems to prevent refreshing sleep. Lethargy often corresponds to anxiety, inactivity and changes in eating habits. Preparation for sleep takes place during the day so some light exercise, a balanced diet, reduction of stimulants and alcohol all helps in the preparation of restorative sleep.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.