Depression is a serious affliction. The persistent sense of sadness or loss of interest that defines major depression can lead to a range of emotional and physical conditions. This article in no way seeks to minimize the characteristics of depression, or to put a “happy face” on the condition. It’s simply an attempt to help those with depression to understand and deal with it in a way that may prove helpful.
Sleeping Too Little
Most people don’t actually lie awake staring at the ceiling. That’s just a saying. (But just in case, here’s a little tip – a good start to getting to sleep might be to close your eyes.)
The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep to function properly. Getting less sleep than that is worrisome. Worry is one of the main reasons that people can’t sleep. Combined with depression it’s a cycle of anxiety and fatigue. Attacking your insomnia is a giant step toward beating depression. Your doctor will likely recommend one of a number of antidepressants that are known to effectively treat both sleep disorders and depression.
Sleeping Too Much
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So, if sleeping for 7 to 9 hours is good for your physical and emotional health, then getting 10 hours or more must be even better, right? Not so fast.
Like many things relating to the human body, simple logic does not prevail here. Research shows that sleeping for that longer period of time can increase the risk of depression by nearly double. So, our advice is simple to say but difficult to do for you if you’re feeling this symptom of depression … wake up! Firmly resolve to leave your bed and face the world within the recommended limits, and you may find the veil of depression slowly lifting. (Free advice: You may want to disable your “snooze” button.)
Loss of Energy
There is “good tired” and “bad tired.” Good tired is when you have just washed your car or painted the dining room walls. Bad tired is when you can’t muster up the energy to take a shower or dress yourself. Feeling a lack of energy to go about the simplest tasks of life is one of the most common symptoms of depression. Your first step to getting back into the groove of life should be to make sure you’re getting the right amount of sleep (not too much or too little as mentioned earlier). Other steps to bolster your energy include:
- Resolve to eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Drink plenty of water
- “Force” yourself to exercise regularly (even if you have to start very slowly)
- Yoga or meditation helps some people
- Keep a manageable workload and daily schedule
- Avoid smoking, alcohol, and drugs
Most of all – stay active! Resolve that no matter how lethargic you feel you will go out and meet friends, do the housework, or cut the lawn.
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Little excitements are a large part of what makes for a pleasurable life (and the occasional big excitements don’t hurt, either.) When your passion for the people, places or activities that once brought you those exciting moments is gone – you may ask yourself, “What’s the point?” Well, you can’t will yourself to feel. Pretending won’t help you, and (unless you have Academy Award-winning acting skills) you won’t fool those who are closest to you.
The best advice we know of is to stop beating yourself up about your apathy. Feeling bad about feeling nothing seems like a contradiction, but it’s a common occurrence. Most people try to “ride out” their apathy. Sometimes that works, and the “colors” come back into their lives. Medically speaking, some people have responded to meds that activate dopamine or enhance cholinergic function, which is vital to cognition. You may try asking your doctor about those.
When you’re clinically depressed, your mind is swirling with thoughts – predominantly negative ones. That directly impacts your ability to focus, concentrate, or make decisions. Bad choices just build on depression. You may also have memory problems and become easily distracted. Of course, you find that it is possible to focus on one set of memories — your regrets. Bad thinking leads to bad decisions which leads to regrets. It’s just one more wild ride that the roller coaster of depression has you on. Aside from the usual remedies like antidepressants, you will certainly want to avoid multitasking. Try to complete one job or assignment entirely. That will not be easy. Also, some people have seen improvement in focusing by trying meditation or a craft, like woodcarving.
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A certain amount of guilt over a wrongdoing is probably a good thing. Total lack of guilt is the sign of several mental disorders that may result in anything from bad friendships to serial killings. But once again, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Obsessive guilt about things like not dusting properly or wearing the wrong shoes can be debilitating. Fear of doing the wrong thing can result in doing nothing. And doing nothing is certainly a sign of depression. Among the remedies that experts have found helpful for an overbearing sense of guilt: Physical exercise, using positive imagery (like floating in a pool on a sunny day), and laughter – rent a funny movie or check out your local comedy club.
Weight Fluctuation (Up or Down)
It may seem odd that opposite effects like weight loss and weight gain can result from the same condition, but it’s a fact. Depression can lead to eating disorders of different kinds. We tend to associate symptoms of depression – lack of interest in food or cooking or general socializing – with weight loss, but that isn’t always the case. Many people seek comfort in food, and those with that state of mind, combined with depression, often find themselves buying wardrobes in several larger sizes. Again, these fluctuations, themselves, add to the cycle of depression. So, what can you do? You can probably guess, but for the record: Lots of activity, walking, running, swimming – whatever you can do to keep your body moving; and a sane, consistent diet plan you can stick to every day. Remember, depression related weight problems don’t go away overnight. Consistency and persistence are the keys.
“This will never work.” One of the ironies of pessimism brought on by depression is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. All of these recommendations will very likely be right for some people, and ineffective for others. Some of the success of any action you take to beat depression will hinge on your confidence in that action. It’s been estimated that we have anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day. Think about your percentage of thoughts that are negative and you can see the battle going on in your brain. Most pessimistic people generate negative thoughts so automatically they’re not aware that it’s really a choice they’re making. The best way to change how you feel is to change how you think. Keep track of your negative thoughts (about work, people, sports, institutions, etc.) in a list. Try to find a more optimistic approach to each one. With some sincere effort that is almost always possible.
Remember when socializing with your friends and family was something you never even thought about? Whatever your degree of enjoyment in a social situation, you just did it. As your depression began to take hold you slowly withdrew. It turns out that was the exact opposite of what you should have done. That’s right – 180 degrees wrong. Researchers have determined that social withdrawal pushes all your brain’s stress buttons. Lack of social contact leaves your mind alone to play tricks like paranoia, regret (and all the other symptoms detailed here). Contact with other people is more than vital – it’s essential – in fighting depression.
Preoccupation with Death
Most of us very conveniently put the certainty of our death deep into the recesses of our awareness. That allows us to strive, love, achieve and do the rest of the things that make life worth living. In clinical depression, there is often a focus on the idea that life is useless – mainly fixating on that aforementioned certainty of death. Thoughts of suicide are very common when this symptom is present. The idea may not be brought on by an actual desire to die, but by a inclination to surrender in the face of what seem like overwhelming obstacles. Thoughts of suicide should never be kept to yourself. You must find someone (doctor, clergy, mental health professional, friend or co-worker) who you can tell. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among people aged 15-44. It is never the best solution.
Changes in Appetite
As mentioned earlier, it’s an odd part of depression that appetite can be so dramatically affected in opposite ways. The predominant change is to eat less. This is often associated with a melancholic type of depression. The very thought of preparing a meal may require too much energy, or the thought of eating any meal at all may be repulsive to you. People who eat more when they’re depressed are associated with an atypical type of depression. If this sounds like you, you may crave certain types of food such as sweets or carbohydrates. If you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) you probably find yourself eating foods that are high in carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, and potatoes. The solution here is simple, but difficult to maintain – a balanced diet that you may have to force yourself to adopt at first, but which may become a habit over time.
Do you find yourself experiencing “road rage” while sitting at home when there is no road in sight? Most of us can relate to the (usually senseless) feelings of fury that well up inside us when we’re cut off on the highway. Righteous anger certainly has its place. But when the paperboy being late or that silly detergent commercial throws you into fits of outrage, it’s time to evaluate the shortness of your fuse. Your periods of explosive anger are probably followed by periods of deep depression. Talk therapy has been a help to many people who experience anger associated with depression. And although “anger management" courses have gotten short shrift in some media, many people have benefitted from those, as well.
Loss of Interest in Hobbies
What did you used to love to do? It may be hard to remember when you’re in the deep hole of depression. The condition is filled with cycles of behavior and consequences, and this is yet another: When you stop doing the things that make you happy (usually due to lack of energy or motivation), your sense of darkness gets even worse. To try to recover your zest for the hobbies you once loved, you may want to try to incorporate any or all of these new activities:
- Exercise to release the healing powers of endorphins
- Take care of a living thing – like a pet or a vegetable garden
- Create something – paint, bake, craft, sew, write
- Join a group – volunteer, join a book club, sign up for a sports team
Loss of Interest in Sex
Besides the obvious allure of it, sex is a mood-enhancing activity for most of us. Unfortunately, loss of sexual appetite is a very common effect from depression. To make matters worse, some depression medications, themselves, are known to curb your libido. Men and women struggle equally with sexual problems during periods of depression.
Getting over the fear and embarrassment that can accompany any aspect of our sex lives is a good start in easing this. Just talking with your partner about what you want sexually often reduces the negative feelings that are folded into the depression. Remember, no matter what TV, movies or novels have led you to believe – there is no standard of normalcy for frequency or particular activity of your sex life.
Digestive Problems, Cramps
Can your digestive system be at the root of your depression? Research has shown that the bacteria in your gut can influence your emotional health. In a way, you probably already know this. When you get upset, it can make you feel physically nauseated, or lose your appetite – or go in the opposite direction and make a mad dash for your favorite comfort food. Your mental outlook can also be a contributing factor for diarrhea, cramps and any number of gastric problems. To find out if your digestive problems may be caused by depression, try keeping a symptom diary, which can help you identify patterns of mood and physical discomfort. Show it to your doctor and he or she can talk to you about what may be causing your symptoms.
The emotional pain that you feel with depression is bad enough, but if you’re among the many who get the double shot of included headaches (at no extra charge) the misery feels unending. Sometimes it’s hard to know if your depressed state caused your head to ache or the other way around. Pain and mood are regulated by the same area of the brain, so it makes sense that they are often close companions. All kinds of headaches can be related to depression, but migraines are the most common. Antidepressants may work for both your depression and your pain because they act in that common part of the brain. Non-drug solutions could include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, and relaxation therapy. And don’t overlook the value of sharing your pain (and hopefully some solutions to the pain) in a support group.
Feelings of Helplessness
There may be no more frustrating effect of depression than that of utter helplessness. Where pessimism is a negative look at the past and present, helplessness and hopelessness reflect a lack of confidence in the future. Things seem to happen to you with no regard to how you behave or actions you might take. You’re life’s eternal victim, so – “Why even try?” Here’s why: This attitude further ignites already existing feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. The primary solution is – control. You need to feel that you have some control over what happens to you. A helpless attitude is a learned attitude and so it can be changed. The bottom line is to believe the simple truth that only you control your own behaviors. No one else.
The symptoms of depression can vary greatly between the sexes. For instance, men are less likely to display the prototypical sadness, and more likely to see their depression display itself in acts of aggression. Men are also more likely to ignore these symptoms, and/or see them as signs of weakness. Coping mechanisms often include drugs and alcohol and the results are likely to be violent and abusive behavior. An aggressive attitude makes it difficult to ask for help, but your behavior will likely just become worse without it. Seek out support from friends and family. Learn ways to manage stress, such as meditation and mindfulness. Develop problem-solving skills. In short, don’t try to “tough it out” macho-style. Depression is tougher than you are.
Increased Alcohol Consumption
As mentioned earlier, alcohol is often the go-to solution for the problems that depression brings us. And so here we’re faced with another of the condition’s horrible cycles. Two theories exist on the relationship between alcohol and depression: 1) Regular overdrinking leads to depression; 2) Depression leads to regular overdrinking. The time-honored tradition of “drowning your sorrows” will more likely give them a nice warm home where they can thrive and multiply. Whether you are technically an alcoholic or not, the first thing you need to do is get sober for an extended period of time. Once away from the effects of the booze you can rationally assess your relationship with alcohol – moderation or total abstinence.
“If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” Your mom’s loaded question wasn’t really meant for a response, but for someone in the throes of depression, that response could well be, “Yeah, probably.” It’s said that heroism is reckless behavior in a good cause. Although veterans of combat often display the reckless symptom of depression, we’re not talking about that kind here. This is about irresponsible or dangerous actions for no reason other than doing them.
Maybe it’s driving without a license or trying drugs. It might be staying out for days at a time – or meeting an online stranger in person. In younger people, reckless behavior can be a sign of suicidal intentions, either conscious or subsconscious. What can you do? A few ideas: Plan ahead. Avoid situations that might lead to reckless behavior – for instance, leave early or late to avoid the temptation to drive erratically during rush-hour traffic. Arrange for a ride home before you go out if you know you’ll be drinking. Generally, find ways to get that adrenaline rush you crave in safer activities.
Jack wrote for HealthCentral as an editor on vision care, skin care, and mental health.