We all have days when we’re feeling sad and empty, wishing we could curl up in our beds instead of going through the motions again. It’s completely normal to go through periods of unhappiness, especially after upsetting events. But what if you keep finding yourself bursting into tears for no apparent reason or feeling numb more often than not? What should you do when you no longer enjoy things you used to consider fun and you’re struggling to ‘fake’ a normal conversation?
‘Fifty shades of blue’: Mild depressive symptoms
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems, with approximately 8 – 17% of people worldwide suffering from a major depressive disorder during their lifetime. But an even larger number of us are dealing with mild depressive symptoms that are not severe enough to meet the diagnostic criteria for a clinical depression. For example, maybe you’re often feeling down, restless and tired, without much interest in doing something fun, but never for two weeks straight or never more than four symptoms to be able to call it a depressive disorder.
And yet, struggling with the blues can still cause a lot of grief and make it difficult to function normally at work or during social occasions. What’s more, experiencing mild depressive symptoms is an important risk factor for developing a full-blown depression.
Unfortunately, when you’re living with chronic health problems, you’re even more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Having a serious disease doesn’t just throw your whole life upside down and makes it harder to pursue activities that used to make you happy, but the physical effect of chronic illness can also lead to neurochemical imbalances associated with a depressed mood.
Luckily, there are things you can do to lift your spirit and slowly start feeling better. Research shows that following self-help strategies can be an effective way to reduce mild depressive symptoms. So here’s a small selection of proven methods to help you beat the blues:
Self-Help Tip #1: Keep your stress levels in check
Did you know that most clinical depressive episodes are preceded by stressful life events? Even small daily hassles like work deadlines or arguments with loved ones play an important role in feeling blue. Being chronically stressed isn’t just a leading cause of depression, but studies also show that people who have been through a depression unintentionally end up in significantly more stressful situations than people who never struggled with depressed.
Break this vicious circle of stress and depression by searching for better ways to deal with daily hassles. Make a list of everyday things that stress you out and think of ways to avoid these overwhelming situations. Also experiment with healthy ways to relax, like breathing exercises, meditation or going for a short walk.
Self-Help Tip #2: Feed your brain
Your overall diet can have a strong impact on your mood and mental wellbeing. Recent research found interesting relationships between the bacteria in your gut and your brain health, as well as links between inflammation in your body and depressive disorders. Eating foods high in sugar and refined carbs may raise your chances of depressed feelings, while consuming plenty of omega 3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, krill oil, walnuts or chia seeds plays an essential role in stabilising your mood. Have a look at dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet for information on brain-boosting nutrition and see for yourself how these simple lifestyle changes make you feel over time.
Self-Help Tip #3: Don’t worry, be happy
Do you overthink every detail of a situation? Does your mind sound like a record that keeps playing the same lyrics over and over again? Rumination or constantly being preoccupied with the negative emotions and thoughts you had after a stressful event can start an unhealthy cycle of even more worrying, which leads to a depressed, anxious and helpless mood.
When you find yourself replaying arguments in your mind, get out of your head and focus on positive activities instead. You could engage in your favourite hobby, but working with your hands – like gardening, drawing or kneading dough – seems to be an especially effective way to quiet your mind and reduce rumination.
Further more, build your problem-solving skills to overcome life’s challenges instead of worrying about it. When you’re replaying situations in your head, try to come up with at least one concrete thing you can do to deal with the problem you’re ruminating about.
Self-Help Tip #4: Keep moving
Exercise can be a powerful tool for coping with mild depressive symptoms. Some studies suggest regular exercising can be as useful as antidepressant medications in helping you overcome feelings of depression. Being physically active increases the amount of ‘feel good hormones’ called endorphins in your body. It also boosts your energy levels and self esteem, reduces stress and improves your sleep – all important elements of your emotional wellbeing. So try to fit 30 minutes of exercise into your day, even when you don’t feel like it at first.
Self-Help Tip #5: Always seek out the bright side of life
Have you ever noticed how spending time outdoors on a sunny day can really brighten your mood? Safely exposing yourself to sunlight for 15 to 20 minutes a day allows your body to produce vitamin D, which is essential for a healthy brain. Aim to go for a short walk each day or eat your lunch al fresco to boost your mood.
If you feel happy throughout most the year but experience depressive symptoms in winter, you might benefit from using a light therapy box or taking a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement to combat seasonal affective disorder.
Self-Help Tip #6: Train your mind for a happier way of thinking
During our lives, we all develop certain beliefs about ourselves and the world, to help you make sense of what’s happening around you. But these beliefs or ‘cognitive life rules’ can sometimes take on a more extreme form in people who are feeling depressed. You may think that you’re a total failure if you mess up that work assignment or you jump to negative conclusions like “She must think I’m pathetic” without any actual evidence to support that thought. In the article linked to, Jo Casey describes 13 common cognitive errors you could be making that sabotage your own happiness. Try to become aware of your own beliefs and how they influence your mood and your perspective on life. See if you can slowly replace the happiness-nixing thoughts with a more neutral or positive way of thinking.
How to overcome feelings of depression – by yourself or with professional help
Although these 6 science-backed self-help strategies can help you overcome feelings of depression, it’s important to note that changing your lifestyle can be tough – you should not feel like a failure when you don’t manage to stick to your new habits. Start with only one habit and make it doable, like going for a 10-minute walk every day instead of working out at the gym for half an hour. Gradually build from there, just try to make small, positive choices for yourself.
Know when to get additional help. It’s perfectly ok if you can’t deal with the overwhelming sadness and despair on your own. If you find your depressive symptoms are getting worse and worse, seek professional help from your doctor or psychologist. Please always contact a loved one, medical professional or call a help line if you’re contemplating suicide. The demons in your mind can make you feel like there’s no hope and that nothing can be done, but depression can be treated and you can feel better, I promise.
How do you cope with feelings of depression?
** Although it’s me in the photo accompanying this article, I’m not struggling with depression. This portrait was an artistic expression of Annelies Verhelst when the wind blew in my eyes during our shoot!