10 THINGS THAT HELP ME MANAGE DEPRESSION
I’ve struggled with depression on and off throughout my entire life. It started around puberty and was at its worst during my teenage years and well into college. There used to be days when I couldn’t drag myself out of bed or bring myself to do anything other than numb with an endless loop of food, TV and naps. In those moments, I thought I was choosing to be self indulgent and lazy. I assumed I just lacked an ability to be consistently motivated and focused. I believed I was weak. I felt a great deal of shame around my behavior.
Now that I’ve matured, developed a deeper level of self awareness and educated myself around mental health issues and some of the science behind them, I am relieved to say that there are no longer days when I can’t get out of bed. I still suffer from bouts of depression, but understanding contributing factors and my brain and body’s limitations has transformed the way I experience and manage them.
I’ve hidden my depression as much as possible for most of my life, and still often do, more out of habit than necessity. I know my husband and loved ones don’t judge, sometimes it just feels like acknowledging the pain feeds the beast. I’m also still guilty of caring too much about how I’m perceived. I don’t want to be seen as a person who struggles, I want to be seen as a person who triumphs. I suppose even when we’ve figured out better ways to take care of ourselves, it can take a long time to break free from the narratives we create around our suffering.
When I started to open up about disordered eating and body image, I learned that shedding light on the darkest corners of my life can help shed more light on a path to healing for myself and others. In the hopes that opening up about depression will do the same, I’m sharing the below list. These are the things I believe have transformed my experience with depression, or in the very least, have kept me out of bed when I just want to pull the covers over my head.
DITCHING THE BOOZE: I know, I know. I’m leading with a very unpopular piece of advice here, but drastically reducing my alcohol consumption after college was the first change I made that yielded BIG results with depression. It was also the first lifestyle adjustment that made me realize I did have at least some control over my mental state. Although a few drinks might make you feel fabulous at first, alcohol is a depressant and leads to unstable blood sugar - two things that can have a huge impact on your mental state. If you struggle with depression, I highly recommend giving it up for just 30 days to see how it impacts you.
IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF MY DIET: This is the one that shocked me the most. Crowding out the highly processed sugars and carbohydrates that contribute to mood swings, anxiety and depression with health promoting and anti-inflammatory foods has had a profound impact on my mood stability. I wouldn’t have believed it if I had never tried it. I know it can be an overwhelming task, but give yourself time and grace with this. No clue where to begin? Start here.
BALANCING MY HORMONES: I didn’t realize how much estrogen, testosterone and progesterone impact your mental state until PCOS combined with lifestyle factors like stress put my levels on a rollercoaster ride for a few years. Thanks to a daily journaling practice and saliva testing, I was able to track my mood symptoms (swings, momentary bouts of rage, despondency, apathy, anger, all sorts of fun things) and noticed the out of character behavior often came during times where abnormalities showed on my tests. This information put me on the path balancing my hormones naturally (read more about that here). Although it is a constant work in progress, my mood and outlook is remarkably better when my hormones are in balance versus when they’re out of whack.
TREATING HYPOTHYROIDISM: Hypothyroidism and sub-clinical hypothyroidism are VERY common causes of mood disorders in women - and causes that often go undetected. Although the difference in mood isn’t as significant as with balancing my hormones, my energy and overall mood have improved notably since bringing my thyroid levels into the normal range. I’ve noticed I’m less lethargic too. Because this is becoming so common in women over 35, it’s worth having your levels tested before taking medication for depression. Be sure you get a comprehensive panel though, as only testing TSH doesn’t help diagnose sub-clinical hypothyroidism. Check out Dr. Sara Gottfried’s blog for some great articles on this topic.
UNDERSTANDING AND INVESTIGATING CONTRIBUTING FACTORS: Many people that struggle with depression falsely assume they’re broken, weak or lazy (I know I did). People also assume that there is something inherently “wrong” with their brain chemistry. But that may not be the case. There are many contributing factors to depression, including genetics, diet, hormone imbalances, thyroid issues, inflammation, allergies, gut health, trauma, chronic illness, loss, and more that are often never investigated before a prescription is written. Knowing the cause of your depressive symptoms enables you to more effectively treat them in a way that supports your overall health. For some, that might mean medication (see my note on meds below), but not for all. A Mind of Your Own by Kelly Brogan, MD is a great place to start if you’re interested in learning more about contributing factors and alternative treatments.
DEVELOPING HEALTHY COPING MECHANISMS + STRESS MANAGEMENT TOOLS: Depression is a complicated beast and I’m not going to tell you that downward dogs will cure it. I can tell you that chronic stress is a big contributor to depression and usually makes it worse, so anything you can do to positively impact how you deal with it will positively impact your depression. Developing healthy coping mechanisms to change the way my brain and body perceive stress has without a doubt decreased the frequency and severity of my depression. I use tools like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a daily journaling practice, regular therapy and daily meditation to help me manage stress and cope in ways that aren’t damaging to my health. I still eat my feelings sometimes, but using the aforementioned on a daily basis rather than carb comas has helped me tremendously.
WORKING ON THE INNER CRITIC: Constantly criticizing myself for feeling down or lacking motivation when dealing with depression never made anything better. Applying self compassion and gentle encouragement to just do the best I can on the darker days has brought a great sense of relief. Quieting the inner critic isn’t a cure-all, and it’s a long process that requires a lot of conscious effort, but it has been well worth it for me. Why? Being kinder to myself helps me get into a mindset to make more choices that support my mental health. It’s a lot more difficult to break out of a cycle of depression when you’re weighed down by the pressure to be perfect, constant self blame and negativity.
ESTABLISHING A GROUNDING MORNING ROUTINE: Sometimes getting up and getting moving is 90% of the battle with depression. Creating a simple, grounding morning routine that gets me moving has helped ensure I get out of bed no matter what mood I’m in. Frantic, stressful mornings are a lot harder to face, depressed or not, compared to mindful, calming ones. This doesn’t have to mean 45 minutes of self care and silence, it can be as simple as committing to making the first 5 minutes of your day whatever YOU need them to be.
TELLING MY HUSBAND: Because I’ve always felt a great deal of shame around depression, this one was, and sometimes still is, difficult for me. I’ve always wanted my husband (as well as everyone else) to see me as a smart, funny, accomplished woman who has her shit together. Communicating when I don’t have it together, however, has ironically created space for greater intimacy, more unconditional love and room for taking care of myself without fearing how I’m being perceived.
HOLDING MYSELF TO A MORE REALISTIC STANDARD: I am still working on accepting that what I need to keep my brain and body healthy is a little different than what other people need. It’s difficult for me to admit, but I simply can’t run marathons, work 12 hour days, party like a rockstar and eat like a hungover college kid if I want to maintain mental and physical health. If you’ve dealt with depression or other illnesses, you’ll understand that there’s often an underlying desire to “just be normal” or “like everyone else”. I still have moments when I rebel against my misfit body, but when I have the strength to remember and respect my own limits without judgment, I’m always better off.
A note on MEDICATION: Although I can’t deny that medication helped pull me out of the lowest of lows through the years, there was never one pill (I tried MANY) that made a significant difference consistently over a long period of time. That, and reading more about the long-term side effects, is what drove me to seek out other options for managing my depression. As I mention when discussing diet and other health issues, it must be acknowledged that every single person is different. We live different lives in different bodies created with different genetics, and every person should shamelessly pursue a path to health and healing that is right for them WITHOUT judgment. Just because I didn’t have much luck with medication doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it in your journey. I simply advocate for better education around meds themselves and FAR better education around alternatives.