When Deborah Serani’s chronic depression symptoms worsen, color helps to lift the darkness. She finds all kinds of colors by taking a walk and focusing on birds, flowers and trees along the way. Painting and drawing also are pivotal. “The deeper the colors I see and touch, the better I feel.”
Therapy and sometimes medication are essential in treating depression. Serani credits psychotherapy with saving her life after a suicide attempt at 19. But other tools and techniques are important, too. “As with any chronic illness, it’s vital to lead as full a life as possible,” she said. For Serani, color and art add to life’s fullness and richness.
“While the work we do in therapy is very important in your healing journey, the work you’re doing outside of therapy is what truly makes the difference, and often enhances our work in session,” said Laura Kacere, LPC, a therapist and yoga instructor in Chicago providing individual therapy for women and LGBTQ emerging adults.
Building a broad range of healing and coping strategies and activities doesn’t only manage depression; it also helps you live a fuller, more joy-filled life, Kacere said. Below are some of these healing and coping strategies.
Feed your senses. “Depression is an illness of depletion,” said Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, professor at Adelphi University and author of three books on depression. “You feel empty and hollow.” Which is why she suggested feeding your five senses, and shared these recommendations:
- Sight: Open the shades, or get out into the sun. Use color and uplifting images. “Color gets processed through our visual field and ignites certain feel-good neurochemistry.” Instead of looking at things, try to truly see. That is, linger longer, and really give time to what you’re viewing.
- Smell: Breathe in fresh air. Try mood-boosting aromatherapy, such as lavender, lemon and peppermint. Make it a point to take in scents that soothe you.
- Taste: Eat foods that are comforting to you, and try to savor the different flavors. “Studies show that even small moments of flavor sensations can lift mood.”
- Touch: “Depression often prompts feelings of isolation, so invite touch in as many ways as possible to help heal your mind, body and soul.” For instance, hold someone’s hand, or savor a long embrace. Focus on the softness of a warm blanket or the cool breeze on your face. Take a hot shower.
- Hear: Listen to natural sounds, such as rainfall, waves crashing onto the shore or leaves rustling. Focus on the sound of a loved one’s voice or children’s laughter. Listen to your favorite music, or savor silence, if that soothes you.
Practice presence by connecting to your body. Kacere has found that small ways to connect to the present moment can be significantly helpful in managing depression. One place to start is with the body, because “our bodies are rooted in the present moment no matter where our minds are.”
She suggested beginning by noticing the length of your breath (without trying to change it), and where you feel it in your body. Then move on to different breathing exercises, such as alternate-nostril breathing.
Set limits. Depression makes you feel utterly exhausted and lethargic, so it’s important to be intentional about what you let into your life. It’s important to conserve your energy, said Catherine Sly, MBACP, a registered counsellor in working with individuals and couples who are struggling with depression, anxiety and relationship problems, and who want to make changes and feel better.
“Practice saying no, so you don’t end up burnt out and resentful.” Say no to anything that drains you, including being with certain people.
Read—when you can focus. Depression can impair your ability to concentrate. But you might be able to read in bits and pieces. Sly’s latest favorite self-help authors are Brené Brown and Susan David. She also recommended reading fiction. “Being able to lose yourself for a little while in another world can be remarkably healing.”
Write. Writing is a powerful way to process your thoughts and feelings and ease your depression. You can start by writing about what’s currently on your mind. Or try writing exercises: Pen a poem about a healing, calming image, or respond to these prompts, which are tips from Elizabeth Maynard Schaefer’s beautiful book Writing Through the Darkness: “The first sound (taste, sight, smell, feeling) of the day”; “self-care tips you recommend for depression”; “black velvet”; “benefits of depression”; “kaleidoscopes”; “a lesson you have learned”; “magic.”
(This piece features more exercises from her book.)
Practice yoga. “Research shows that yoga, in conjunction with therapy, can be highly effective for managing depression, often more so than medication,” Kacere said. She suggested sampling different styles to find a class that resonates with you and trusting your gut. “[Q]uite often your comfort and connection with the teacher can be one of the biggest determining factors.” If you’re not ready for an in-person class, try yoga videos. Kacere suggested Yoga with Adriene.
Cultivate your self-compassion. Depression makes you feel as though you’re a horrible person. You’re lazy, weak, whiny, and stupid. So stupid. All of this is untrue, but depression convinces us otherwise, and we assume our thoughts are rock-solid facts. Kacere suggested practicing meditations that “work to build self-compassion by bringing in others who you love and offer love to you, as suggested by Kristen Neff and other compassion-focused therapists.” For instance, try this loving-kindness meditation.
It’s critical to make sure you’re getting professional treatment for your depression. But managing this condition is a multifaceted endeavor. Because we are multifaceted. Explore a range of strategies. “[E]veryone is different,” Serani said. “Find what works for you.”