When you’re in the throes of depression, it’s hard enough taking care of the bare essentials like showering, eating and getting up. Intellectually you know what you need to do.
But like a leech, depression saps all your energy and vitality. You feel lethargic, hopeless and pessimistic, according to John Preston, PsyD, professor at Alliant International University and co-author of Get It Done When You’re Depressed with Julie A. Fast.
So the last thing you want to do is… anything. You might think “I’d like to do this, but I just can’t,” Preston said.
But there are several ways you can get things done when you’re struggling with depression. They do require effort on your part, but they work. Here are Preston’s top suggestions.
- Enlist a loved one’s help. It’s essential to have someone you trust to support and encourage you, Preston said. This person will essentially act as your coach. It could be anyone from your spouse to a sibling to a parent to a close friend.
- Participate in your normal activities. When people get depressed, they do several things that worsen symptoms, Preston said. “On top of the list is becoming more and more socially withdrawn.” It feels natural to isolate yourself when you’re struggling. For instance, you might feel uncomfortable around people, Preston noted. But it’s vital to stay engaged with life. (In fact, behavioral activation treatments for depression focus on increasing pleasant activities and behaviors, which research has found to be effective.) Preston suggested sitting down with your loved one and writing all the specific things you used to do before you were depressed. The key, he said, is to get very specific about the activities. In other words, “What are the things that have been part of the fabric of [your] life?” he said. List all the activities that were a source of meaning and enjoyment for you, he said. Also, include errands, such as mowing the lawn or grocery shopping. Then create a detailed schedule that you’ll follow daily. The goal is to combat the tendency to withdraw from life, which only feeds the depression.
- Get adequate sleep. The very things you might turn to while you’re depressed can actually sabotage your sleep, including alcohol and caffeine. And “lack of appropriate sleep can intensify depressive symptoms,” Preston said. People usually drink alcohol to relax and caffeine to undo the lethargy of depression. Caffeine may even have some transient antidepressant effects, Preston said, but those dissipate after about 20 minutes. You still might fall asleep just fine, but both substances reduce the amount of time spent in restorative slow-wave sleep. So the profound exhaustion is actually exacerbated.
- Get physical. “One of the most effective treatments for depression is exercise,” Preston said. “Inactivity has a significant effect on decreasing dopamine and serotonin,” making depression more severe, he said. Movement increases them. But it’s nearly impossible to exercise when you’re depressed, he said. That’s where your loved one (i.e., coach) comes in. They can exercise with you, and help you get out the door.
- Have compassion for yourself. People with depression can be incredibly mean to themselves. But it’s important to develop a sense of understanding and compassion for yourself, Preston said. He pointed out that this is different from sugarcoating your circumstances. Instead, you might say, according to Preston: “I don’t like it, but I’m struggling here. Depression hurts. I need to be decent to myself.” Struggling with depression doesn’t make you weak or less-than. Many people struggle with depression.
Keep in mind that depression is highly treatable. So in addition to trying the above tips, be sure to get a proper evaluation, and seek treatment.
A Note on Too Much Sleep in Depression
About 15 percent of people with depression sleep 10 to 12 hours a day or more, Preston said. Yet they’re still profoundly worn out, he said. He cautioned that about four out of five people with hypersomnia and severe depression have a form of bipolar disorder. It’s important to get evaluated for bipolar disorder.
To stabilize sleep, Preston suggested the same tips: Reduce or eliminate your caffeine and alcohol intake, and exercise. For about a month, you’ll still feel fatigued, he explained. But you can make these changes to boost energy, he said:
- Instead of drinking a cup of coffee, go for a brisk 10-minute walk. You can simply walk for five minutes and walk back, he said. This gives you the same energy burst as a cup of coffee, he said. Just be sure it’s a brisk walk, and not a stroll. (You know it’s brisk if you have to catch your breath or have a tough time talking, he said.)
- Expose yourself to bright light. Unless you have eye disease or bipolar disorder, take your sunglasses off when you’re outside. When light hits your retina, it activates the hypothalamus, which activates serotonin and other neurotransmitters, Preston said. This leads to positive mood-altering effects, he said.
- Eat protein. Eat a snack that’s mostly protein (with very little carbs), which helps to boost energy within five minutes, Preston said. Examples include nuts, eggs and tofu. He noted that this works really well for about half of the people who try it.