There is no word in the English language I despise more than “relapse.”
Because by the time I use it, I have suffered months of agonizing depression that involves the typical symptoms you check off at a psychiatrist’s office: overwhelming guilt, fantasizing about death, no energy, lots of tears, trouble sleeping, eating too much (or too little), trouble concentrating, difficulty doing just about anything but obsessing about how bad you feel and crying enough to keep Kleenex in business.
Here are a few strategies I use when I start to relapse… when my symptoms don’t abate for weeks on end and when I’m scared I will never again wake up excited for a new day.
1. Express yourself.
I started blogging because it helped me to process my emotions. Writing about my depression is one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal to combat the feelings of helplessness and despair that can cripple me. Numerous studies have found that writing about upsetting personal experiences for just 20 minutes at a time, over three or four days, can boost your immune system and decrease blood pressure. You can imagine what it does to your mood.
In fact, any form of creative expression is beneficial to relieving symptoms of depression. There have been numerous studies that have shown how music and art therapy lead to greater improvement in mood. According to one study, even listening to modern or classic music for 30 minutes twice daily for five weeks improved depression scores.
2. Practice selective hearing.
If you’re like me, you’re convinced that you are lazy, stupid, pathetic and weak when you are depressed. Oh, and self-absorbed. To confirm this, you call to mind every comment made in the last decade in which someone (typically in an argument or after two bottles of chardonnay) suggests — even in the slightest way — that one or more of these attributes belong to you. And then you say to yourself, “Aha! I am right!”
Yeah. Stop doing that. Pretend you are half-deaf, and can only hear the comments of folks who support you 100 percent, who remind you of all your great qualities. And you do have great qualities.
3. Track your mood.
An essential piece of my recovery is keeping a mood journal. This helps me to identify certain patterns that emerge. Bipolar disorder and depression can flare up seemingly out of the blue, like a thunderstorm. But often there are telltale signs that can clue me in as to why I’m feeling so fragile. You can catch these if you’ve been recording your mood over time.
4. Ditch the self-help.
Cognitive-behavioral adjustments and mindfulness can be extremely helpful for persons struggling with mild to moderate depression, or combatting an addition that isn’t destroying them. With severe depression, though, positive thinking can sometimes make matters worse. I was so relieved the other day when my psychiatrist told me to put away the self-help books. I had reached the dangerous point, again, when too much thinking starts contributing to my self-battery. I fault myself for still being depressed and anxious after reading two chapters of “Read this and you will feel okay.” If this blog is doing the same, read no further.
5. Distract yourself.
Instead of sitting down with some self-help books, you would be better off doing whatever you can to distract yourself. A former therapist gave me instructions to go home and do a word puzzle in the months of my severe breakdown. I didn’t even have the concentration for that, or to read a trashy novel, so I watched movies and journaled. Try any mindless activity you can think of to distract you from the pain.
6. Plant reminders of hope.
I need hope wherever I can get it. I wear a watch worn by my aunt who took her life when she was 43. Whenever I look at it, I am reminded that I must keep going. I believe that she is with me and is rooting me on, encouraging me to make it through the sticky stuff to get to the other side. I also keep a photo in my wallet of a young girl who attended my college and committed suicide in her freshman year. When I look at her photo, I know that my pain is real, that it was intense enough for this sweet person to end her very good life. Her young face communicates to me that depression is an illness, not a perception, and that I need to do whatever I can to survive — that I have what I need to survive.
7. Remember your mantras.
Here are some that I’m using now: “I will get better.” “I’m okay.” “It’s okay.” “I am enough.” “I am loved.” “I will feel better.” “This too shall pass.” “Let it pass.” “I won’t always feel this way.” “One day at a time.” “This moment, only.”
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.