When you don’t have depression, a bad day might mean sadness and murky musings. But the gloomy thoughts and feelings tend to dissipate, and you bounce back in a day or two, according to Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and author of Living with Depression.
However, if you’re struggling with depression, a bad day is filled with profoundly “cynical, pessimistic and distorted” thoughts that you just can’t shake, she said.
A bad day leaves you emotionally and physically drained. Serani, who’s experienced depression, described feeling “emotionally wrung out” and “physically limp and bone weary.”
“Depression is an experience of depletion,” she said. “You’re worn down, hollowed out, devoid of enthusiasm or vitality.” You feel like nothing is worth fighting for, she said.
That means that on the days you need it most, soothing yourself can be excruciatingly difficult. But there are ways you can feel better — without having to take big steps.
Research has found that awakening our senses helps to immediately improve depressive symptoms, Serani said. Here, she shared several strategies to stimulate each sense.
Seeing. Natural light is one of the best ways to stimulate your sense of sight. “When even a single photon of light enters the eye, it lights up the entire brain,” Serani said. Light activates the hypothalamus, which regulates mood, sleep and appetite. Not getting enough sunlight causes a disruption in all three, Serani said.
“Light also activates the pineal gland, a tiny pea-shaped brain structure, which essentially runs our circadian rhythm, also known as our body clock,” she said. This gland produces melatonin, which controls our slumber and wake cycles. Darkness leads to an excess of melatonin. “[This] makes us sleepy, fatigued and listless, worsening our already depressed state.”
Serani suggested opening the shades or curtains, and sitting by the window as the light pours in. If you’re able to, venture outside for more sunlight, she said.
Smelling. Breathe in fresh air, spray fragrance or take whiffs of a scented candle, Serani said. Smell the aromas of your favorite dish, which you can cook yourself or ask someone else to make. “When we smell something, its scent takes a direct route to the limbic brain, awakening memories and positive emotions,” Serani said.
Hearing. “Listening to music, sounds and a human voice activates the brain’s reward system that releases the feel-good neurochemical dopamine,” according to Serani. That’s why she suggested listening to upbeat music or soothing sounds or even an audio book.
Open your window and listen to what Serani called “life-affirming sounds,” such as birds chirping, the wind blowing, children laughing or even cars moving.
Touching. Take a shower, which is more like a “medicinal tonic, with its warm water and soapy textures,” Serani said. Feel the warmth of a tea-filled mug, the softness of the couch or the comfort of a loved one’s hug, she said.
If you’re able to move your body, take a walk, meditate, stretch, run an errand or play with your kids, she said.
“When we move our bodies and when we touch, muscles tense and relax, releasing toxins and feel-good hormones and endorphins.”
Tasting. Savor your favorite foods and meals. According to Serani, complex carbohydrates, protein, nuts and leafy greens can boost serotonin synthesis. (Starchy carbohydrates can increase fatigue, she said.)
Drink green tea and coffee, which some research has shown may improve mood. Too much caffeine can heighten anxiety and irritability, however, according to Serani.
If you’re experiencing a bad day, just try to remember that stimulating your senses can help you feel better. Thinking about it might help you actually do it and get you back on the road to wellness.