You don’t need the “black dog” metaphor to talk about depression. Though a metaphor may help you visualize your condition, it’s not needed for managing symptoms.

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Illustration by Brittany England

Human beings throughout the centuries have had to find ways to live with and manage depression. They also developed metaphors and similes to express how the condition made them feel.

As early as 65 B.C., the Roman poet Horace wrote of “black dog” depression — essentially having a black dog trailing behind a person as a symbol of depression. It was a description Winston Churchill found so apt that he later adopted it himself. And in 2011, the Black Dog Campaign began in the United Kingdom to raise awareness and resources for those living with depression.

The symbolism is that of a sullen dog that a person is struggling to get off their backs. It links back to the idea of dogs guarding the afterlife and an absence of color and light.

Still, the term itself is seen as problematic because it associates the color black with something bad. While the original term never had anything to do with race, it raises valid questions about the underpinnings of racism rooted deeply within our society.

As such, it’s important to note that the metaphor could really be any imagery that speaks to an individual’s experience with depression, whether that be an angry cat, a circling vulture, or a carnivorous plant.

Still, while metaphors may help you visualize your condition, they’re ultimately unnecessary for managing your symptoms. In fact, they may even be problematic as they can create the illusion that a mental health condition isn’t real.

Whether you use a metaphor or not, there are things you can do to help keep depression at bay.

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions. For instance, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), just over 7% of American adults experienced at least one episode of depression in 2017.

Many people who experience one episode of depression may encounter additional episodes and may even learn to recognize the signs that a bout of depression may be coming on.

For people who rely on a metaphor to describe their depression, this is the significance of “hearing the depression ‘dog’ growling,” in that it represents the way a person may feel as depression sneaks up on them once again.

Whether you’re feeling a new episode of depression coming on or you’ve been living with the condition for a long time, there are things you can do to keep symptoms at bay.

Breathe

It’s easy to panic when you begin to recognize the signs of a depressive episode, especially if you’ve had a particularly bad bout of depression in the past. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to go through that again and that the threat of losing pieces of yourself and the life you’ve built to depression might send you into a bit of a spiral.

But try to remember: Panicking won’t help. If anything, it may further confuse your mind and may make it even more difficult for you to find your way through these feelings you want to escape.

When you start to feel overwhelmed by the onset of depressive symptoms, try to take a moment and breathe.

Research has shown that slow, deep breathing techniques may help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The scientists even propose that these techniques may be used as first-line and supplemental treatments for these conditions.

Taking deep breaths and paying close attention as the air fills your abdomen on inhale and then releases on exhale may give you a chance to slow down and better assess what may be going on in your life that could be contributing to the feelings you’re experiencing.

Here are some specific deep breathing exercises you can try.

Reach out

Sometimes we all need a minute to vent to a friend or problem-solve with a family member. This is often also so much easier to do at the beginning of a depressive episode than once rooted inside that episode.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a loved one when you feel the signs of depression coming on.

Why not pick up the phone and call, or even better, get outside together for a walk or hike where you can both enjoy some sunshine as you talk?

After all, research has found that both daily exercise and exposure to sunlight can help reduce symptoms of depression.

It may not solve everything you’re dealing with, but sometimes just the reminder that you have people in your corner who care about you and your mental well-being can help.

Focus on gratitude

Depression lies. It tells us we are all alone, that no one cares about us, that we have nothing in our lives to appreciate or look forward to.

If you’ve been feeling this way, it isn’t your fault — it’s depression. But it also isn’t true. No matter how bad things are, we all have something to be grateful for.

Reminding ourselves of that can sometimes help to counteract the lies depression tells us. It may not make your depression go away, but it can serve as a healthy reminder of the good you do still have in your life.

Some research even suggests that practicing gratitude and writing down things you’re grateful for may reduce symptoms of depression.

It’s a good idea to try dedicating some time each day to focusing on gratitude. Perhaps you want to write down the things you’re grateful for, or you may want to make it a habit to discuss those things as a family at dinner each night — whatever works best for you.

Evaluate your situation

Sometimes there is a trigger for depression that can be fairly simple to identify. Have you experienced a recent loss in your life? Or have you lapsed in your own self-care?

If you’re experiencing depression, it can be important to step back and try to assess what the most recent trigger may have been — especially if that trigger is something you may be able to quickly or easily resolve, like evaluating whether your medication is working for you or whether it may be time to check in with your treatment team about a possible change in dosage or medication.

An evaluation of your situation can also help you to identify the tools you may have at your disposal for feeling better:

  • Who do you have in your life that you can reach out to?
  • What options do you have nearby for getting out and enjoying the sun and exercise every day?
  • What might hobbies help you to stay busy and keep your mind off the weight of depression coming over you?
  • Could you benefit from getting a little more sleep or some healthier meals in your stomach?

Whatever the case may be, a full assessment of your situation can help you form a better picture of what’s going on and what you can do to resolve it.

Make a plan

The early warning signs of depression don’t always develop the way you fear they might. Occasionally, you may find you’re able to pull yourself out of that state fairly quickly and that it never becomes a full-blown depressive episode. But sometimes, it does.

Establishing a plan early on for how you’ll deal with that if it happens can be key to getting through it.

Once you’re in the middle of a deep depression, it can be difficult to see your way out and ask for help. That’s why a plan becomes important.

Perhaps you promise yourself that you’ll set up an appointment with a therapist if you’re still feeling this way in a week. Or maybe you agree to talk with your doctor about adjusting your meds after a period of time.

You may even find that planning for a change of scenery — a trip to see family or a vacation with friends — proves to be exactly what you need.

The point is to have a plan for addressing ongoing feelings of depression. Because if you plan now, you can be better prepared later.

The above tips may be all you need to keep yourself from spiraling into a deep depression when caught early enough. But sometimes, no matter what you do, it catches up to you anyway.

When that happens, reaching out for help can be crucial. If you’re experiencing any of the following, it’s advisable to set up an appointment with a medical professional or therapist to discuss your treatment options:

  • trouble getting up and going to work or school
  • a loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
  • thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • difficulty concentrating
  • a loss of memory
  • finding it difficult to make decisions
  • irritability that is impacting your relationships
  • sleeping too much, or having a hard time sleeping at all
  • eating too much or too little

Remember: Depression is a treatable condition, and there is always help available.

Depression impacts many people every year — you’re not alone if it is affecting you.

The good news is that you also don’t have to be alone in working through those feelings. There are people in your life who care about you and medical professionals who want to help.

So if you notice signs of a depressive episode, you don’t have to sit alone with it. Consider reaching out to someone who cares about you and let them know what you’re feeling. Then maybe get outside and see if some fresh air in the company of a supportive ally helps.

If you’re not ready to speak with a friend or family member about your depression, consider calling a depression support hotline. Sometimes opening up to a stranger is easier than talking with someone you know.

With the right tools, treatment, and support by your side, you can manage your depression and live a fulfilling life.