Depression is as much a somatic (physical) disorder as it is a psychological one. Energy loss is a common somatic symptom. It can easily set off a debilitating cycle that prevents depression from lifting. That’s because the less energy you have, the more likely you are to stay in bed and avoid activities that’ll help you feel better.
One of the first questions clinical psychologist Elvira Aletta, Ph.D, asks her depressed clients is about their appetite, sleep and movement. All three are “fundamental to our ability to function [normally]” and affect our energy levels, which directly affects our mood, said Dr. Aletta, the founder of Explore What’s Next, a comprehensive psychotherapy practice.
Some people unwittingly search in all the wrong places to perk up their energy. For instance, they might drink a whole lot of coffee, which increases energy temporarily but then causes a crash. Or they might attribute their fatigue to lack of sleep. But getting more sleep can backfire. According to Dr. Aletta, this notion is “a real trap, because you can end up sleeping 16 hours a day.” Below, she shares five effective ways readers can lift their energy levels.
1. Take it one step at a time.
Making changes when you’re in the depths of depression can seem overwhelming (and impossible), which only worsens your mood. This is why Dr. Aletta stressed the importance of taking small steps and creating feasible goals at your current state. Before creating any goals with her clients, she asks: “Where are you now?” and “What can we do to stretch that out so it’s achievable?”
If someone is so depressed that they stay in bed all day, a good goal for them is to get up and take a shower. For another person who’s also depressed but makes it to work, their goal might be to engage in one pleasurable activity per day. (An example is spending 10 minutes dancing while blasting favorite tunes.)
Also, remember that making a small stretch, as Dr. Aletta calls it, is a step in the right direction to overcoming depression. Some people berate themselves because taking a shower is a seemingly trivial target. But remember that it leads to another step, which leads to another step. All these steps are simply the building blocks to getting better.
2. Practice good sleep hygiene.
Sleep is essential for high energy levels, and getting too much or too little can dramatically affect how you feel. One of Dr. Aletta’s clients had terribly low energy and slept 12 hours a night. To top it off, she worked from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and went to bed at 2 a.m. To figure out an optimal sleep schedule, Dr. Aletta and her client counted back from the time she needed to be at work. They talked about a reasonable number of hours for her to have before and after work. This included sleeping from 2 a.m. to 9 a.m. The first week, not surprisingly, she felt groggy. But in the long run, this schedule improved her energy.
For more on sleep hygiene, check out these articles:
- 14 Strategies for Sleeping Better
- 12 Ways to Shut Off Your Brain Before Bedtime
- The First Line of Treatment for Insomnia That’ll Surprise You
3. Eat energy-rich foods.
Certain food groups help to sustain energy, while others, such as simple carbohydrates (think candy) create swift spikes in blood sugar and subsequently crash. “Our goal is to keep blood sugar going up and down in a gentle way,” Dr. Aletta said.
Foods that keep your energy up are complex carbs, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and proteins, the building blocks of cells. Dr. Aletta suggested thinking of protein as hardware and complex carbs as the fuel that propels this hardware.
Listening to your body and anticipating the signs of low blood sugar also helps. Dr. Aletta worked with a nurse whose hectic schedule gave her little time to sit down and eat a full meal. She experienced dramatic dips in her energy whenever she let hours go by without eating. She’d become irritable, be hard on herself and have trouble focusing. She learned to tune into her body and notice the early signs of her dips. She also started keeping snacks like granola bars in her locker to boost her blood sugar.
Dr. Aletta underscored that everyone is different and has different food preferences. For instance, one of her clients hated vegetables. So Dr. Aletta didn’t force the issue, and instead recommended that he take certain vitamins.
4. Move your body.
Many of Dr. Aletta’s clients say that they don’t have the energy to go to the gym. And she says to them: “No problem.” Movement isn’t about going to the gym. You don’t have to lift weights or run on the treadmill to gain the benefits of moving your body — unless that’s what you like.
Movement is any physical activity that you enjoy, such as walking your dog, dancing, swimming or playing tennis. Dr. Aletta helps her clients connect to those activities that bring them the most pleasure. One of her clients was so depressed that he forgot how much he loved riding his bike. He couldn’t even remember where he left it. He bought a new bike and began riding it in the park. At the end of their sessions, he was participating in long-distance races.
Movement isn’t only vital to get our hearts pumping and energy soaring, it’s also “a real gift we give to ourselves,” she said.
5. Identify and reduce other energy-zappers.
There are many other factors that can affect your energy levels, Dr. Aletta said. Medication is one culprit. Sometimes taking too many prescription drugs or a dose that’s too high for you can reduce your energy. Don’t hesitate to bring this up to your doctor. Technology also depletes energy. So limit the time you spend watching TV or using your computer or other devices.
And finally, try not to get hung up on the end result. Therese Borchard, author of the blog Beyond Blue and the book Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, reminds herself and her readers to “’dance in the rain,’ because you can’t wait for the storm to be over to be productive, or else you may not be productive for a long time.” Instead, the key, she said, is to keep moving.