Before I begin, let me present the standard disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor have I played one on television. I've never even dated a doctor. If you're ready to see a doctor about depression, you've probably tried all of the techniques below and, more importantly, if you're ready to see a doctor, you probably should. Depression is not something to fuck around with. It maims relationships and destroys futures. It leads people to make irrational choices that have far-reaching consequences. It can even kill you. That said, my only qualifications in this area involve my willingness to share and your willingness to listen. But you probably want to know more about the sordid details of my particular depression. Well, fine.
If you can look at me and see a reasonably upbeat and centered individual, you may want to look again. My mother's family photo albums are full of images of me as a wee one, glum and obstinately protesting the fact that life must go on. That sorry little kid turned into a sorry adolescent who relished frequent thoughts of suicide and then a sorry college student who found herself sinking deeper and deeper into feelings of worthlessness and shame. But I'm better now. No really. Yes, I'm still regularly plagued by feelings of hopelessness, despair, and all that jazz. I'm sad a lot. I still spend the odd hour here and there thinking how fortuitous it would be if I was hit by a car or contemplating ways to off myself. And I'm still paranoid about my own worth, intelligence, and what have you. Still paranoid that there is a queue of lovely ladies waiting to steal my man's heart because, hey, I'm super yucky. Still paranoid that I just plain suck. BUT, I've learned to control or at least diminish most of these feelings.
What leaves my family absolutely baffled is how I ended up with a blue streak a mile long. My father, while spouting doom and gloom, remains one of the happiest and most satisfied men I've ever met. My mother routinely employs a technique known as compartmentalization, wherein she chooses to focus only on good things, and it's worked for her thus far. My grandparents, all wonderful and all happy, exist in various stages of both faith and denial, each operating to overshadow our dreary world. I won't recommend denying that the world is an awful place or glossing over one's problems, nor will I suggest that there is anything "wrong" or "unusual" about depression in general. That's just not my style.
In fact, I believe that depression is so prevalent (at least in the States) because society as a whole is operating in ways that contradict the human animal's basic impulses...but that's another story for another day.
The advice that I will give you shortly is simple, all-natural, free, and, for me at least, effective. What that means is that, over the course of my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, I have gradually come to understand that doing such-and-such a thing tends to bring on dark feelings while such-and-such other thing tends to repel them. Your mileage may, of course, vary. On the whole, my suggestions may seem like the sissy's way out when the world is full of adverts for tiny little wunderpills guaranteed to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. But part of my personal philosophy involves my not taking any medication I can live without. I understand that some people simply cannot live without medication. Nonetheless, the following advice may still help cancel out some of the pangs of sorrow that, for some of us, go hand in hand with being alive and it's good to get into the habit of doing 'em.
What's a trigger? Anything you can identify that will, with reasonable certainty, bring on feelings of depression. Some people get depressed when their frustration levels increase while others get depressed when they start to lose contact with friends and family. Make a list of the things that inspire depression and see how many of them are unavoidable. You probably can't quit your job (if you can, I'm jealous) and you may not be able to avoid driving in traffic, but you can think of new ways to make your work day less upsetting and even explore new routes to the office. As for the triggers that are avoidable, avoid them. I have discovered that listening to nothing but Nick Drake all day long while it's raining will usually have me pretty low by the end of the day. Likewise, I know that certain discussion topics are bound to get me down (i.e. the futility of just about everything), so I don't like to talk about them. Do what you can to reduce exposure to triggers. If, however, you find your life impacted by this avoidance, it may be time to chat with a professional.
Move Your Tush
The single most effective non-medicinal anti-depressant I have come across is exercise. Getting your blood pumping can make you feel more alert, more in control, healthier, optimistic, confident, and calm. The good feelings brought on by exercise last for hours and there are no side effects other than a kickin' body and a functional cardiovascular system. Exercise can be running, aerobics, dancing, lifting weights, walking, sex, or vigorous cleaning. The method doesn't much matter. The only real catch is that it has to be regular exercise. That means you've got to do it just about every day for maximum effect. If I skip a few days, that's when all the bad thoughts start flooding back.
Let there be light!
A lot of people get depressed in the wintertime because they tend to, not at all purposefully, expose themselves to less sunlight. I don't blame them. It's damn cold out. Nonetheless, getting out and about in the fresh air, even on a cloudy day, can really boost your mood. This applies even in the spring and summer months. People, I think, at least in the States, tend to spend too much time under fluorescent lights, in ventilated offices, and inside cars or trains or planes or busses or whatever. There is something pleasantly depression defying about moving one's legs and existing, for a brief time, in open air. Maybe even get some trees involved. If this sort of thing is utterly impossible, plenty of companies sell sun lamps that are supposed to trick your body into thinking you've been outdoors.
Breaking Your Thinking Habit
Depression thrives on negative thinking. It's easy to get into what I call The Cycle, where a bad thought just pops up and suddenly cascades into about a thousand other bad thoughts that have nowhere left to go. When this happens to me, I usually freeze up and find I can't do anything, so I get in bed and people are left wondering what they can do for me. While it can feel like nothing will ever, ever be able to console you when this happens, the best thing your friends can do for you OR you can do for yourself is to find a distraction. It usually has to be a pretty strong distraction and it doesn't always need to be a pleasant one. Someone poking me in an irritating fashion can sometimes be enough. Maybe hearing or thinking of a series of bad jokes. Try listening to something inane, like Radio Disney or one of those talk shows where rednecks throw chairs at one another. Pet your dog. Masturbate. Do whatever it takes to help your brain snap out of the feedback loop of painful thoughts, even punching a pillow until you start to feel silly.
I have bad dreams almost every night when my moods are at their lowest. Though we don't know the true function of dreams, they seem to be somewhat reflective of our deepest mental states. While I'd rather not have dreams about cockroaches being inside my mouth and nubile young girls telling me how great my man is at making them laugh, those dreams are probably serving some function. Maybe a nightly garbage dump. I don't know. What I do know is that getting a full eight or even nine hours of sleep each night can go a long way in the quest to ward off depression. There is a distinct difference between the morning after a good night's sleep and a too-short night's sleep. When you are rested, you are more aware and operate more smoothly, leading to less chance of experiencing serious frustration or annoyance with yourself, which can trigger feelings of depression.
Throw Your TV Out the Window
Televised news broadcasts are designed to produce an emotional surge in viewers. Commercials are designed to tell you how inferior you and all of your choices are. Sitcoms, while maybe not designed to be that way, tend to present the sort of lives we're supposed to have, but that few people actually do. I am not twenty-five, working my dream job, wearing designer clothing, and driving a Mercedes. I do not live in a penthouse while getting paid waitress wages. I am not a size two. I have debt, use store brands, seldom buy new clothing, and have to scrimp to pay my phone bill. I have enough to worry about without thinking about all the ways in which I do not measure up to some arbitrary level of income, beauty, talent, shirt whiteness, or fashion sense, or whether my hair is as shiny as it could be. I don't need to know how many people were murdered today or all of the new ways in which human beings can be cruel to one another as presented by the networks in LIVE, GRUESOME, LIVING COLOR. Skip it. Read a fantasy novel. Paint a picture. Escape reality all you want, but if you don't want to invite depression in, nix the idiot box.
Clean Up, Cheer Up
One of my major triggers is clutter. Sharing a small single room with my man in a four-bedroom apartment for months and months really had me sinking regularly into the depression pit. I know that in order for my mind to focus on working, my desk has to be reasonably neat and that in order to sleep well, my bedroom has to be mostly uncluttered. While not everyone is opposed to a little disorganization, messiness can sometimes have an effect on the subconscious. If you're space is a mess, your mind may be interpreting that in terms of your worth. They say people with good self-esteem and good outlooks generally take better care of themselves. This applies to neatness as well. Tricking your brain into seeing yourself as a well-put-together individual who knows where everything is can positively affect your mood.
Do What You Like
No, it's not anarchy now. Life is hard. It's easy to let responsibilities carry us away while we ride their dismal wave, cheekily forgetting that we were ever more than a credit card bill, a paycheck, or an under-appreciated employee. We spend a lot of time attempting to improve our performance at work, on the golf course, in the sack, behind the microphone, or on paper, and, in doing so, forget about spending any time doing the things we're good at. What's nicer, spending all night trying and failing to beat the second-to-last level of the original Super Mario Bros. or baking a great pecan pie? I'm not saying you shouldn't challenge yourself, but don't forget to set aside a few hours a week to use doing something you enjoy and are good at, even if it's just reading a book to keep your frustration levels nice and low.
Stop! In the name of tranquility
Okay, maybe you can't stop, but you can slow down. The world-at-large is fast paced, but that doesn't mean you have to be. The more I have on my plate at any one time, the more depressed I become. My logical mind may be trying to convince me that I'll get it all done (and it's almost always right) but my emotional brain is screaming that I am easily overwhelmed and I just can't handle it so I really should give up. Not that I actually have a choice. It's finish such-and-such a story by noon or starve. The easiest way to keep in step with your responsibilities, even when you're really depressed, is to have a loose routine and to make daily To Do lists. Having a routine means that I have more time to spend doing things I like and making lists means I almost never forget to do any of the things I'm supposed to do. Doing one or both of those will also keep you from getting mired, which itself can lead to negative cyclical thinking.
Drink less. Drink more.
While evening plans based on spirituous liquors are generally a fun and rowdy good time, I can recall plenty of nights spent curled up on the bed, bawling and drunk, wishing my life would end then and there. That's the problem with drinking and depression. Much like milk and OJ, they don't mix well. Getting drunk to forget may seem like a great idea, until you're totally blitzed and realize that getting drunk just makes your problems seem that much more real. If you're already feeling low, drink in moderation or don't drink at all. As for smoking the herb, getting high is absolute poo poo if you're depressed, even if you're fine with it normally.
Better yet, drink more water. Most bodies are at least semi-pleased when imbibing water. Water makes your brain happy and your body happy, which is one step (I'm convinced) on the road to making you happy. And even if drinking plenty of water doesn't do anything at all the alleviate your depression, at least it's good for you. Please note: lasting excessive or absent thirst can apparently both signify serious emotional trauma. See a doctor.
Trim the Fat
While various research I found on the topic of fat ingestion and depression stated that eating a low fat diet can lead to increased feelings of depression, all of my personal experience has demonstrated that the flip side may also be valid. I'm not suggesting that you stop eating fat all together (Cheese sticks reprezent!) but I would recommend cutting out a little fat here and there. When there is too much fat in my diet, I know, because I get both constipated and depressed. If nothing else, eat a vegetable now and again, because regularity will mean one less thing to get depressed about.
There is also the sugar-preservative-toxin triad that infects the highly processed foods that make up a large portion of most people's diets. While keeping your daily RDA of fat intact is a good move, cutting out the thirty-syllable ingredients from your diet is an even better one if you're trying to curb depression. Make your own sauces. Bake from scratch. Want a cheeseburger? Make it at home, with meat from a local butcher. Your brain chemistry will thank you.
Be a Quitter
Everyone who lives within a hundred mile radius of semi-modern civilization knows by now that smoking is bad for you. People outside of that area probably figure it out after a while. Some people just don't care. According to research, depressed people are more susceptible to the apparent pleasures of smoking and one or more of the components in cigarette smoke act like anti-depressants. But, at the same time, there is a growing stigma attached to smoking and many smokers feel frustrated because they are unable to quit. Add to that the fact that smoking has a tendency to inspire hacking coughs, dry nasal passages, and generally lowered health levels, and you have a host of possible depression triggers. Quitting, on the other hand, will make you feel really shitty for a few weeks, but better for years to come. Plus, it makes all that exercise easier.
Give a little bit.
Yes, sometimes volunteering can make you more depressed, particularly if you’re caught up in a cycle of negative thinking. Then handing out rolls at the soup kitchen is not going to do much for you. But in general, giving your time and energy to a worthy cause, particularly if it’s something like Habitat for Humanity, where you see the immediate difference your efforts have made, will lift you out of a goodly portion of the funks you find yourself in. Putting aside your own problems and seeing the world from someone else’s perspective can help you see your own situation more clearly. Depression has trouble thriving when you’re busy helping others.
Do nothing at all.
This seems to be a challenge for many people. I know it is for me. A relaxing Saturday spent lazing in bed becomes an anxiety-ridden Sunday wherein I become obsessed with my having wasted hours upon hours. Doing nothing, while seemingly counterintuitive, is a great goal to work towards. You might try setting aside an hour each week in which you do nothing but relax in whatever way pleases you most. In order for me to do this, I need to plan it, so I don't feel like I'm wasting time that could have been spent working or cleaning or painting or writing or answering e-mails or whatever, or else the depression kicks in quickly. Sit back and watch the world go by like the old folks do. They're on to something. Doing nothing also applies to problems. Once in a while, it's important to admit defeat or real helplessness, without feeling like you’ve come undone.