If you yourself are aware that you suffer from depression, or if you have recognised some of the symptoms within your own thoughts and feelings, what can you do?
The first thing is to speak to someone who can help. It’s unlikely that this will be easy for someone in your position, but if you are feeling so down or depressed that you are deliberately harming yourself or genuinely thinking about suicide, you MUST speak to somebody.
Seek counselling if you can. Contact a counselling service within your church if there is one. Speak to someone you know and trust well. If none of those are possible, speak to your GP – they should be able to point you to a qualified professional who can help.
I know from experience that when I feel depressed the last thing I want to do is talk to anyone about it. It can be extremely difficult both in terms of being willing to talk at all, as well as in terms of finding a way to put what you feel into words. Yet, as I have already said, if you are harming yourself or thinking about suicide, you MUST ask someone for help.
Depending on who you speak to, you may be advised to seek professional counselling or prescribed medication. Hopefully these will help. It can be difficult even for experts to pin down exactly what’s causing depression and how to treat it, firstly because it can vary so much from person to person.
Secondly, there is still so much even the experts don’t know about the human brain and the human mind, and how the two relate together. There is far less empirical science behind diagnosing and treating depression than there is behind something like treating a broken leg or cancer or delivering a baby.
Yet that doesn’t change the fact that depression, if you have it, is a genuine mental illness. There is something wrong inside your head. The things you might be feeling are normal for someone suffering from that sort of illness. You are not the only one. You are not alone.
Those thoughts and feelings are not an accurate reflection of how things really are. You are not as worthless or useless as you might be feeling. Reality is not as bleak as it might seem. People around you like and value and respect you more than you might think. You are not doomed to failure in everything you try. It is worth your trying to achieve things.
Modern Western society often tells you to trust your feelings and follow your heart in order to know what’s true and what you should do. Unfortunately that is really terrible advice to give someone who is depressed. If you are suffering from depression, do not listen to your feelings! They are not telling you the truth.
What can you do on a practical day-to-day basis to try and tackle depression?
Eat sensibly. Eat healthy food at proper meal times. Don’t eat either too much or too little. Don’t eat too much junk food or snack on treats. It may give you a momentary feeling of pleasure – it may be one of the only ways you can achieve this – but it will not help with your long-term mental or physical health.
Exercise when you can, even if it’s only a short walk every day. Try to walk or cycle instead of driving or using public transport if you can.
I have found that sleep is key. My understanding is that dwelling on depressing thoughts and feelings during the day, letting them fester in your mind, builds up a ‘backlog’ of stress that your brain needs to deal with before it can rest in sleep. The way your brain deals with accumulated stress is through dreaming. Dreams are the brain’s way of clearing out the backlog of things you’ve been stressed or worried about that day.
The problem is that dream sleep is not restful sleep. Dream sleep does not restore or recharge your brain. If you’ve spent all day having depressing and stressful thoughts and feelings, your brain will have built up a massive backlog of things it needs to deal with, and it will put you into dream sleep to be able to clear it all out.
This means that you will not get enough restful sleep. You will be tired and mentally drained the next day. That will make it much harder for you to avoid the depressing and dark thoughts and feeling that come with the new day, and your backlog of stress will be even bigger then the day before. You will then need even more dream sleep to clear it out, leaving you even more drained the following day. Over time you will build up more and more stress, and experience less and less restful sleep.
In my experience it will become a vicious cycle, a negative downward spiral.
How can you overcome it?
Understanding how depression affected my sleep pattern was the key I needed to start overcoming it. My response was to turn it around and try to make it into a positive upward spiral.
When I feel the dark and depressing thoughts and feelings coming over me, I push them away. I fill my mind with something else, something positive or practical, if I can. I do some exercise or some physically demanding task. I help somebody else with something they need. I try to find something that will make me laugh. I do whatever it takes to push those thoughts and feelings out of my mind.
If you can push out the darkness quickly enough, you won’t dwell on it. Your brain won’t need to add it to the backlog of stressful thoughts and feelings. Your brain won’t need to clear it out when you sleep. You will spend more time in restful sleep and less time in dream sleep. You will wake up in the morning feeling more rested and recharged, and that will make it easier for you to push away the dark thoughts and feelings the next day.
Hopefully, your experiences will become an upward spiral.
This is what works for me. Will it work for you? I don’t know. As I said earlier, everyone’s experience of depression is different.
Whether or not it works for you, please know that you are not alone. You are not the only person who feels like this. Your feelings do not reflect reality outside of your own mind. Please try to find someone else who has been through the same experiences, who understands, who may be able to give helpful advice or at least empathise with your situation.
Next time we’ll look at some ways you might be able to help a person you know who you know is suffering from depression or in whom you can recognise some of the symptoms.