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Self-Help Tools for Mild Depression

Most of us have had short periods of time where we’ve felt depressed. We’ve felt sad for no particular reason, lost our motivation for doing things we generally enjoy, just felt tired and “heavy”. For most of us, this feeling will last just a few hours or maybe for a few days. But for some, depression is something that comes and goes, and lasts long enough to cause problems in functioning.

Depression can be a serious illness. Major depression, which should be diagnosed by a doctor or mental health professional, consists of several severe symptoms which have been present for a period of at least 2 weeks. Those symptoms include at least one of the following:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in activities that would usually be pleasurable

and at least four of the following:

  • Significant weight loss or gain
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Fatigue, loss of energy, or tired all the time
  • Worthless or guilty feelings
  • Impaired concentration and difficulty making decisions
  • Restless feelings and inability to sit still or slow down
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

To be classified as indicative of major depression, these symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning. If you suspect you suffer from major depression, please consult your physician or a licensed psychotherapist right away, especially if you feel at all suicidal.

There is a form of depression, called dysthymic disorder, which tends to be longer lasting but with symptoms that are less severe. Again, diagnosis should be done by a qualified professional. The symptoms would include at least two of the following, nearly every day, for at least two years:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Fatigue, loss of energy, or tired all the time
  • Low self-esteem
  • Impaired concentration and difficulty making decisions
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

If you are feeling mildly depressed, are not feeling suicidal, and are able to function on a daily basis (go to work, care for family, attend school, etc.), then you may want to try a few self-help methods that may create significant improvement. Let me emphasize that this article is not a substitute for medical treatment, and professional evaluation and treatment should not be delayed if your symptoms are severe or life threatening.

Some helpful tips for mild depression:

  1. Begin a routine of regular aerobic exercise (assuming your physical health allows it). This could be walking, jogging, using gym equipment, or anything else that gets you moving for at least 20 – 30 minutes a day, nearly every day. Studies have shown that this one change may improve mild depressive symptoms as much as medication or therapy, so it is certainly worth a try.
  2. Check your diet. If you are eating a poor diet that is high in sugar and too low in protein, you may want to try making a few changes and see if you feel better. Eating a healthy breakfast is important, just as Grandma used to say, as is trying to eat a balanced diet. try to have each meal include some healthy protein, and some fruits and / or vegetables. Cut out as much sugar, white flour, and processed foods as you can. Alcohol should be avoided. It is a depressant itself, and at best provides only a temporary lift.
  3. Keep your schedule regular. Try to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time each day. Our bodies have an internal clock, and some bodies are more sensitive than others to disruption. If you are having trouble sleeping, be kind to yourself in the evening, and give yourself plenty of time to wind down from day. Too much computer time, video games, television or other stimulating activities may make it hard to relax if done too close to bedtime. Make sure that you get up on time, get dressed, and get going. It’s important to carry on our daily routines, even when we don’t feel like it.
  4. Seek out other people. A common response to depression is the tendency to isolate. We all need people, and usually some social interaction can help lift our spirits. Another great way to fight depression is to help other people. We all need to be needed, and to help someone else, whether a friend, family member or even a stranger through volunteer work, can make a huge difference.
  5. Improve your personal environment. When we’re feeling down, it’s easy to let things go. Soon, the mess around us can be enough to cause depression itself. So, even if it’s little by little, clean up your personal space. For starters, make sure you’re dressed in something that you like to wear. Make your bed. After you eat (remember, that’s important), clean up the kitchen – very satisfying. Pick a small area, about 15 minutes worth of work, and clean it up. All this gets you moving, and movement generally helps.
  6. Change your thinking. When we are depressed, we frequently give ourselves all sorts of negative messages. How we think about ourselves and our circumstances is very powerful. By paying attention to the “tapes” that we run through our mind, we can focus on changing those messages. try writing down some of things you find yourself thinking, and then write down a more positive rebuttal message. Practice giving yourself positive messages instead of negative ones. You may be surprised at how effective this is.

If after trying as many of these ideas as you can for a week or two, you aren’t feeling better, then it may well be time to consult a therapist. Sometimes we all need the help of someone else to change our patterns, and a professional may be able to help in ways that we can’t do for ourselves. You are worth the time and effort, and the results will be worthwhile too!

(As part of our “Best of Families Counseling” series, this article is a re-post from the Summer 2005 edition of our newsletter.)

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