Living with Depression: A Detailed Understanding and Survival Guide

The numbers are so high, in fact, that the World Health Organization (WHO) refers to depression as a common illness – but tragically, it’s one that is associated with nearly 800,000 suicide deaths each year. Globally, roughly 1 in 27 people will be diagnosed with depression at some stage in their life – a figure some mental health organizations argue is probably much higher.

If you’ve experienced depression – yourself or by supporting a loved one – you’ll know how difficult and life-changing it can be.

And despite there being many modes of treatment to ease the pain of depression, too often the disorder goes untreated – leading to avoidable consequences ranging from missed work to strained relationships to self-harm.


1. How could this guide help if you’re experiencing depression?

Dealing with depression can be extremely taxing – and there’s no substitute for talking to a doctor or mental health profession. However, depression can put the brakes on your desire and ability to take action – so we’ve put together a guide that we hope will help.

Reading this guide won’t switch depression off – the condition doesn’t work that way. Instead, it’s worth thinking of this as a road map that could lead you toward alleviating your symptoms. Some of the points we raise will be helpful – others might not be — but the simple fact that you’re reading this is an essential first step toward feeling a bit better and understanding what’s going on in your brain.

Here at Athena, our library includes books by people who’ve dedicated their professional lives careers to a better understanding of mental health. We’ve chosen books and worked with authors that are the authorities on happiness, stress, anxiety, careers, exercise, sleep, eating – and many more – and depression comes up as a subject in a striking percentage of them.

What depression does and means to you will be as individual as you are, but there are similar threads that run through everyone with the condition. Here, we’ll explore those similarities — and look at a handful of ways that might help you reduce the symptoms you’re experiencing.


2. What is depression?

Depression is a mental health condition that is often associated with sadness and a lack of enthusiasm or interest in activities that were previously enjoyable or rewarding.

However, because depression is a mental health condition, you can’t go to your regular physician expecting a diagnosis for precisely why you’re feeling the way you are — and be handed a prescription to “cure” the problem. But there are common elements – especially since depression can be triggered by trauma or loss – and commonly prescribed methods of treatment.

Depression may – or may not – disturb your sleep and appetite. It may leave you so lethargic that you spend all day in bed – but then again, it may prevent you from sleeping altogether. Depression might take away your appetite – or it might prompt you to use food as a coping strategy.

Medical professionals believe that depression is driven by a combination of social, psychological and biological factors.

At one end of the spectrum, depression can be a general feeling of disinterest or feeling “out of sorts.” At the other, more severe end, sufferers can feel like they’re at a complete disconnect from the world – or a pain so excruciating they cannot endure it a moment longer.


3. Seeking urgent help

If you’re reading this now and feeling like you simply cannot face another day with depression – it’s absolutely essential that you seek help as quickly as possible.

Depression is the world’s leading cause of suicide – but taking your life is not the answer. Millions of people every year try to take their own lives or think seriously about trying – but tragically, this is the moment when depression can turn a corner.

Even if you’ve sought help before, reaching the point where you feel you can’t go on can be a real wake-up call for medical professionals. Reach out for help – and try not to panic or let anxiety talk you out of it. Medical interventions when you’re suicidal are focused on making you feel better and getting your head to a place where you can envision a more positive future. It is possible – and for millions of people every year, this is the vital first step toward getting better.

Click here to jump down to telephone hotlines and other resources that can help where you are.

If you’ve taken steps to end your life and need medical help, call emergency services immediately.

If you’re considering suicide and you need help, Google “suicide help near me” – you’ll find a toll-free number for contacting someone who can help straight away (usually 24/7).


4. Depression facts and statistics

  • Depression affects over 260 million people of all ages, races, genders and orientations.
  • Women are generally more prone to depression than other genders.
  • Treatments for depression can include psychological support (talk therapies like CBT and psychotherapy) and sometimes pharmacological treatments – like anti-depressants and mood-stabilizers.
  • Despite available treatments, between 75% and 85% of depressed people in low- and middle-income countries receive no treatment.
  • Major depression is considered the second leading cause of disability worldwide – and has an impact on suicide rates and rates of heart disease.
  • In some countries, the impact of COVID-19 doubled the occurrence of depression in adults and young people.
  • Children and young people often show the highest rates of depression symptoms – with 14.4% of 12-17-years-olds in the United States reporting symptoms.


5. If you have depression, you’re not alone

Even if your depression leaves you feeling isolated, lonely or helpless, these statistics are proof that you’re definitely not the only person feeling as you do.

When you feel bogged down with the symptoms of depression, it can feel like a heavy weight you’ll never escape, but millions of people do every day, week, month and year.

The tough part is gaining an understanding of what you’re going up against before you can come to terms with your depression. Here, we’ve tried to explain what depression is and some small but meaningful steps you can take that might help you feel even a little bit better tomorrow.


6. Understanding your unique depression experience

A staggering number of studies on depression are currently underway, but you don’t need to be a mental health expert to understand what’s happening to you.

Like any illness, getting a grip on depression starts with identifying the symptoms.

It might feel strange to approach depression in the same way you’d think about a virus or a broken bone — after all, it likely feels way bigger and more all-consuming than most other illnesses. However, it is an illness – and being able to take a step back and look at it objectively is almost certainly going to help.

Here are some questions to ask and exercises to do that can shed light on your condition:


7. Step 1: Think about what you are feeling

What does depression do to you?

Ask yourself:

  • How does depression make you feel?
  • What does depression make you think about your family or friends?
  • How does depression impact how you feel about where you are with your life or where your life might go?
  • Does depression seem to come and go? Or is it always with you?
  • What do you do to cope with your depression?

The answers to these questions might not uncover all of your symptoms or feelings – but they’re a start. Putting together a picture of your symptoms and feelings is a great first step toward separating what’s really you from what’s the disease.

It can be helpful to think of dealing with depression in the same way you would prepare to climb a mountain. No one can simply take off at a run, jump and expect to land at the top; instead, you’ve got to think about tackling each piece or leg of your journey. If you focus on identifying and understanding each symptom and step, soon you’ll be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.


8. Step 2: Try to shed judgment

In life, we tend to be our own worst critics – and depression can amplify these feelings of not being good enough, not being strong enough or not being happy with where you find yourself right now.

But judgment and self-criticism is worse than useless – in fact, it’s harmful and counterproductive when you’re dealing with depression.

There may come a time when it’s helpful to think back on certain aspects of your life journey as a guide for how you want to live going forward, but clinging to notions of how you should have, could have or ought to have done something differently is, for the most part, going to keep you tied to the past, rather than freeing you to look ahead and doing what you need to in order to ease the symptoms you’re feeling.

Turning off your inner critic isn’t easy, but if you want to tackle depression, it’s an important part of the journey.

If you can, try to identify times when you make a judgment about yourself and then stop yourself in your tracks. Judging is a habit and, like any habit, it’s difficult to stop, but when you become aware that you’re picking fault with yourself, you can start to do something about it – and the next two steps will help with that.


9. Step 3: Listen to – then defy – your depression voice

We all have an “inner voice” – that interior stream of thoughts, feelings and ideas that accompany us wherever we go.

When you have depression, your condition hijacks this thought process – grabbing hold of the controls to steer you toward feeling more down and more aware of your symptoms. A crucial part of feeling better is identifying when the depression has taken control – and when you’re in control.

Sometimes, it can be useful to ask yourself, “Is it me making this decision? Or is this depression talking?”

Gaining awareness in this way is your path to gaining control. First: Be aware that depression can influence your decisions and thoughts; and second: realize that – as long as you think before you act – you can decide whether or not to let depression lead the way.

Let’s say it’s a beautiful day and you have the chance to take a walk around the park. It’s perfectly fine to stay at home and watch a movie in bed, but ask yourself, “What’s driving this decision?” If it’s because you’ve been dying to see this film and you’ve got a rare free afternoon, then great; snuggle up and enjoy. But if you’re the kind of person who usually loves time spent outside, but you can’t seem to muster up the energy or enthusiasm, it might be time to grab the controls and just do it.

Again, you don’t have to start with taking action. Start with awareness. Think about why you’re making the decisions you are, and if you feel like today’s a day when you can push through, then do the thing that depression’s telling you not to.


10. Step 4: Journaling and writing

Depression’s tricky because it makes you focus on the bleakest, darkest parts of any experience. Think about that sunny day: There might be a hundred positive things about going for a walk in the park, but depression will shift your focus to anything negative that could come from heading outside.

This is where recording your experiences can provide you with an objective look at what’s happening.

Remember the last time you had fun talking to family or friends? Can you think back to when you last enjoyed a big belly laugh? Remember how good it feels to have the sun on your skin?

There’s every chance you’re reading this and thinking “Nope!” but there’s just as much chance that depression is clouding your thoughts. The only way you can really say for certain is by recording evidence.

Try, if you can, to get in the habit of writing a couple of lines every day – either on paper in a bound journal or somewhere private on your device.


11. What can journaling offer?

When you get into the habit of journaling, it makes you more aware of what’s going on around you, allowing you to get to know yourself and your condition better. Journaling also lets you take control of what can often feel like chaotic feelings; setting them down in black and white and putting them into some kind of order. It also shifts your viewpoint by allowing you to look at your thoughts and experiences – giving you a clear perspective on what you’re feeling – while helping you to spot any patterns that might emerge.

Write whatever comes to you, which means you’ll likely record the negative feelings along with the positive ones, but try not to let the negative thoughts run away with you. Consider passing a highlighter over the positive feelings or marking them with a star, making it easier to revisit only these parts of your day when you reread your journal.

You might even choose to cross out the negative feelings and banish them to the past – or tear them out and get rid of them for good. It’s up to you – do whatever feels right.

Journaling might not change your feelings overnight, but if you commit to adding it to your day as an easy-to-achieve, healthy habit, it can be amazingly therapeutic. Journaling can be an incredible way to jog your memory when you’re down and convinced everything is bad – by giving you tangible reminders of a time you didn’t feel so bleak.


12. Step 5: Acknowledge that change is possible

Depression often feels like being stuck in a swamp. No matter how much you want to move, the world can feel like it’s pushing against you, preventing you from taking positive steps forward.

Here, once again, this is not the case but rather the result of depression taking the controls and trying to dictate what you can and cannot do.

Change is possible – millions of people have been in a similar position to yours, pushing through to emerge on the other side and going on to do incredible things.

But change rarely happens overnight. Instead, meaningful change can take weeks or months. The key is not to give up; help yourself by creating your own personal playbook of daily habits that add up to a new step each day in the right direction.


13. Finding habits that work for you

Sometimes, dealing with depression can feel like a never-ending experiment — because there are so many factors that could influence the way you feel.

In these next sections, we explore a few areas of life that people often find helpful in making significant progress in their struggles with depression and depressed thoughts.

They are:

  • Eat smart
  • Sleep better
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Exercise regularly

Don’t set yourself up to fail by trying or thinking you can attack all of these parts of your life at once. Instead, take some time to read through each of these sections and consider how you might change one or two things. And, don’t forget: Journaling helps you see how far you’ve come.


14. Eating smart to help with depression

Food is such a fundamental and powerful part of our lives. Sure, some people view food simply as fuel for their day – but for most of us, food is so much more.

When you’ve got depression, one way or another, food can become a crutch to lean on to get through each day.

In one way, eating a favorite or delicious dish can trigger the release of pleasurable feelings and hormones that act as their own reward. This can turn food into something addictive – not just because you need it to survive but also because we start to associate it with feeling better, satisfied or content.

In another way, though, depression can take away your appetite – making the food we once enjoyed become dull and unappealing. But when food seems like the one thing we can control when nothing else appears to be going right, then food becomes a focal point — the last bit of control we have in a world clouded by depression.


15. Depression and eating disorders

Eating disorders and depression have been shown to be closely linked. Generally, scientists believe that if you’re prone to depression, it may also mean you’re more prone to having a difficult or unhealthy relationship with food.

The statistics support this finding, with depression shown to impact:
Let’s turn to some food types that might help alleviate certain symptoms of depression. You should talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your diet – and if you feel like you might have an unhealthy relationship with food, now’s a good time to discuss it with your doctor.

  • 32-39% of people with anorexia nervosa
  • 36-50% of people with bulimia nervosa
  • 33% of people with binge eating disorder

Eating disorders are very treatable – but once again, it’s important to make sure you’re in control of your thoughts. Many people find trying to go it alone with an eating disorder is very difficult – so if you’re approaching this food list and feel you might have an eating disorder, make a point of talking to someone. We’ve added some resources that will help at the end of this article.


16. Struggling with depression? These foods could help

Fish

There’s plenty of information out there about the general health benefits of omega-3 fats – and it turns out they’re beneficial for depression too.

Salmon, sardines, trout, fresh tuna and mackerel all have high levels of omega-3 fats – and these have been shown to improve brain health. Scientists think they have a direct impact on the production of serotonin – an important neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.

There are more trials needed to say for certain, but early indications suggest 2-3 servings of these varieties of fish each week may help you ward off the symptoms of depression.

Nuts

Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and cashews are also rich in omega-3 fats – but it’s not just omega-3 that makes nuts a depression-fighting superfood.

Nuts are also a healthy source of plant-based protein – helping to limit other less-healthy kinds of snacking during the day while also keeping blood sugar levels stable. In various studies, nuts (especially walnuts) have been linked to higher levels of energy, positivity, optimism, hope and concentration.

Both of these factors can help ease depression symptoms.

Beans

Like nuts, beans are another source of protein that can help reduce the desire to snack on less healthy options like processed carbohydrates — while keeping blood sugar levels steady – helping to fend off depression symptoms.

In addition, beans help the body to create a certain type of B vitamin called folate. Folate is shown to help the body produce a healthy number of blood cells – which in turn helps to encourage optimum brain function.

You don’t need huge amounts of beans in your diet – just adding half cup (of chickpeas, black beans or pinto beans) to a soup, salad or stew will boost your intake of protein and folate.

Seeds

Seeds are another source of omega-3 – and they’re packed to the brim. Sprinkling just a tablespoon of chia seeds to oatmeal, smoothies, or baked goods will get you over 60% of the recommended daily omega-3 allowance.

Pumpkin and squash seeds are both great additions to your diet too. These wonder seeds contain high levels of tryptophan – an amino acid that helps your brain to create serotonin. Increasing serotonin levels is usually a key focus when professionals treat depression – so it’s a great idea to boost it as much as possible with your diet.

Poultry

Tryptophan is also present is turkey and chicken, so adding 2-3 servings of these lean meats to your weekly recipe rotation can help to drive up your serotonin levels.

There are literally thousands of poultry recipes to try – and just 3 ounces (85 grams) can deliver more than your daily recommended intake of serotonin-boosting tryptophan.

Vegetables

No doubt, it’s something you’ve been hearing since you were a kid, but eating vegetables is key to staying physically and mentally fit.

Here too, the depression-fighting players are folate and omega-3. Leafy greens (like kale, collard greens, spinach, and cabbage) are rich sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – an important omega-3. Folate and fiber are also important– and dark green vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts are packed to the brim with these mood-enhancing components.


17. Making some depression-fighting diet substitutions

Like the other tips we’re going to cover here, it’s important to start small and work your way up when it comes to making dietary changes.

A week of eating nuts, seeds, fish and leafy vegetables isn’t going to change much, but if you slowly and consistently add them to your diet, they’ll become a meaningful part of your fight against the symptoms of depression.


18. Sleeping right to ease depression

Often, sleep is an area of life that gets most disrupted when you’re battling depression.

What makes that disruption so challenging is that sleep has an enormous impact on other areas of your life – everything from your weight to your mental focus. In truth, depression might not be taking as much of a toll as you think – but if it messes with your sleep, there’s a domino effect that can wreak havoc in other parts of your life.

The good news is there are plenty of ways to backward engineer this problem. Attend to your sleep issues, and you’ll almost certainly give yourself a fighting chance at dealing with other depression symptoms.


19. Looking at sleep and health

Sleep is an absolutely essential part of being healthy – both physically and mentally.

Tip 1: Exercise during the day

Exercise is generally considered to be the number one way to improve your sleep and stimulate the production of feel-good hormones.

We know – going for a run or heading to the gym might feel like the last thing you want to do right now, but if you can, it’s almost guaranteed to help in a variety of ways.

Exercise offers a huge boost to the quality of the sleep you get – and, in turn, that helps to ward off symptoms of depression. No need to rush to the store to buy new running shoes either – going for a brisk walk is a great start.

If you can, try to exercise in the morning or afternoon – rather than in the evening. Exercise can stimulate the production of adrenaline – giving you a rush of energy that may not be conducive to a good night’s sleep. If you wouldn’t drink a cup of strong coffee before bed, think twice about exercising too late in the day — and plan your workouts for earlier in the day instead.

Tip 2: Avoid drinking before bed

Having to use the bathroom in the middle of the night can be disastrous when you’re suffering from depression – especially because it can be extremely difficult to get back to sleep if your brain wanders after a quick bathroom visit.

If you can, try to avoid drinking lots of fluids in the couple of hours before bed. As long as you hydrate well during the day, you won’t become dehydrated at night – so the rule of thumb is to take a few sips but try not to load up on fluids.

Tip 3: Increase the amount of natural light you absorb during the day

You’ve perhaps heard about your circadian rhythm, which refers to the pattern of physical, mental and behavioral changes that take place over a 24-hour cycle.

These natural changes are mostly tied to your exposure to light and dark over the course of a full day. If your sleeping pattern doesn’t match your natural circadian rhythm, it can impact levels of mood-altering hormones in your body – as well as damage the quality of your sleep.

The best way to return to your body’s natural circadian rhythm is to expose yourself to more sunlight throughout the day. If you spend a lot of time inside, this can make a huge difference to the quality of your sleep. Just two hours of sunlight is shown to improve the quality of your sleep by around 80% and increase the amount of sleep you get by two hours.

If you live in a place without much natural light or that’s subject to long, dark winters, no problem: You can buy artificial bright light devices or daylight bulbs that deliver a similar depression-fighting effect as natural sunlight.

Tip 4: Try to limit time on your devices in the evening

There’s been lots of research done on “blue light” – the type of light that’s emitted from smartphones, tablets and computer screens. There’s evidence to suggest that blue light tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime – and interfering with your circadian rhythm.

But it’s not just the light from your device that can mess with your brain. Certain apps keep your brain firmly “switched on” when you should be powering down for the night.

Social and other digital companies’ revenue generally comes from ads – and if people are going to engage with those ads, they need to be looking at the app. To keep you hooked, social media platforms use every psychological trick in the book – rewarding the brain’s “pleasure center” for staying active and continuing to scroll.

If you want to improve the amount and quality of sleep you get each night, your best move is to limit or eliminate screen time in the two-hour window before going to sleep.

Tip 5: Cut out the late caffeine

We know – sometimes it seems like caffeine makes the world go round, but when it comes to quality sleep, it’s public enemy number one.

Caffeine gives your energy and focus a huge bump, and it does so by stimulating your nervous system. In effect, caffeine triggers the same responses as anxiety – keeping you alert and ready for action. This might feel like what you need if depression’s dulling your senses, but the truth is that quality sleep will be far more beneficial.

It’s not just the late-night, after-dinner coffees that cause problems. Energy drinks, teas, sports drinks, sodas, and some chocolate and candy bars contain caffeine too – so read your labels carefully and switch to low/no caffeine options if you’re having trouble drifting off.

Tip 6: Try to limit daytime catnaps

It’s doesn’t affect everyone – but for some people, taking long naps during the day can damage the quality of your sleep when you eventually get into bed.

Again, this is a circadian rhythm issue. When your internal clock gets confused, it can have an impact on the naturally occurring hormones that get released over the course of a normal day. In turn, this can aggravate symptoms of depression.

Naps might feel like an obvious way to catch up on missed hours here and there, but if you’re having trouble sleeping soundly through the night, you might want to cut out those catnaps and see if that helps you sleep better when you turn in at night.

Tip 7: Create a sleep routine

Lazy weekends, days off or late starts can feel like a license to keep hitting snooze, but a lack of consistency can cause problems if depression has created sleep issues for you.

If you’re not sleeping as well as you’d like, you might want to try setting a definite bedtime/wake-up time and do your best to stick to it for a couple of weeks. It might feel counterintuitive to force yourself to get up if there’s no real need – but when your body gets into a familiar rhythm, you might find that when the sunlight filters through your window, you don’t want to pull the covers over your head – even on the weekend.

Tip 8: Consider supplementing to help your sleep

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that supplementing with melatonin can help switch your brain into relaxation mode and get you ready for a good night’s sleep.

Melatonin is a sleep hormone that your body produces naturally – but, as is the case with many vitamins and minerals, supplementing can help if you’re not getting optimal levels.

And melatonin isn’t the only option when it comes to sleep supplements. These others have also been shown to help with a good night’s sleep: Of course, it’s important to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before you add any supplements to your routine. Once you have their support, you might want to introduce one at a time to see which works the best for you.

  • Lavender: A natural, pleasant-smelling herb that helps calm and de-stress. Aim for an 80-160 mg dose containing 25-46% linalool before bed.
  • Valerian root: A natural plant root extract found in many herbal sleeping remedies. A dose of roughly 500 mg may help you fall asleep and get a better quality night’s rest.
  • L-theanine: An amino acid shown to help reduce anxiety levels, promoting relaxation. Taking between 100-200 mg may help you get a better, deeper sleep.
  • Magnesium: Seen by some as a wonder supplement, magnesium appears to activate parts of your nervous system that work to calm you and quiet feelings of anxiety. Only a very small dose is required and it’s often found as a part of multivitamins and sleep remedies.
  • Gingko biloba: Although scientific evidence is limited, many people swear by the benefits of this herb. Taking 250 mg one hour before you go to bed is said to encourage deeper sleep.

Tip 9: Reduce your alcohol consumption

People often think having a nightcap is the key to a good night’s sleep, but, whether or not you’re struggling with depression, science says otherwise.

Consuming alcohol before bed is shown to reduce natural melatonin production, which helps you maintain a consistent quality of sleep through the night. Alcohol’s also shown to increase the symptoms of various sleep disorders — from snoring and sleep apnea to disrupted sleep patterns.

What’s more, alcohol is a depressant – which means it slows down parts of the brain, bringing on the kind of feelings associated with depression. It might feel like a pick-me-up in the short term, but it’s actually anything but.

Tip 10: Optimize your sleep environment

Unless you’re a cat or that friend who can nod off anywhere, it’s worth doing everything you can to make your sleep environment the best it can be — which will go a long way toward warding off depression.

There are countless scientific studies to support the importance of having good “sleep hygiene” – from room temperature to amount of light to how much noise creeps in when you’re snoozing. These are other factors can make the difference between getting the length and depth of sleep you need — or not.

Start by evaluating the temperature in your bedroom and the kind of bedding you use. Setting the thermostat to around 70°F (20°C) works for most people, but some find it more comfortable to sleep in a cooler room with slightly more or warmer bedding, so experiment with different temps and blanket material and weights and see which sets you up for the best night’s rest.

Next, try to make your bedroom as dark as possible when the curtain or blinds are closed. Blackout shades can do wonders. And try to make it as quiet as possible. If light and noise are outside your control — because your roommate is a night owl or you have loud neighbours — consider wearing a sleep mask and/or earplugs. They can take a little getting used to, but they can go a long way toward making your environment what you need it to be.

Tip 11: Try to relax before bed

Sticking to a bedtime routine often helps people wrap up the day and prepare for a good night’s sleep. But be careful with what goes into that routine – remember tip no.4 and the dangers of scrolling through social media right before you turn out the light.

Instead, think about taking a warm shower, soaking in a bath (with soothing lavender oil), doing some breathing exercises, or just listening to some relaxing music. For some people, reading a few pages of a book, meditating or doing a crossword puzzle can help too.

The evening is often a wonderful time to journal – people with depression find it to be a helpful way of “unpacking” the day’s thoughts before bed. It can be especially useful to spend time journaling after a short meditation or other mindfulness practice.


20. Mindfulness for depression

Since we wrapped up our sleep tips with a focus on relaxation, now’s the perfect time to talk to you about how to relax.

That might sound strange, since most of us think we know how to relax, but what we consider to be relaxing and what’s actually relaxing our bodies are often two different things.

If you’re tangling with depression every day, relaxing might seem like the last thing you need – if your depression makes it hard to work up enough energy to do much of anything. In reality, though, relaxation for people with depression means getting some relief from the dark cloud that hovers over them, dampening their mood and siphoning off their energy.

This is where mindfulness is helpful.


21. Is mindfulness a religious thing?

People’s perception of mindfulness has changed a lot over the last decade, but there’s still a sense that a mindfulness- or meditation-based practice is linked to religion or spirituality.

And for some people, it is or can be – but for most people who embrace mindfulness, it’s more about hard science than spiritual belief. In essence, mindfulness is the practice of observing your thoughts and being aware of the world around you — without getting attached to those thoughts or sensations. Sounds simple, right? It is, in theory, but this simple premise can yield surprising benefits for anyone willing to try it — particularly if you’re dealing with depression.

If you are religious, you might want to look at tying together your beliefs and mindfulness – but for now, we’ll focus on the scientific side of these practices and how they can help ease the symptoms of depression.


22. So, what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a way of thinking – or rather, slowing down your thinking. Generally, it involves sitting quietly and trying to pay attention to your thoughts and the sensations your surroundings have on your body.

Mindfulness is referred to as a “practice,” in part because, especially when you’re just starting out, it can be difficult! The truth is, mindfulness isn’t something you ever fully master – even people who’ve been doing it for years are still engaged in the practice aspect of it, always trying to deepen and improve their practice. The point is, there’s no wrong or right when it comes to mindfulness – the most important qualities you can bring to it are commitment and consistency. Making it a regular part of your life is the key to unlocking its many benefits.

Let’s take a look at some mindfulness exercises – and then we’ll explain how they can help.


23. Mindfulness practices for depression

Mindful eating

Next time you eat, try to slow down and pay attention to the tastes, textures, look and feel of what you’re eating. For instance, think about the sensations you get when what you’re eating or drinking touches different parts of your tongue – or how liquids feel as they move around your mouth and through your body.

Mindful walking, moving or exercising

As you move, there are thousands of sensations rippling throughout your body – from the pressure on the soles of your feet to the air brushing your cheeks. Try if you can to notice these sensations – how your clothes rest on your skin, the warmth of the sun, the different smells around you, the sounds of nature or a passing car.

A mindful body scan

A body scan usually involves sitting still and moving your awareness through your body – from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Think about how each part of your body feels – the temperature, the tension, aches or tingles, the pressure, the relaxation and any other sensation as your mind takes inventory.

Mindful coloring or drawing

The goal here isn’t to create the perfect picture or piece of art – focus instead on what it feels like to press a pen or pencil against paper, to blend colors, to let your imagination wander. Play with different levels of pressure and notice the effect they have on your body.

Mindful meditation

Meditation usually requires that you sit still – ideally in a place where you won’t be disturbed for 10-15 minutes. Start by sitting upright in a comfortable position and turn your attention to your breathing, noticing the sounds and smells of the world around you. You might count your breaths – or just focus on the way your chest rises and falls as you breathe. You might also try a walking meditation, bringing the same level of awareness, ease and focus outside.


24. What’s the point of these practices?

At a glance, these mindfulness practices might not seem like a big deal – but when it comes to mindfulness, it’s more about what you’re not doing than what you are.

Mindfulness practices give you something to focus on that’s not the busy, at times chaotic thoughts filling your head. They’re intended to bring some quiet and calm into your life – but rather than expecting you to just empty your brain, they’re designed to shift your focus to something else.

We know: It’s hard to detach from the things that dominate our thoughts – and depression has a way of amplifying negative thinking, worries and fears. Thoughts will still enter your head when you’re being mindful, but your job is simply to notice them before refocusing on your breath and the practice you’re engaged in — and they’ll pass by you like clouds on a breezy day.

The more you practice, the easier this process of noticing and returning becomes.

Again, it’s important to remember that virtually no one has the ability to banish other thoughts completely – that’s not what mindfulness is about. It’s about relaxing, identifying thoughts as they pop up and then letting them go while you refocus on the here-and-now physical feelings you’re experiencing.


25. OK, but how does mindfulness help depression?

For anyone dealing with depression, mindfulness gives you an objective standpoint on what you’re feeling.

What does that mean?

Well, your thoughts are not you. Your thoughts are a product of all the experiences you’ve had through life – and many critical or unhelpful thoughts can be a product of depression. Similarly, you might feel unmotivated, dull and tired, but those feelings don’t define you; they’re the result of your depression grabbing the controls of your brain.

With a bit of practice, mindfulness helps you separate what’s you and what’s your busy thought process. In some respects, it helps you separate what’s actually happening from what’s happening in your imagination or internal monologue.

When it comes to depression, this is an incredibly useful skill to have. The World Health Organization compares depression to having a black dog that follows you around and can appear when you least expect it.

Being able to identify this “black dog” is step one of getting it under control. Mindfulness practices like the ones we’ve talked about will help you recognize it when it appears.

Again, meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight – but with a little time, patience and journaling, mindfulness practices can really help you gain some clarity to lift the fog of depression.


26. Exercising to help ward off depression

We’ve touched on exercise as a way to improve your sleep to combat the symptoms of depression – but in actual fact, it’s not just the sleep-boosting benefits of exercise that can help when you’re feeling low.

Sometimes, depression comes as a result of underactive hormones; if your body’s not naturally producing feel-good hormones, you’re going to have a tough time feeling good. That said, even if your current hormone levels are adequate and not contributing to your depression, getting an extra serving of these feel-good hormones through exercise will surely help.

So, what are some of the best ways to start exercising?

The good news is you don’t need to go big by signing up for a marathon or hiring a personal trainer.

We’ve put together a list of 11 ways to gradually introduce exercise and activity into your day-to-day routine. But, before we explore the what and how of incorporating exercise into your plan to manage depression, let’s look at why it works.


27. How does exercise help combat depression?

Believe it or not, exercise is shown to be as effective as antidepressants in people with mild to moderate symptoms of depression.

Scientists believe that the hormones that exercise helps to generate are a big part of why this is the case.

When you exercise – even gentle, low-impact movement – your body releases hormones called endorphins. If you could bottle the feelings endorphins give, it’d be a billion-dollar industry, but you can unlock the effect with a brisk walk, a gentle cycle, an easy jog, some dancing or a light gym session.

Endorphins are known as a “feel-good” hormone because they trigger positive feelings in the body, acting as a mood enhancer, painkiller and anti-inflammatory all at once. These are all important for tackling the mental and physical symptoms of depression.


28. How to get started (when you probably don’t want to)

We know the idea of taking on even 15 or 20 minutes of exercise probably sounds like a tall order – so start small.

Pick what seems like the most manageable exercise on the list below. For many of us, that’ll be walking. But if you don’t fancy going outside, then log onto YouTube and search for a gentle aerobic workout that takes 5 minutes or less.

Ideally, choosing an activity that appeals to you is a good idea. If pedaling your bike around the neighborhood sounds like it could be fun, then you’re more likely to stick with it over the long term.

So find something you enjoy, start small and then build up over time. The first exercise session tends to be the hardest one. From there, adding just a minute a day is major progress.


29. Find an exercise buddy

Being social can be a big help when trying to fight off symptoms of depression.

Do you know someone who might want to join you when you exercise? Remember – you’re starting small, so a social media post or email looking for a permanent “exercise partner” might be more than you’re ready for. But calling a friend to see if they’d like to meet for a walk could be just the right first step.

Besides the enjoyment of connecting with another person, this adds an extra layer of accountability. Let’s face it: It may be easy to let yourself down, but letting other people down is entirely different. If you know someone’s setting aside time to suit up and drive to the park to meet you for a stroll, you’re less likely to crawl into bed or stay glued to the TV.


30. What kind of exercise can help?

Like we’ve said, you needn’t be a competitive weight lifter or marathon runner to reap the benefits of exercise. Instead, pick one or several activities from the following:

  • Brisk walking
  • Cycling
  • Steady jogging
  • Low-impact aerobics
  • Dancing
  • Gardening
  • Golf (without a cart)
  • Energetic housework (vacuuming, mopping, sweeping, etc.)
  • Tennis
  • Swimming
  • Yoga

Any of these — for 20-30 minutes a day — will do the trick. And if you can commit to doing something every day, that’s ideal, but at a minimum, try to exercise 3-4 times a week. Do that, and you’ll find that exercise can have a huge impact on the symptoms of depression, your energy level and how you feel about yourself.


31. Aim for tiny, consistent changes

Throughout this guide, we’ve listed dozens of suggestions for ways to ease the symptoms of depression, but trying them all at once could actually backfire.

Why?

Well, it would be extremely difficult and impractical to overhaul your diet, kick-start an exercise regimen and re-engineer your sleep routine. That’s a big ask for anyone – let alone someone who’s dealing with depression.

So, what should you do?

Start with an easy win — just one.

Perhaps that’s ditching coffee after 5:00 p.m. Maybe it’s challenging yourself to go for a daily walk or journaling about your feelings at bedtime to gain insight into what’s going on in your head.


32. Don’t set yourself up for failure

If you’ve heard of someone who’s changed their life overnight, chances are they’re exaggerating — or trying to sell you something.

Miraculous transformations are not how 99.9% of the world’s population makes lasting change. For people in the real world, small, consistent steps are the way to tackle a long journey.

For anyone in the throes of depression, there’s a deep-seated sense of not being able to get things done – or a feeling of futility if you try and fail. Aiming for 20 different life changes is highly unlikely to work, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t blame the strategy: You’ll blame yourself and feel worse.

So, quite simply, don’t do it.


33. Change one thing. Then, change another.

Is there a section in this guide that strikes a chord with you, something that feels like it could be an entry point or the key to bigger changes?

For now, focus on that one thing.

Give yourself the challenge of changing that one thing. Even if you’re struggling to get out of bed each day, making one small change is possible – even if it takes a while.

When you’ve made that one change over the course of days, weeks or even months – you’ve proved to yourself that you can change your habits, no matter how bleak or dark the world otherwise feels. You’re not failing; you’re not moving backwards – you’re taking the first steps in a long journey toward gaining control over your life and feeling better.

When you’ve got one change under your belt, think about the next one you’d like to make. Even if you manage to tackle one habit every couple of months, that’s six potentially life-changing differences over the course of a year. That’s a monumental change that some people might never push themselves toward across their whole life.

No matter how dark you feel, there is hope, and you can change. Speed is irrelevant – just use this guide to jump-start your journey – knowing it means feeling better one step at a time.


34. Where to turn if you need help with depression

The suggestions included in this guide are intended to help people with mild to moderate depression. However, depression is a serious condition – and at its most severe, making lifestyle changes might not be enough.

If you’re certain there’s nothing on this list that can help you – or you feel like you’re struggling just to get through today, seeking professional medical help should be your next step.


35. Getting help quickly

Where you live may dictate what kind of support you have nearby. We’ve listed links to organizations and agencies in the United States, U.K., Canada and Australia. If you live in another country, you’ll be able to find local resources online by searching for:

“urgent help with depression near me”

If things feel out of control and you feel like you simply cannot go on, use a search engine to look for:

“urgent suicide help”

It might not feel like it right now, but there are people who understand what you’re going through – and they can help you to make tomorrow better than today.


36. Finding help that’s local to you

In the United States

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

SAMHSA National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

You can also click here for help finding support from mental health organizations from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

In the U.K.

Mind: The Mental Health Charity: 0300 123 3393

You can also click here for information from the National Health Service (NHS) on getting support from a mental health charity.

In Canada

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566

You can also click here to find mental health resources for Canadian children, youths and adults.

In Australia

Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14

You can also click here to find a Department of Health list of organizations throughout Australia that can help with mental health issues.



Why not try 'Mental Health'?