Major depression may be the result of an imbalance or deficiency in certain brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). However, you are not wholly at the mercy of your body chemistry. “Mind over matter” can help you get through moments when you feel like you are crippled by your depression.
When major depression looms, there are practical exercises you can do to take back control of your thoughts and emotions.
#1: Drink a glass of water
“Hangry” is a real thing. Our moods are heavily impacted by our physiological state. Feeling blue is no exception. Feelings of depression are exacerbated when our bodies are depleted, and one necessity we are often depleted of is water.
By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. A change in mood or inability to shift your current mood may be an earlier, subtler indicator that your body needs water.
This coping strategy may be especially poignant for those who experience depression with intense crying spells. Even though you may not be losing significant amounts of water as tears, those tears are flushing out other chemicals, like cortisol, and any time your body is detoxifying, it needs even more water.
Often what makes depression so debilitating is our inability to stop the cycle of thoughts that feed our feelings of sadness, loneliness and despair. So, a lot of the work of battling depression is the work of getting out of our own heads. One effective way to do that is to focus on something else. That “something else” could be anything, but one go-to is your breath.
For two sustained minutes (set a timer), see if you can keep your focus on your breath. Observe:
- How your breath feels entering in your nostrils and filling your lungs
- How your chest and stomach expand as you inhale more deeply
- How your breath sounds as you slowly release air through your nose and/or mouth
- How your breath feels as it leaves through your nose
- The rhythm of your breath—the speed of each breath cycle
- Where you have tension in your body
- If there are any parts of taking a slow, deep inhale and full exhale that are uncomfortable (and why)
Even for trained meditators, two full minutes is a long time to focus, so do not be alarmed or disappointed when your thoughts wander. Simply observe the thoughts that took your focus away from your breath and go back to paying attention to the act of breathing.
At the end of two minutes, you may not feel notably different. However, as you continue to practice getting out of your head by paying attention to your breath (or something else), you give yourself respite from the thoughts that lock you into a dark and lonely world. You also give yourself the opportunity to see that you are bigger than your thoughts and feelings. This space alone may be what you need to inspire hope of recovery from major depression.
#3: Go outside
Research shows that time spent in nature alone improves mood and relieves depression. “Time spent in nature” does not require a long hike or solitude. You can connect with the earth almost anywhere.
If you have a backyard, take off your shoes and feel the earth beneath them.
If you have a park nearby, bask in the sunshine (or shade of a tree, if you prefer).
If you are at work and not at liberty to take a break, at least give yourself a view of nature. Find a window and take a few moments to gaze outside. If your view is limited to “the concrete jungle,” focus on even the smallest elements of nature—e.g., grass growing through the cracks in the sidewalk, the chirping of birds on the electric wire or the blue of the sky in contrast to the buildings that populate the skyline.
#4: Practice gratitude
The human brain has a negativity bias—we naturally focus on what’s wrong or what’s lacking. That focus does nothing to improve mood or combat major depression. But, you can choose your focus. Take a few moments to focus on what is going right, well (or at least better) in your life. Small acknowledgements in gratitude can have a big effect, so be willing to give credit for even the smallest blessings, like you have the physical capabilities to independently brush your teeth and pour your own coffee.
#5: Buddy up
It takes work to stop the cycle of negative thoughts that spin feelings of depression out of control. As the saying goes, “many hands make light work.” In other words, you don’t have to do the work alone.
Perhaps one of the worst things to do when batting a crippling episode of depression is to be a hermit. Being alone with your thoughts is likely to just perpetuate how miserable you feel. So, seek the company of a friend.
Having companionship, even for a few minutes, may be the diversion you need to help you choose a new focus beyond your depression. You could also ask your pal to do some of the other depression-combatting exercises with you, like make a list of things you’re both grateful for or go outside for a stroll together.
These tips may make it sound like it’s easy to shift your mood when you’re in the throes of major depression. We know it’s not. If you feel like your depression is running your life, you may need the help of a counselor to help you move toward improved mental and emotional health. The clinical team at Duke City Recovery Toolbox provides a wide range of resources to ensure whole-person recovery from substance abuse and the depression that often accompanies the disease. Contact us to learn more.