Depression has the unfortunate capacity to make us feel awful about everything, particularly the fact that we have depression and the ways in which we're trying to cope with it. According to psychology, these "negative thought patterns" are the things that maintain and sustain depression's powerful force in the brain: cycles of deep self-criticism and misery that basically hold your emotional responses in a grip like a vice. When you're in the midst of a particularly severe depressive episode, it can be difficult to feel as if anything you do is a good idea, has worth, or is correctly motivated. If you're in that confusing and terrifying state, this list is here to help.
As a sufferer of major depression myself, I understand that self-forgiveness and self-care are extraordinarily difficult things, and that simply being granted permission to do certain things by someone on the Internet doesn't mean your brain will allow you to do them without punishing you. Regardless, I officially give you permission to do these nine things, all of which will help or support you in some way while you're suffering through your illness.
Add this list to the poisonous depressive voices in your head, but don't beat yourself up if you just can't do them. Depressive thought patterns are extremely powerful for a reason. Always, always forgive yourself.
1. Only Pushing Yourself Very Gently
A severe depressive episode will often necessitate a shift in plans, and in what you can legitimately expect from yourself. That's a good thing. Do not feel bad for lowering the bar significantly when you feel absolutely terrible; what Students Against Depression calls "healthier daily routines," with a little more sleep and better food, may be the only thing that you can aim for, and that's perfectly fine. Significant emotional distress likely means that you're less capable than you otherwise would be, and it's OK to adjust what you push yourself to do. Push yourself just to get out of bed and have a shower. Maybe to eat a good meal. Maybe to call a friend, or to look at a good book for five minutes. Baby steps are still steps.
2. Revealing It To Friends And Your Workplace
I am a very big proponent of emotional honesty when it comes to mental illness and the people around you. Depression is often tangled in serious self-hatred and guilt around the fact that you have depression; it creates a negative feedback loop of criticism, where you're depressed about feeling depressed. And this can seriously impact on your decisions to tell others, or "burden" them with your genuine medical difficulty. It's OK to burden them. In fact, if these people love and seek to understand you, it may be vital to your support network. The Help Guide's depression self-care guide makes the explicit point that "reaching out is not a sign of weakness," and that people will likely be flattered that you're seeking their help. Telling your workplace is tricky, and I've written about how to do it intelligently, but it's not something to shy away from on principle.
3. Taking Time Out Of Social Events
This is radically different from suggesting that you isolate yourself totally. That can be a very big temptation for those with depression: it's too much of an effort, you feel like a completely different creature to the people who can actually feel any emotion except deadening dread and misery, and you're only going to make them feel bad. Try very hard to resist the urge to be a hermit: WebMD highlights social isolation as one of the key decisions that can actually make depressive episodes worse. It is, however, OK to pace yourself. Remain connected, but note your limits. See people who are supportive and know how to respond to you; go to events that will allow you to slip out after a certain period if you're not feeling OK enough to continue dealing.
4. Indulging Pleasures
Self-care, which the therapy organization Good Therapy defines as "the actions that an individual might take in order to reach optimal physical and mental health... [or] one's ability to take care of the activities of daily living," is one of the most-quoted parts of therapy for people in depressive episodes. (A friend of mine has "Be Gentle" written on a band around her wrist as a reminder.) Gentleness towards oneself can take many forms, but for most depressives it is something indulgent, or pleasurable, that means taking care of the body or the mind: a relaxing bath, delicious food, a long walk, music, and so on. This is not the time to feel guilt about self-pleasure; the notion that you, as a person, deserve pleasure can be a radical concept during a depressive episode, and experiencing anything of the kind can lift the veil slightly.
5. Not Tolerating Misconceptions Or Condescending Advice
People have stupid ideas about depression. We all know this. We've all heard them. And you are absolutely entitled, in the midst of a serious depressive episode, to put aside all societal norms and your conventional politeness, and refuse to tolerate any nonsense. You aren't overreacting or being "sensitive;" if somebody denigrates your condition, tells you to "snap out of it," or is gently bewildered that you're not sad all the time, it's OK to react and explain.
Equally, it's OK not to. You don't have to rise to the argumentative challenge if you're not feeling up to it; it doesn't mean you're "failing" as a depressive person. We all take on the activism we can bear at the time.
6. Weeping In Front Of Supportive People Without Guilt
If you're deeply lucky, there will be people in your life who really do understand and appreciate the depths of your depressive points, and at least try to respond with care and love. It's OK to reach out to those people. It's actually deeply sensible. Even if unburdening yourself doesn't relieve the sensations of misery or deep emptiness, the consciousness of a supportive being who continues to love and appreciate you in this despair is a powerful thing. If you don't have a close friend to discuss this with, reach out to professionals, like the Depression Alliance or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
7. Doing Silly Things That Might Provide Some Relief
Break out the movies you enjoyed as a child. Cuddle a toy. There is, in depression, no earthly need to feel shame about how silly your requirements are for self-care. Your emotional need for sustenance and joy is absolutely more of a priority than caring about what people might think.
As Psychology Today explored in 2009, the depressed brain is much less capable than the non-depressed brain of sustaining pleasurable emotional responses, which makes it crucial to help yourself along in any way you can. Being gentle to yourself involves indulging your own impulses towards joy without judgement. (A note: I don't include alcohol or drugs in the category of "silly things". They're serious things for depressives, with serious consequences.)
8. Protecting Yourself From The Non-Essential Emotional Needs Of Others
This is a tricky one, but it remains true: in depression, your emotional resources are severely depleted, and taking care of yourself is supremely difficult, let alone taking care of others. You need to manage those resources carefully, to "set good emotional boundaries" with those around you, in the words of the mental health organization Healthy Place. And if that means not listening for hours to a friend who's got emotional drama and needs a supportive ear, that's OK. You are allowed to isolate yourself from potentially draining relationships if they offer nothing in return for you right now.
9. Congratulating Yourself For Small Victories
You got out of bed! High five! You did your work for the day! How wonderful! You left the house! Wow! And so on. Celebrating your smallest achievements may seem ridiculous, but in the context of a depressive episode, they're worthy of medals. It's a part and parcel of adjusted expectations; reward yourself for doing the miniature acts of care and love that you're capable of. Psych Central calls this "celebrating the little accomplishments that our illnesses try to take from us." Appreciate the tiny progress you make, even if it's one step forward and many back. Give yourself gold stars; you deserve it, I promise.
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