If you’re someone who struggles with depression that comes and goes, you’ve likely become familiar with the signs that it’s “coming on.” It’s a scary feeling. It can feel like, well, now this thing is going to take over my life and I don’t know for how long and I don’t know how bad it’s going to be this time. Unlike with a cold or flu, we can’t say for certain, “Symptoms will last for three to seven days.” It’s a very helpless feeling that can seem impossible to derail once it’s already there.
As a psychologist who specializes in major depression, Dr. Margaret Seide, MS, MD, is well versed in what men and women should do when they feel depression coming on. Much of her advice actually pertained to what not to do, as we often have impulses to do things we think will help, but really only do more harm. Here’s what she recommends you do (and not do) when you feel depression coming on.
Understanding the nature of depression
“Depression is in a category of illnesses that we call “relapsing and remitting,” Dr. Seide explained. “For most people it is episodic. If they’ve had one episode or two, they will likely have more.”
This, too, will pass
“A lot of people spend their life coming in and out of episodes,” Dr. Seide continued to explain. Perhaps for some, this is a bleak reality. But rather than fretting the fact that depression can return (a really rather expected part of the human condition), perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that it will also go away again. That truth might just calm us down, and discourage us from reacting in some of the damaging ways Dr. Seide outlined, which we’ll go over next.
Don’t reach for substances
“Don’t reach for things that can instantly self-soothe,” Dr. Seide instructed. Some may be thinking, well what’s wrong with a little wine when I’m down? The wine isn’t so much the problem as when you have it is. “Alcohol is tofu. It really depends what you’re adding it to,” Dr. Seide explained. Having it when you’re happy, with friends, is very different than having it when you’re slipping into a dark place.
Look at the root of the impulse
Dr. Seide mentioned more aggressive substances one might turn to when they feel depression coming on. Whether or not one should turn to those at any time isn’t something we’ll cover here, but a point Dr. Seide emphasized about any instant self-soothing substance we turn to is this: don’t do it if you’re approaching it from a place of, “ I cannot tolerate this moment and so I need an escape.”
Avoid radical decisions
A depressive episode is not the time to make irrevocable, radical life decisions, according to Dr. Seide. That includes decisions like, quitting your job, ending a relationship, or telling someone potentially hurtful things you really feel about them. Those types of decisions should be made during times of stability.
Management is key
“Like with any condition, like diabetes, it’s important to find balance in your lifestyle,” Dr. Seide informed. She advocates regular exercise to manage depressive episodes, as vigorous exercise “pulls the mind away from the moment in a healthy way.” Time in nature can have a similar effect, she noted.
Time with friends
Dr. Seide suggested spending time with friends to manage depression. Naturally, during this pandemic, that is not always an option, however, don’t forget the power of video chatting. Simply having that set time when you’ve agreed to speak to friends, and seeing their faces, can be pretty impactful. There are social distancing activities you can try during this difficult time, too.
The power of pets
Dr. Seide is also a strong believer in the power of pets to lift our spirits. “Pets are very good for when we can’t see a friend because they’re busy or during these social distancing times. Dopamine is released when we spend time with a pet.”
When to seek help
We went over when to seek professional help in more depth in another piece with Dr. Siede, but she does say that, if the methods listed here don’t prove to be helpful, it can be a good time to speak to a professional. She also strongly encourages individuals not to wait until things are bad to find a therapist for the first time.
Keep a relationship going
Dr. Seide said it can be beneficial to have a therapist with whom you establish a relationship, even when you’re feeling fine. You don’t need to see the therapist every week, she pointed out. Instead, you can just touch base a few times a year so that when you’re feeling depressed, you aren’t faced with the overwhelming task of finding a new therapist and telling that therapist your entire backstory.