Usually in our lives, we want to do fun and interesting things and feel motivated to do so. When the time is right and we feel like it, we jump in and engage in all sorts of activities. We usually choose those activities that we have enjoyed in the past or those activities others close to us enjoy. Sometimes, we stretch to try new things that we think we might enjoy and sometimes those activities get added to our repertoire.
When we have depression, however, our interest in our usual activities dims and we certainly don’t feel like trying new things. With depression, most activities seem way too intense, difficult or just uninteresting. It is such an effort to meet the minimal demands of work and family that exerting oneself any further seems ridiculous if not impossible.
Unfortunately, the more we avoid fun or social activities, the more depressed and anxious we feel and the less we feel like doing them. If we wait until we feel like doing something, the wait may be very long indeed since someone suffering from depression rarely, if ever, feels like engaging in activities. One of the hardest parts of recovering from depression is making yourself do things you don’t really want to do. It is, however, the most reliable way to start feeling better.
One of the most effective treatments for depression is called behavioral activation. Because thoughts, feelings and actions all affect each other, engaging in positive and healthy behaviors helps us feel better and think more positively. While practicing thinking more positively can also affect feelings and behavior, it is easier and perhaps more effective to begin with actions.
The first actions to take may be very simple. Just getting out of bed and getting dressed on a weekend day is significant for most depressed people. Completing a household job, like taking out the garbage or sorting through the day’s mail, can help -- if we focus on what got done rather than what is left to do. Going out to run an errand that could have been put off, pulling weeds for five minutes in the yard or cooking a simple meal may not seem enjoyable but those actions can all serve to get us going again and feeling a little better. Going to see a movie in a theatre is a good choice because it involves getting out of the house and offers the possibility of focusing attention on something outside oneself for a while. Similarly, talking with a loved one about something other than how you’re feeling can help.
Exercise is as effective as medication in reversing depression and anxiety. Going for a ten- minute walk, outside or on the treadmill, might be a good step. Let yourself stop after the ten minutes if you want – or keep going if you want, but not for too long. You don’t want to overdo it and then avoid going again because it seems like too much effort. Allow yourself to stop after you meet your goal. And then do it again tomorrow. Exercise is most effective for those who are the most depressed and inactive and it doesn’t take much to make a difference.
With all of these activities, the improvements will be modest at first. You will not suddenly feel completely well. The key is to keep making yourself do more, even when you don’t feel like it and then to notice even minimal improvements in how you feel. Working with a therapist to make more complex goals, ones that reflect your values in life, may also help. Once you start, it becomes easier (not easy but somewhat better) to keep getting more active. If you allow yourself to do things even though you don’t feel like it, eventually you will begin to enjoy what you’re doing again.
Submitted by Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist