Depression: Major Depression & Unipolar Varieties
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Self-Help Methods for Major Depression

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Thus far in this document, we've described therapies that are generally best prescribed and monitored by clinical professionals. However, it is also possible to take a self-help approach to the treatment of depression under certain circumstances. Self-help approaches emphasize what people can do for themselves rather than what professionals can offer.

Self-help approaches to treating depression are best thought of as adjuncts or additions to professionally prescribed treatments. Don't delay treating your depression professionally, or attempt to treat your depression solely on your own. Instead, seek a professional diagnosis at the earliest opportunity. Early diagnosis of depression is critical. The sooner your depression has been properly diagnosed and treated, the sooner you will have a good chance of recovering. Many people think that their low mood is temporary and will resolve by itself. While some depressions are temporary and relatively mild conditions, others really aren't. Delaying treatment in such cases allows symptoms to worsen and can cause serious problems to occur such as severely impaired health and occupational functioning, damage to your interpersonal relationships, and suicidal thoughts and behavior. A small but significant minority of people die from depression-caused suicides each year.

Talk with your health care professional about ways that you might incorporate self-help routines into your treatment regimen. The more that you take an active role in helping yourself recover, the better your chances of recovery are likely to be. Some possible ways you may incorporate self-help efforts into your therapy include:

Accept Your Diagnosis. Many people (particularly men) have difficulty accepting that they are depressed. They may feel ashamed or weak, or otherwise believe that if they just "push through" they can handle it themselves. This is not a terribly useful or productive approach for people to take as it tends to set them up to sabotage their therapies. Such patients may "forget" to take medications on schedule, or decline to tell anyone who cares for them what they are dealing with.

Do your best to not be this way. Instead, choose to accept your diagnosis and to take the medications and other therapies that have been prescribed for you regularly. Make it a point to talk with your doctor when you are not getting relief as expected or new symptoms develop so that your doctor has a chance to address these concerns. Tell the people that you are close to that you are clinically depressed and ask for their help in overcoming the problem. For instance, your friends can help you resist the urge to withdraw and isolate, and give you feedback as to how you appear to be doing both physically and emotionally. Allow the time necessary for medication therapies to pass before you decide that they aren't working. In general, accept your diagnosis and cooperate as best you can with the people who are trying to help you recover.

Stay Socially Engaged. The core symptoms of depression push people to stop participating with others socially and emotionally and motivate them to isolate. It is important to work to resist these urges to isolate as best you can. Let your family, friends and associates help you. Accept invitations to social events and maintain your typical social schedule as best you can even if you are not enjoying your participation as much as you used to. Staying socially engaged provides you with social support, offers you a distraction from the repetitive negative ruminations you are otherwise going to be prone to experiencing, may offer some pleasure even if that feeling is fleeting for a while, and can provide you with opportunities for reality testing (so that you don't take your depressive ideas about how worthless you are too seriously).

Prioritize. Depression is frequently an overwhelming situation. At the same time that you are depressed and suffering, life demands do not stop. One way to reduce the amount of stress you experience is to prioritize the demands you are facing and then to attend to only the most pressing tasks. Enlist the help of other family members or friends to get the rest of your responsibilities done, or simply let them ride for a while. For instance, if you normally cook the evening meal for your family after returning home from a full day's work, perhaps you can figure out an easier way to get dinner on the table for a while (working to support the family is a higher priority than making sure that every meal the family eats is nicely balanced and well-presented).

Spend Time With Pets. Many depressed people find that it is comforting to spend time with their pets. Pets offer unconditional love and do not make complicated demands on depressed people. They are often great listeners (even though they don't really understand what you are saying). Feeding pets is a loving act. Taking pets for a walk (if that is appropriate) can become a regular exercise routine with multiple benefits for both pet and owner.

Express Yourself. Talk about what is bothering you with a therapist or with friends or family members. If you don't feel comfortable talking, then keep a journal and vent through writing. Expressive writing (such as in a journal) for 15 to 20 minutes three or four days in a row helps you get some perspective on what is bothering you. Writing about what you are feeling can also help decrease the pressure you may be feeling in the moment. Talking and journaling about what bothers you are both known to help raise mood.

Exercise. As mentioned above, regular vigorous physical exercise is thought to have an antidepressant effect. Exercise offers many other benefits as well, including general improvements to your health and an opportunity to socialize (e.g., in a gym or with teammates), or to be alone (e.g., on a bike or solitary hike). Exercise is also a great way to distract yourself from your thoughts as the need to attend to the physical demands of what you are doing tend to drive out self-critical thinking (at least for a little while). Check with your doctor before starting a new physical exercise program just to make sure your body is up to handling it.

Attend To Your Basic Needs. How well you take care of yourself has an impact on how you feel. Your sleep, eating, drug and alcohol, exercise, social and spiritual habits all influence your mood and general health. Choosing to make positive improvements in your lifestyle can end up helping you improve your mood. Please refer to our other topic centers concerning Nutrition, Exercise, Smoking, Weight Loss, Anger Management, and Emotional Resilience for further information.

Educate Yourself. Depression is a type of illness, and illnesses tend to make people feel out of control. One way to regain a sense of control is to educate yourself about your illness. You can do this by talking with your doctors and therapists, by listening to what other people who have had depression have to say about it, and by reading as much as you can. The more you know about what depression is and how it may be treated, the better chance you have of figuring out the combination of treatments and techniques that will help you feel better. There are literally thousands of self-help books out there for depression. Some of them are even worth reading. We provide a list of such books we consider worthwhile at the end of this document.