January is often described as the most depressing month of the year. It’s also the time of year when social coercion informs us that we must change our behaviors, break bad habits and effectively transform ourselves in a very short space of time! Sounds like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it?
Depression is a very subjective experience. In my role as a therapist, it’s just a blanket term to describe a myriad of feelings. My intention is not to minimize this experience as a mere label nor will I go into unnecessary lengths explaining what it is. If you’re reading this, it’s likely you already know what it feels like to be depressed. It can be a deeply overwhelming experience of sadness, hopelessness, despair, worthlessness, feeling alone, disconnected, numb and incredibly vulnerable. My clients’ often liken it to a dull relentless ache that is difficult to tolerate and even harder to understand.
What I would like to share with you are some helpful suggestions. Before doing that, I’ll explain a little about reactive depression and context. This tends to be relevant for the clients I work with.
The other aspect I look at outlines the impact of depression on our sense of self, with some helpful suggestions to counteract this.
When people come into my therapy room, they come usually with what can be described as reactive depression. This means that something has happened in their lives to trigger or cause it. This could be anything from a bereavement, a break up, a loss of a friendship or a trauma such as a car accident. Such events, can be a trigger for depressive feelings. However, that does not mean it is long lasting. In fact, it means it’s more likely you will recover and come out the other end.
Often, there is a context within which your feelings began. There might be a change in your life, that’s had a significant impact on you. There may be an area of your life that you are unhappy with such as career, friends, family, relationships or even hobbies. It might be that you are unhappy in all of these areas in your life and if that’s the case then it makes total sense that you feel depressed.
It’s important to not label oneself, but rather understand the context, triggers and contributing factors that can cause you to feel this way.
Impact on Sense of Self and Thinking Style
Our capacity for self criticism becomes vast and overpowering when we feel depressed. I liken it to the Dementors in Harry Potter who attempt to eliminate the life and soul out of their victims.
It can cause us to think in general terms for example, “I’ve never been good at anything”. It can also cause long-term beliefs to re-surface such as “I’m not smart, I’m unloveable” and it’s highly likely that these views are untrue, redundant and not compatible with who you are. In fact it’s likely they bear no truth in reality. However, when we experience depressive feelings, our thinking becomes distorted. Furthermore, there is a tendency to completely omit the positive and ignore it entirely. This is known as negativity bias.
Negative thoughts tend to be automatic, they are much more accessible than positive thoughts when we are depressed. We tend to listen to them more than we need too and this can make us feel worse
Re framing your thought response can be helpful; this is known as cognitive restructuring. A very basic way to challenge this is to become aware of the negative thought and ask yourself:
- What do I need right now in this moment?
- How am I responding to myself right now?
- Is there another way I could think about myself/this situation right now?
- If I were to have an opposite thought to my current thought, what would this be?
This is effectively teaching yourself a new habit and this takes practice.
You can find a self-help workbook on this here. It might be worth taking a look!
Neutralizing the Inner Critic
If you’re feeling depressed, your inner critic is likely to be very strong. Practicing self-kindness and self-compassion is a great way to quieten the inner critic. And yes, I’m aware that I have written about this in my last post and I sound like a broken record, but trust me, this is a very useful thing to practice! You can practice self-kindness on a practical level (see final paragraph) and an intrapersonal level.
Neutralizing the inner critic simply means not listening to that voice in your head telling you you’re not good enough. It means recognizing that it’s there but not giving it the power to control your thoughts and actions. Simply put it’s “noticing not engaging”.
Practicing intrapersonal self-compassion is similar to practicing positive self-talk. It means speaking kindly to ourselves. A useful place to start when you’re feeling overwhelmed is to get a sense of what you need right now in this moment by asking yourself what is going to be helpful for you right now? What will help me lift my head off the pillow today? What will help me get out of bed today? Then follow it up with an action.
Make a realistic list of things that can help and make sure to be specific. There might only be one thing on the list and that’s okay. It might simply be making yourself a cup of tea today, walking the dog tomorrow, listening to my favourite song today, going to my doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Get a sense of one thing you can do today and then build on that everyday.
Learning to self soothe is another important aspect of neutralizing the inner critic. If you managed to get out of bed and make yourself that cup of tea, then congratulate yourself. If you didn’t, don’t berate yourself. Remind yourself you are going through a difficult time and you are doing your best to get through it.
A further thing to practice is the self-compassion exercises that I mentioned in the previous post.
Some practical stuff…
These are more general ideas that may or not be helpful, depending on how good or bad you are feeling on a daily basis.
Give yourself something to look forward to once a day or week. This is anything that brings joy for you. For some people that’s having pizza and a glass of wine on a Friday evening or watching their favorite movie/TV show etc.
Do something that makes you laugh. Can you remember the last time you laughed? What did that feel like? You may not want to connect with friends, but this is something you can do by yourself by watching your favourite show, funny videos etc.
Don’t go outside in the dark evenings. Stay indoors and chill if this makes you feel less sad.
Get sunlight where possible. (I know that’s easier said than done, but it is starting to get brighter now!)
Connect with nature where possible.
Exercise if you’re able too.
Remember to take it one day at a time, one step at a time!
This is just a whistle stop tour of things that can be helpful when you’re feeling low. I suggest it as a supplementary guide to something like therapy (please see a previous post for a list of therapy providers in Dublin). If you’re symptoms have persisted for more than two to four months then it may be worth visiting your GP to consider the option of an antidepressant. If you feel you are at crisis point then please contact Pieta House or someone you feel you can trust.