I had been working with Marty* and his depression for about eight sessions—enough time for me to know some of his patterns, quirks, and more. One session, I noticed myself feeling distracted, disconnected, signalling that perhaps there was something in the ‘here-and-now’ moment between us that could be valuable to dissect.
“Marty,” I interrupted, “How are you feeling right now? In this very moment?”
He paused and reflected on what seemed like an abrupt question. “I feel like I'm rambling,” he said. “And I’m feeling a bit annoyed at myself that I'm talking about my father again. I wish I spent more time talking about myself.”
I echoed Marty’s feelings and we discussed how ruminating over past relationships was one habit that was maintaining the depression. And while mental health symptoms might show up differently on everyone, there are certain habits that are common among people who share diagnoses. In today’s post, I’ll discuss common habits that I see among those who struggle with depression—along with helpful opposite actions to help cope.
1. Ruminating about the past.
If people with depression spent as much time thinking about the present as they do their past, I suspect that their mood would drastically change for the better. Indeed, as was the case with Marty, many people with depression ruminate over hardships they've faced, relationships that didn’t go well, and other trials and tribulations in their lives.
While a certain degree of reflection can be helpful, there comes a point where it is no longer productive. In fact, continually reminding ourselves of moments that were difficult can actually encourage negative self-talk that makes it more likely for us to make the same mistakes again (which I discuss in another blog post). Additionally, people with depression usually focus on the negative events themselves rather than the skills they used to cope with it at the time or change their situation for the better.
ANTIDOTE: A great way to counteract rumination about the past is to ask yourself, “Now what?” You might not be able to change the past, but you can change what you do in the present moment to make life just a bit more tolerable. If you find yourself ruminating, take this as a sign that you need to ground yourself in the present moment, distract yourself with another activity, and/or engage in problem-solving. (For more tips on how to stop ruminating, check out my other blog post.)
2. Lack of structure.
There’s an expression that says “time is a devil’s playground” and it applies particularly well to those with depression. When we have too much unstructured time on our hands, it can increase the likelihood of over-analyzing and reflecting on how depression affects us in general.
Many people with depression will say that they don’t have the motivation to engage in activities or hobbies, which is understandable given the nature of the disorder. That said, I feel that many of us falsely believe that motivation has to come first in order for us to be productive or effective. In many instances, motivation actually comes after we have done a task or activity because we remind ourselves of our capabilities, desires, and more.
ANTIDOTE: The best way to change the unhelpful habit of wasting long periods of time is to engage in Activity Scheduling. This is when you make a very detailed schedule for your day and include activities that help you feel a sense of mastery and pleasure. Mastery-related activities are those that give you a sense of accomplishment such as making your bed, cleaning a room, or knocking something off your to-do list. Pleasure-related activities are those that make you feel good like colouring or having a bath.
3. Lack of hobbies.
Many people with depression have unfortunately become disconnected from things they once enjoyed. Reconnecting with hobbies not only helps us feel more connected to our authentic selves, it break the vicious cycle of wasting time and then feeling bad that we wasted time in the first place.
ANTIDOTE: Make a list of hobbies that you once enjoyed and introduce one of them into your daily routine again, even if it’s just for half an hour. Not sure where to start? Check out this list for some great ideas!
4. Negative self-talk.
I’ve noticed that people with depression are particularly hard on themselves, which shows up as relentless negative self-talk. The trouble is, when you're depressed, being told to "think happy thoughts" simply isn't effective as it often feels completely disingenuous and therefore unbelievable.
ANTIDOTE: I like using a strategy here called the Thought Ladder technique. This involves looking at one of your core beliefs and tweaking it ever so slightly so that over time, your thoughts start to change. So, if you have the thought that you're unlovable, a tiny tweak to that thought might be, "I'm willing to believe that parts of me are likeable." This still isn’t the most positive of thoughts, but it’s at least softer and more nuanced than constantly telling yourself you’re unlovable. Then, each day you might reflect on the moments that showed that parts of you are, indeed, likeable, like when that person in the elevator smiled at you or when a co-worker said they liked one of your ideas.
5. Lack of accountability.
Although people with depression are often very hard on themselves, they’re simultaneously very likely to blame external circumstances, people, or events for their problems rather than taking accountability. Phrases like, “I have to do this,” “they made me do that,” and “I should be doing this” are staples in the depressed person’s vocabulary. What all of these phrases have in common is a lack of choice, autonomy, and personal accountability. I mean, of course you’re going to feel depressed if you feel like everything you do is because someone made you do it.
ANTIDOTE: There’s an important shift in language that needs to happen here. Rather than saying, “I have to go to work,” you might try saying, “I choose to go to work because I want an income.” Remind yourself of the things you can control and divorce yourself from the idea that your moods are the product of other people’s choices, feelings, and behaviours.
6. Dismissal of positive experiences.
People with depression are statistically more likely to over-emphasize negative events and dwell on them longer while dismissing anything positive. For example, they might spend hours telling themselves how “stupid” they are after making a minor mistake in a meeting while saying that the positive feedback they received must have “only been because the boss was in a good mood.” Overemphasizing the negative, discounting the positive.
ANTIDOTE: A great technique I use here is something called “Savouring,” which involves reminding yourself of good experiences throughout the day. There are many ways to do this, but I do this by taking pictures of every remotely positive thing in my day and looking at them before bed. If I enjoyed my morning cup of tea, I’ll take a photo of it. If my cat made me laugh, I’ll take a picture of him in the moment. Do I have a lot of weird photos on my phone when I do this? Yes. But does it improve my mood? Also yes.
7. Disconnect from feelings.
Whether it’s due to former traumas or rules about feelings growing up, many people with depression struggle to articulate how they are feeling. And if they do know how they’re feeling, they might experience “follow-up feelings” of shame, embarrassment, or guilt for having those emotions in the first place, which only adds salt to the wounds.
ANTIDOTE: When someone has a hard time identifying their emotions, I often bring in somatic psychotherapy exercises, which involve incorporating the body and understanding what it is telling us. There are also resources like the Feelings Wheel that can help people hone in on what’s happening from them. Additionally, I might include mindfulness exercises that involve observing our emotions and experiences from a distance with compassionate curiosity rather than judging ourselves so harshly.
The Bottom Line
Depression can be an extremely debilitating mental illness. I certainly didn’t write this post to downplay how difficult or exhausting it can be to deal with; I admire anyone who has had to navigate the disorder. At the same time, I want to highlight the ways that our habits can affect our mood. The good news is that recovery rates for depression are very high when the right supports and strategies are in place. Introducing the above habits can certainly assist in making life even just a little bit more bearable.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and could use some extra support, please feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have any tips on how you improve a depressed mood even just a little bit? Share in the comments below!