What is depression?
Depression is a common mood disorder characterised by long-term or excessive sadness, often without a clear source. While sadness as a result of a negative life event can be extremely painful – and can in some cases trigger depression – depression itself tends to be separate from or snowball beyond the usual ups and downs of life.
Alongside feelings of sadness, depression can cause a loss of interest in life and in the things you once enjoyed so much. This feeling of disinterest, especially in things that you would usually be passionate about, can be extremely disconcerting, and make you feel disconnected from yourself.
Add to the mix an ongoing global pandemic, characterised by fear and uncertainty with no discernible end in sight, and living with depression in the present day is hard graft.
All of these factors mean depression can be extremely confusing and harder to address than other health conditions – but, importantly, there are ways to not only cope but potentially improve your quality of life, all while living with depression.
What causes depression?
The field of psychology and asked many questions and answered few unequivocally so far; we don’t really know what causes great swathes of the human population to become depressed at different stages in their lives.
Causes can include a combination of major life changes, social stressors like abuse or trauma, unhealthy relationships, other illnesses and some biological and genetic factors, but the truth is it’s often hard to single out one reason.
For that reason, people living with depression sometimes feel a burden of guilt, as though they should be happier or more grateful for their life. That is of course false, because depression is a health problem like any other. Just like any health condition, depression is very common, affects all types of people, and can be helped with strategies for better self-care and good professional support.
Another common myth about depression is that it’s a sign of weakness, or evidence of a deficiency in the person living with it. That is again categorically untrue – it is a clinically recognised medical condition, the same as any other, and one of the most common afflictions in the world.
How do you know if you have depression?
You may have depression if you have been feeling uncharacteristically sad for a long period of time, or if the source of that sadness isn’t clear. Or, you may feel less sad than simply uninspired by life, or you may be more irritable than usual. Doing the normal things that are part of daily life – getting out of bed, getting dressed, showering – may be harder than usual or feel nearly impossible, or you may be struggling to socialise with others and feel like you have little to say.
There are a number of physical symptoms of depression too, which can include insomnia or oversleeping, feeling constantly tired, a change in appetite or weight, and a ‘foggy mind’ or inability to concentrate.
Evidence shows that the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a surge in mental health conditions, with mood disorders in Australia effectively doubling since before the pandemic. So, if you’re feeling depressed or low right now, you’re certainly not alone.
Can you overcome depression?
The good news is that depression, like many other clinical diagnoses, can be overcome – whilst a vast number of us struggle with depression, most people survive and heal from it.
Some people with depression are fortunate, and their depression lifts naturally after a time, but for many people overcoming it requires help from supportive healthcare specialists.
Psycho-therapy and counselling are proven techniques for overcoming depression, and have more rigorous evidence than just medication. Sometimes, a combination of the two can be most effective, but it depends on the person and their circumstances.
What’s more, research suggests that many who work through depression and recover from it don’t just stop feeling depressed, but can in fact bounce back to be more happy and content with their life than before.
If you’re depressed, it’s important that you speak to your doctor about the way you’re feeling and discuss your options. They will likely recommend therapy as a first-line response.
Here is our top tips for dealing with depression
Depression can ebb and flow along a spectrum of intensity. At different times, things may feel easier or harder to do. Sometimes depression can feel completely overwhelming and even just getting out of bed seems like an impossible task – in that case, setting ourselves small achievable goals can be a healthy way to kick-start our motivation and improve our wellbeing. At other times, we might find we have more energy to focus on our goals at home and work – such is the nature of ups and downs characteristic of depression.
There are a number of ancillary tips and tricks you can use in your own life to help you manage the symptoms of your depression. Some of these tips might even make things easier over time, although it’s important you don’t try to tackle the disorder on your own.
1. Share your feelings with others
Depression can feel extremely isolating, as though you’re alone in the world and no one else could possibly understand. But the truth is that you will have a network of people around who will not only care, but potentially even understand.
One in every 16 Australians is living with depression, and around half of all Australians will have a mental health condition in their lifetime, so the chances are someone you know will be able to relate to your experience and make you feel less alone. So, tell somebody how you feel, and you will start to build a better support network for yourself.
Finding the language to talk about depression can be difficult – some mental health specialists have dedicated their lives to this very subject – but there are some strategies you can use to guide how you talk about depression to others and to yourself
- Swap out judgemental or negative language about yourself – this can be harmful to your mental wellbeing and in fact worsen the depression in a psyche of self-doubt
- Instead, try to imagine you were hearing these feelings from a friend, and envision how you would respond. Ask yourself:
You will find that you are often more compassionate and supportive when it comes to the people around you than yourself, but you are just as deserving of that compassion as anyone else, so practice speaking to yourself in that same way.
2. Mindfulness and thought-techniques
The truth is that you cannot fully control your mind – if you could, depression wouldn’t be a problem. However, there are a number of evidence-based techniques that can help you wrest back a degree of control over your mental state, or at least quieten your mind.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that helps you focus less on negative thoughts, but this needs to be done by a qualified practitioner. There are other techniques you can try at home, including mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness can be done as a standalone practice, or incorporated into a physical practice like yoga or tai chi. In fact, with mindfulness, the world is really your oyster – you can find the right practice for you. Some alternatives include mindful gardening, or even practicing mindfulness in nature – for example while on a walk in the park or the forest.
You can also try a guided mindfulness technique, like this one.
The data is there to support its use – studies have shown that mindfulness can alleviate the symptoms of depression or even prevent full-blown clinical depression from developing.
Alongside mindfulness, self-care has become another celebrity buzzword, bouncing around the ether until it appears to lose all meaning. But self-care is a genuinely important component of maintaining your mental health, and the implications of self-care – self-love, self-worth, self-esteem – can help to alleviate depression symptoms as well.
Self-care is really as simple as finding what makes you a. feel good and b. feel healthy, and making it into a regular practice. It might be running a bath, putting on a face mask, going for a run, playing the guitar, whatever it is that gets the serotonin in your brain going and makes you feel happy and content.
An important part of self-care is the way that it can foster a greater sense of self-love. Try to view the inner child in yourself, and imagine the ways that you would want to be taken care of if you were that child again. Now, as a grown adult, those are things you can do for yourself, and in doing them you can help to rebuild that most important of relationships – the one between you and you.
In fact, there are a number of guided self-compassion exercises you can try.
4. Take care of your physical health
Often the link between physical and mental health is under-appreciated or simply ignored, but the truth is that there is a clear and direct relationship between the two.
Poor physical health can impede brain function, and make mental health disorders more likely. Ironically, mental health disorders can erode your motivation to take care of your physical health, which can make the problem snowball.
So, try as hard as you can to stay on top of exercising and eating well, ensuring the length and quality of your sleep, detoxing from alcohol or other drugs, and following up any physical health issues you might have noticed with your doctor.
5. Sleeping well
It’s already been mentioned but it’s worth mentioning again, because sleep is a crucial part of mental wellbeing. Many of us, as a consequence of the high stress load of modern lives and the ubiquity of electronic screens with harsh light that keeps your brain active, struggle to wind down to sleep.
The anxieties and problems brought about by the pandemic will likely be contributing to the problem, making it harder and harder to fall asleep and then stay asleep, too. But there are a few tricks and tools you can use to help you sleep.
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, to get your body into a natural rhythm that is intuitive. Avoid sleeping in, so that this cycle doesn’t become confused. Try not to nap in the day if you struggle to fall asleep at night, and if you must, try to keep it short, around 15-20 minutes.
Try to get as much natural light during the day, so your body’s rhythm of day and night is stable. Avoid large meals at night, and limit your consumption of caffeine and nicotine, as well as sugars and refined carbohydrates.
It’s worth trying to improve your ‘sleep hygiene’ also, by removing distractions from your bedroom and trying not to do too many activities in there (for example working or watching TV). The more simple our mental associations are with the bedroom – sleep ad sex – the more easily we can wind down and fall asleep.
You can also try breathing exercises to relax your mind before bed, or practice yoga or meditation to soothe restless thoughts.
6. Spotlight on: your device
Our phones are a constant source of stimulation and artificial light, which can keep your mind active and awake, so try turning off your phone a few hours before bedtime. Ironically given the above statement, there are also a number of handy apps you can use to help you monitor and improve the length and quality of your sleep.
If you have an iPhone, you can also change the settings on your phone so that at night your screen gives off a more restful, less harsh light. To do this, go to Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift.
An experienced counsellor for depression can really help
We all have the right to experience love, connection, purpose and positive emotions. Learning the skills that allow you to work in tandem with your brain instead of against it are fundamental to a healthy and thriving life.
A skilled counsellor experienced in depression can help you clear the fog and regain control over your symptoms and thoughts, to give you the best chance at thriving.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is enrolled in a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.