by Mark D. Lerner, Ph.D.
Chairman, The National Center for Emotional Wellness
If you're reading this article, chances are you or someone you know is struggling with depression—a deep sense of sadness and hopelessness that clouds one's life. Depression is now the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide (The World Health Organization, WHO). In the same way we seek professional help when we experience ongoing physical pain and discomfort, turning to a mental health professional is equally important, especially if one experiences self-destructive thoughts.
Following are five practical things you can do to address feelings of depression—beyond speaking with a professional:
1. Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
Maintaining your physical health is critical to mitigating feelings of depression. Become aware of and adjust your diet. Consume a balanced diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Limit your intake of alcohol, red and processed meats, trans fat, and sugar-sweetened drinks.
Incorporate exercise into your routine. Engaging in physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins—natural mood enhancers. Research has demonstrated that even walking can boost emotional wellness (DeAngelis, T., 2022).
Finally, quality sleep can significantly influence mood and emotional wellness (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Try to cultivate a sleep schedule. This will help set your body's natural clock—circadian rhythm. Avoid looking at bright screens before you go to bed. Consider natural supplements such as melatonin. I've found it to be particularly helpful. Finally, speak with your primary care physician if you have ongoing difficulty with sleeping.
2. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness-based strategies have gained attention due to their effectiveness in the management of depression symptoms. Mindfulness, characterized by a non-judgmental focus on the present moment, has been proven to decrease unproductive thinking (i.e., rumination) and foster self-compassion (Hofmann et al., 2010).
Meditation, a practice that promotes relaxation and self-awareness, has demonstrated its ability to ease depressive symptoms and enhance overall well-being (Khoury et al., 2013). I've found some great meditation videos online. By incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine, you can develop healthier coping mechanisms and decrease depressive thoughts.
3. Seek Social Support
Depression can lead us to isolate ourselves from others. However, research consistently supports the importance of social support in decreasing feelings of depression. Sharing your thoughts and feelings with trusted friends or family can be very helpful (Cuijpers et al., 2011).
Individual counseling or therapy sessions, and group therapy can also be beneficial, as they provide a safe space for people to share their experiences and learn from others going through similar experiences (Penedo & Dahn, 2005).
4. Challenge Negative Thoughts
Feelings of depression are often precipitated by negative thought patterns, such as self-criticism and self-blame—being hard on oneself. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques can be helpful in challenging and restructuring these negative thought patterns. By identifying and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and speaking compassionately to ourselves, we can significantly improve our mood and reduce depressive symptoms (Butler et al., 2006).
Before rushing to a magic pill, consider having the benefit of CBT—a standard of care in helping people who are depressed. Countless studies support CBT's efficacy, and I recommend finding an empathetic, warm, and genuine mental health professional who utilizes CBT (Nakao M. et al., 2021; Beck, J.S., 2023).
5. Engage in Enjoyable Activities
Depression can compromise our motivation and enjoyment—making it challenging to do things we once found pleasurable. However, participating in activities that bring joy and a sense of accomplishment can be an effective antidote to depression. Take a look at my recent post about Emotional Wellness and Digital Photography. Research has demonstrated that engaging in enjoyable activities, such as hobbies, sports, and the arts, can improve emotional wellness and counteract depressive symptoms (Josefsson et al., 2014). If you're feeling overwhelmed, take small small, baby steps. I've found that simply playing music from a happy time can quickly shift my emotional state, particularly when I'm feeling down.
Addressing depression requires a multi-modal approach that combines practical strategies such as the ones I've shared, as well as the benefit of professional help. By maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing mindfulness and meditation, seeking social support, challenging negative thoughts, and engaging in enjoyable activities, you can take significant steps towards overcoming depression. Everyone's journey is different, and it's important to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate challenges and change on your path toward emotional wellness.