By Thanos Nioplias, LMHC
Most people believe that the primary symptom of depression is sadness. Even though this perception is somewhat accurate, depression is, in reality, a much more complicated state that includes not only negative emotions but also physiological changes, such as disturbances in appetite and sleep, as well as changes in the individual’s self-concept- the way one sees themselves.
Even in this mental-health friendly age, many people still believe that one can “snap out” of depression. The reality is that depression is a complicated emotional state that includes not only sadness but also physiological changes, such as disturbances in appetite and sleep efficiency, as well as changes in an individual’s self-concept – the way we see ourselves. Once a person is in the midst of a depressive episode, they are often literally unable to see themselves in a positive light or regulate their bodies.
However, small behavioral changes over time can definitely make a huge difference for depressed individuals and help them to recovery from depressive episodes and prevent future lows. This is because depression tends to create struggles in two main life areas: Decreased levels of pleasure in everyday life activities (anhedonia), and negative judgments about oneself including endorsing beliefs like “I am not good enough” and “I can’t do anything right,” among others. Having this awareness can be helpful in understanding and managing depression. Since depression can significantly affect our experience of pleasure and sense of self, engaging in pleasurable activities and striving for mastery can be an antidepressant.
To clarify: These strategies are not ways to “snap out” of depression, but they are tried and tested methods to manage the long-term course of depressive mood states.
P is for Pleasure
We live in a society that glorifies busy-ness, productivity and financial success. As a result, time for relaxation, leisure, and joy is considered secondary and may even be completely neglected. The price that we pay for this attitude can be very significant: When humans go through several weeks or even days without engaging in any kind of pleasurable activity, we begin to experience a sense of emotional deprivation, stress and increasing physical exhaustion. In a nutshell, neglecting pleasurable experiences is the recipe for unhappiness.
For individuals battling depression it is important to schedule activities that typically increase positive emotions on a daily basis, even if one doesn’t “feel like” doing them. Pleasant activities can be as simple as seeing a good friend, visiting a place that is soothing, or artwork. It is crucial to remember to keep an open, non-judgmental mind while engaging in pleasurable activities. For instance, if the activity is not truly fun, try again tomorrow and then again the day after. And if the activity isn’t fun day after day for 3-5 days, don’t judge yourself for feeling blah rather find another activity that is very stimulating and immersive, such as sports, movies, or even trivia games that leave little time for worry. Last, if you cannot think of anything that sparks positive emotions for you currently, continue exploring and experimenting and keep active anyway. Simply doing “pleasure” activities (even if they don’t feel fun) can change our emotions over time.
M is for Mastery
As mentioned above, depression also interferes with how we perceive our competencies. Needless to say, when we think negatively about ourselves, we tend to withdraw and avoid important day to day tasks. Mastery refers to the effort of striving for small accomplishments every day (e.g., paying bills, going grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, running errands), and it can have a huge impact on depression. When building mastery, it is helpful to set goals that are not too easy, but also not too hard, in order to slowly and steadily increase our self-esteem and confidence. Scheduling activities that are mildly to moderately challenging yet doable is generally the most effective way to make yourself accountable and to also set yourself up for small successes. Similar to pleasure activities, building a sense of mastery is a journey that requires patience, persistence and a non-judgmental stance, and also consistency. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again…
In my clinical practice, I have observed that individuals who experience depression struggle significantly in two main life areas: they experience decreased levels of pleasure in their everyday lives, while they also have negative judgments about themselves, endorsing beliefs like “I am not good enough” and “I can’t do anything right,” among others. Having this awareness has helped both my clients and myself to better understand depression and take steps to manage it. In other words, if depression can significantly affect one’s experience of pleasure and their sense of competence, what IF striving for activities that bring pleasure and mastery is in fact an effective antidepressant?