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6 Ways to Live Better With Chronic Depression

Depression doesn't have to keep you from a good life.

Key points

  • Chronic depression presents genuine logistical difficulties, as a depressive episode often strikes at the most inconvenient moment.
  • It's not necessary for someone to let periodic depression stop them from living their life.
  • Using a few practical techniques can help them navigate themselves safely through depression.

Living with depression can be painful and exhausting. It’s hard enough to get through one episode of major depression—the sadness, the emptiness, the feeling that a gray haze has descended on your life. Sadly, for some, depression returns periodically, more like a chronic illness than a single incident.

This phenomenon, often referred to as chronic depression, may be characterized by recurring episodes of major depressive disorder. You may go months or years functioning normally, then suddenly, depression knocks you off your feet, and you can’t get out of bed for two weeks. For others, their mood disorder manifests in a constant, mild depression, called persistent depressive disorder—a low mood that never quite goes away.

Besides the emotional and social difficulties of depression, chronic depression also becomes a genuine logistical issue. It is inconvenient to be periodically depressed. The demands of your life remain maddeningly persistent, even as your resources to cope with those demands are rapidly depleted. Even though your brain feels like a nuclear wasteland, the groceries need to be bought, the bills need to be paid, and you are expected to behave in some approximation of a functional adult.

If you chronically experience depression, emotional endurance is a very handy skill. It is a strength to have the patience to wait for the storm to pass. But simply enduring is not enough to feel that you live a fulfilling life. Here are a few practical ideas to get you through the next dark time in your life, while still living well.

Stop Resisting and Start Accepting

It is sad to accept that depression may be a permanent fixture in your life. Nothing could be more natural than wanting an uncomfortable feeling to go away, preferably fast, and forever. Besides, we live in a culture permeated by values of self-sufficiency and self-improvement. It’s tempting to believe that if you could just work hard enough and stay positive enough, you could overcome your depression for good.

And yet, depression can be situational, environmental, biological, neurological—in other words, there are factors beyond your control contributing to your mood. This isn’t the time for false positivity. When you deny your feelings, they only intensify—determined to make themselves known, because feelings are our internal compass.

There is an old quote from Carl Jung that “What you resist persists.” To get through your depression, you must first accept that it’s here. When you notice yourself feeling exhausted, tearful, and irritable, practice saying to yourself: “Yes, I am depressed, and it is probably not my fault. I’ve been here before and survived. This hurts, but there is no reason to panic.”

Rebrand Your Depression

Now that you’ve radically accepted your depression as a periodic visitor, you need to learn how to live together in harmony. One of my favorite therapy techniques is getting playful with naming your depression. Depression is a very precise, clinical term, and it is useful and validating in a clinical setting. But if you’re going to be living with depression as a reoccurring guest, you might need to get on friendlier terms.

Maybe instead of telling yourself that you have chronic depression, you can rebrand yourself into having a melancholic temperament. Oh, that’s fancy! Or try giving your depression a human name, like Carl or Bernadette.

“Bernadette is visiting this week and boy, is she overstaying her welcome.”

Or, imagine your depression as a yearly flu that puts you out of commission for a few days—inconvenient, uncomfortable, but not unexpected. Depression could also be a passing seasonal storm, a resting period, or a mental health sabbatical. Practice trying out the name that feels right for you.

Focus All Your Energy into Basic Self-Care

When you feel like you’ve been drained of your life force, the last thing you want to do is cook, clean, or shower. These things feel menial and meaningless, so why bother? But hunger, dehydration, and feeling smelly never improved anyone’s mood.

If you’re depressed, then you’re already scraping the bottom of your energy barrel just by getting through the day. You need to be strategic about how you spend your limited physical and emotional energy. For the time being, dramatically lower your expectations for yourself to the bare minimum. Focus your (admittedly diminished) will on basic life tasks.

If you get out of bed, put on a fresh pair of pajamas, make yourself a bowl of cereal, and drink a glass of water, you’re doing great, sweetie! If you brush your teeth, shower, and go to work, that’s an absolute A-plus. Good job!

For extra credit, use that last gasp of energy to keep your depression den from getting too deplorable. Set a timer for five minutes and use that time to tidy up your living space—maybe throw out old takeout containers and put your favorite sweatpants in the wash. Race the clock to see how much you can do in five minutes. My mother-in-law calls this method the Tornado Clean Up, and it’s genius: an oddly satisfying game and a healthy activity all in one.

Keep Doing What Makes You Feel Good, Even If It Doesn’t Feel Good (Yet)

One of the most painful parts of depression is the complete evaporation of joy and pleasure. It feels like all your happiness has been physically vacuumed out of your body. Getting through the day without an ounce of enjoyment is pretty soul-crushing.

There is a very effective, albeit very uncomfortable, depression management strategy called behavioral activation. Behavioral activation basically means that you convince yourself to engage in pleasant, healthy activities. You do this even if you feel depressed the entire time, even if pleasurable activities are the last thing you want to do.

Depression can engender a cycle of avoidance, where you avoid the things that might make you feel a bit better. You do this because it’s maddening to do something that used to be fun but now feels like nothing at all. You also do this because the prospect of doing anything is just too overwhelming.

Unfortunately, this only digs you into a deeper pit of depression. Here’s how it goes: you get depressed. Talking to people feels overwhelming, so you avoid your well-meaning friends and ignore their calls. Your friends are very confused and start to worry that you aren’t interested in hanging out with them anymore. You stop getting invited out because they don’t want to bother you, solidifying your isolation from your social support.

Behavioral activation forces you to reverse this cycle of avoidance. When you’re depressed, think back to the things you previously found pleasurable, like getting coffee, talking to friends, or spending time outside. Now, make an attainable plan to do those things, perhaps a few times a week, even if you’d rather bury yourself under a pile of blankets and weep. In this way, you prevent yourself from extending your depression through your own avoidance.

The more you practice (previously) pleasurable activities, the more they slowly start to feel pleasurable again. In this way, you build yourself a path through your depressive episode. This process can be very difficult, so remember to be gentle with yourself.

Make Depression Urges Work for You

OK, so at the end of a long, depressed day, you’ve exhausted yourself by practicing all the skills above. You’re fed, hydrated, and you even took a mental health walk even though you hated it. Nice job, buddy! Now all you want to do is collapse into a gray, fatigued heap until you have to do it again.

The last skill I want to suggest is a bit of emotional jiu-jitsu. Don't fight your depression urges—make them nice. Channel the low, tired energy of your depression into a healthy activity. Do you have the urge to isolate and cry for two days? Great! Sounds like a wonderful opportunity to clean your living room, get cozy, and watch a marathon of your favorite tearjerker movies.

You have no appetite and only want ice cream? That makes sense! Drag yourself to the grocery store and get a reasonably balanced frozen meal that doesn’t sound horrible (for nutrition!). Then, work with your depression urge by picking out the nicest flavor of ice cream that you’ve never tried before. It’s not depression, it’s gastronomy!

You’ve done enough hard work for the day. Now, make your life easier by redirecting your depression urges towards activities that could even turn out to be a little bit fun, if we’re dreaming big.

Be Honest with Yourself About When You Need Help

When you live through depression over and over, you get good at walking around with a black cloud over your head. You’re practicing all the coping skills—you’ve got an umbrella and raincoat. If you’re lucky and kind to yourself, you might even recognize that you’re quite skilled at living with depression.

Maybe you’re an old hat at living well with depression, and you deserve to feel confident. But don’t let your confidence and familiarity with your depression blind you to the need for support. Just because you’re accustomed to depression, it doesn’t mean that your depression isn’t still painful.

Be unflinchingly honest with yourself about when you need assistance. It’s been two weeks, and you’re still sleeping 12 hours a day and listening to that Sufjan Stevens album over and over. Time to face yourself, return to therapy, and perhaps make an appointment with your medication prescriber, if applicable.

This is not a failure in your depression management. Rather, it’s a skill to recognize when you need extra support. Even if you’re a pro at living well with depression, it doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: Twinsterphoto/Shutterstock

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