Coping with Depression

How to acknowledge, understand, and manage symptoms of depression.

Posted Sep 15, 2020

As mental health professionals, we are always concerned about the risk of suicide with depression. As a nation, we acknowledge this week as National Suicide Prevention Week to spotlight the importance of prevention. Given the stressors modern life presents to all of us, awareness of this vital mental health issue is now, more than ever, important for us to discuss.

Depression is a ubiquitous condition of life. As we move through life, we constantly encounter loss or the threat of the loss of important people, dreams, and activities. Depression is a natural response to these losses. If we are unable to process our feelings about these losses, pervasive feelings of sadness can escalate into a chronic mood characterized by depression. 

Due to a childhood trauma, my mother suffered from depressive episodes throughout her life. At times, these episodes developed into a risk of self-harm. As a child exposed to her depressive episodes, I was terrified that my mother would act on her feelings. Fortunately, she never made a serious attempt on her life.

Young adults are particularly vulnerable to soul-shocking stressors, like the breakup of a meaningful love relationship or seemingly overwhelming challenges at school or work. The thought of ending one’s life during extremely painful emotional experiences is not uncommon. As one of my great professors said, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Meaning, if a person can just hang on, the painful situation will likely pass and life can go on.        

We need to teach our children how to manage turbulent emotions and it is important to reach out to others when we’re in fearful mental spaces. Fortunately, we have local and national 24/7 helplines that have assisted many people through their dark nights of the soul.

As an undergraduate psychology student, my favorite professor taught abnormal psychology. He was brilliant and his lectures were attended by hundreds of young students.

Imagine my devastation, then, when I learned that he killed himself. It highlighted for me the risk of self-destructive forces that can impact anyone. It also calls to mind the global impact of one of the most beloved actor-comedians of our time, Robin Williams, who tragically took his life because of an apparently related medical condition that savaged his emotional and cognitive health. 

In forty years of mental health practice, I frequently hear how suicide is woven into family histories. We must always be aware of the signs of depression in those close to us and be ready to reach out with a listening ear and a helping hand.

My training analyst was the survivor of five Nazi death camps who became a renowned pioneer in modern trauma theory and practice, as well as a professor of psychiatry. He frequently repeated his three rules of trauma-related emotions that I needed to remember.

  • First, feelings are not facts. Just because you feel this or that is going to happen or has happened, it does not mean it has happened or will happen.
  • Second, feelings are temporary. No matter how painful a feeling is, it will pass. Often the best way to deal with a painful emotion is to just lay down and wait for it to pass. Reassure yourself that the painful feeling will pass.
  • Third, remember that feelings are not dangerous. Feelings will not harm you, even if they are painful.

He would talk about how, when in a state of emotional crisis, we see life through depression-colored glasses. Depression allows us to only see the negative in life. In truth, few things can only be seen in one way, and there are many layers to all human experience.

We must always look for adaptive ways to see things and find positive alternatives in seemingly hopeless situations. We can learn to cultivate positive mental attitudes and challenge negative, pessimistic ways of thinking and seeing the world. We cannot allow ourselves to remain in victim mentalities, even when we have suffered victimization. We must cultivate the capacity to experience pleasure. Focus on taking little steps and eventually you will have a beautiful garden within that nourishes you.

Another thing to remember about depression is the idea that the mood represents something that needs to be expressed. De-pression is the opposite of ex-pression. Ask yourself what other feelings need to be expressed when you are feeling depressed.

Experience has shown that anger and fears of abandonment frequently rest beneath a veneer of depression. Many people have difficulty with managing angry feelings and are afraid of them. This is the value of psychotherapy that can help people learn to identify and become more comfortable with their emotional lives. Feelings that go unexpressed can cast huge shadows that don’t realistically represent the actual nature of a problem. 

Other tools for coping with depression are exercise and creative endeavors. A third coping mechanism is to be of service to others. Many times, I have started my day in a sour mood or focused on something that deeply troubled me, but as I became immersed in my therapeutic work, I soon forgot my problems. By the time I remembered them, I had a new perspective and could approach them with a more positive mood and outlook. 

One final note on coping with depression: Remember what once gave you pleasure and enjoyment, and if you stopped doing it, return to it. The expression "fake it until you make it" comes to mind. Put yourself in a situation that is expected to give you pleasure and satisfaction and go through the motions. Often, a positive mood will catch up to you.

I talk about some of these issues in more depth in my forthcoming book which is now available for pre-order.


Suggested Reading

James F. Zender, PhD (2020).  Recovering from Your Car Accident: The Complete Guide to Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.