Many clients come to me believing there is “something wrong” with them. They believe they’re fundamentally flawed, or they're making a last-ditch attempt at life, often with plans to end theirs if things don’t improve. However, more often than not, the root of their depression is not a biochemical imbalance or a life-sentence. Rather, it’s a result of one or more of the following:
Of all the research out there, social connection is one of the most proven ways to prevent and cure depression. However, the problem is that depression will often tell us we’re no fun and nobody wants to hang out with us, leading us back to isolation. Acknowledge that the thought does not serve you and, given your current state, and reach out. Join a Meetup group, a team, or call an old friend.
Ever been through a breakup, lost a job, experienced the loss of a family member or pet, or found yourself out of school for the first time? All of these situations are thick with grief. If you’ve experienced a major transition or loss in the past year (or longer if you’ve suppressed your grief), chances are your depression might be tied to that. Grief mimics depression, so feeling unmotivated, low, irritable, disinterested in things you used to enjoy, disconnected, unable to focus, and experiencing disturbances in your sleep and diet are likely related to your adjustment to the transition or loss.
Ever noticed how much more fragile and lethargic you are after a bad sleep? Exhaustion affects our mood, our energy levels, and our cognitive functioning. The problem is, depression can cause sleep disturbances, so it can become a vicious cycle. Speak with your therapist about ensuring proper sleep hygiene, learning cognitive behavioral strategies for managing insomnia, and, if you believe you might have a sleep disorder, consider getting a referral to a sleep specialist. Some sleep disorders are highly-correlated with depression.
4. Missing meaning
From an existential perspective, we require meaning in our lives for happiness. According to Viktor Frankl, we can find this meaning through work, relationships (romantic and otherwise), helping others, learning, creative endeavors (e.g. writing, music, art/design), and spirituality, to name a few. If you’re in a career you despise, or feel “lost” in life, depression has likely come about to tell you that the way you’re living your life does not align with your values and desires. Take it as a positive sign that change needs to happen, and consider how your life would look if you felt fulfilled in some (or all) of the aforementioned areas.
5. A critical inner voice
Imagine how worthless you’d feel if you had a verbally-abusive friend, partner, or parent beside you at all times. Well, this is how it is for many people who are highly self-critical. Pay attention to your internal voice. What’s its flavor? If you find you’re saying things to yourself that you would never say to a friend, it’s time to make a change. Several studies have shown that learning self-compassion can be an effective intervention in treating depression. Therapy can be a wonderful place to learn this language of healthy striving.
6. A lack of exercise
Along with social connection, exercise is another variable that is highly supported in its relationship to depression. There’s no need to join a CrossFit gym or to sign up for a marathon (although you can do that, too), but you’re likely to notice a difference in your mood from doing 20 minutes of yoga on your lunch hour, or getting out for a walk around the block after work. No time? Combine it with #1 and ask a friend to go for a walk.
7. Not enough nature
Recently, several studies have supported the benefits of “ecotherapy” or “green therapy” in treating depression. It fosters mindfulness and feelings of calm. When’s the last time you got outside and were surrounded by green? Try to fit this into your daily routine—even if it’s for only five minutes! If you live in a big city, make a point to hit up a park or shoreline.
8. Poor diet
More and more research is emerging that suggests nutrient deficiencies and food allergies are linked to depression. For example, studies have shown vitamins B and D are negatively correlated with depressed mood, while gluten is positively correlated (in those who suffer from intolerance). Every individual is different, but getting a blood test and seeing a naturopath, dietician, or holistic nutritionist might benefit you.
Studies have shown that chronic stress can lead to depression. Some stress is good, but when it outweighs coping, it might be a factor in why you’re feeling depressed. If you can’t cut some of your responsibilities, consider assessing where the expectations you feel are coming from (i.e. someone else, or yourself), and take some of the pressure off. Permit yourself to lower your expectations for performance, make mistakes, quit, and ask for help. In other words, stop treating yourself like a machine and let yourself be a human being.
10. All work & no play
Many people are under the (false) impression that once we reach adulthood we no longer need or deserve “fun.” Or that we’re only allowed to have “fun” once our work is done. Well, given the fact that there will ALWAYS be something more to do—another bill to pay, another project to complete, or another load of laundry to do—chances are you’re setting yourself up for a life that’s not very enjoyable. Allow yourself to carve some time out of your daily schedule to do something you enjoy. This could be an activity, or it could be lying on the couch watching Netflix.
11. Imbalanced hormones
Imbalances or deficiencies in estrogen, progesterone, and cortisol are all correlated with depression. Consider checking out these areas to ensure the depression you’re experiencing is not related to one of these!
12. Not dealing with emotions
We have primary and secondary feelings. Primary feelings are the ones that we feel at the core—for example, sadness or anger, anxiety or loneliness. Secondary feelings what we feel when we judge ourselves for having the primary feelings. Imagine you’re feeling depressed, but then you beat yourself up for feeling depressed and tell yourself you’re broken and need to stop feeling depressed. Now you’re not just feeling depressed; you’re also feeling shameful, pressured, and frustrated. By giving yourself permission to feel the feelings that come up (whatever they may be) with compassion and without judgment, you may notice a weight lifted off your shoulders.