Depression – Some practical exercises to help turn depression around

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You were not born depressed.

You may, however, have learned ways of thinking and reacting to life events that predispose you to becoming depressed. This leaflet will show you ways to help yourself think in a more resourceful manner so that you are less likely to feel or stay feeling depressed.

People often think that life’s misfortunes are what cause them to feel depressed. These often play a part, but only a part, in depression. Many people have sad events befall them during their life but they are not always unhappy – think of those in many third world countries or other people around you. You are more than the past events that have happened to you. You cannot change your history but you can change the effect it has on your emotional state.

The medical profession tends to equate depression with the lack of various chemicals in the brain, but could it be the way we think that creates the chemical change, rather than the other way around? Biological factors play only a part in depression they are not the whole story.

You have the potential within yourself to be whatever you want to be. Consciously you may be scared, shy, upset at times but part of you also knows that you can be happy and confident as well. The mind is a wonderfully complex thing and gradually you can begin to use your mind to help you feel the way you want to be.

It may seem at the moment that it is impossible to feel happy again but what you can do is take the first step along the road. There is an endless cycle between our thoughts, our feelings and our actions. When you feel depressed you think negatively and behave ‘depressed’. You can begin to change any one of the three (thoughts, feelings or actions) and gradually alter how you feel.

A feeling doesn’t just happen, all by itself, out of the blue. Stop and think for a moment, how do you know you are feeling depressed? We are continually either seeing something in our ‘mind’s eye’ or telling ourselves something internally that creates our mood. This is something that happens so fast that we are often not conscious of it, but it is useful to begin to be aware of it.

We develop patterns of thought and behaviour throughout our life that have become so habitual that they drop out of our awareness. If you have developed a pessimistic pattern of looking at your world and you wish to change it, then read on and begin to practise some of the techniques I describe. Practice is important and the only sure fire way to develop a new skill!

One of the most important things I want to say to you is that – everything changes; nothing ever stays the same all the time. You need to know, in the deepest part of your being, that the future hasn’t happened yet, and that you have the power to shape that future for yourself, in whatever way you wish.

When we are depressed we tend to think that things are permanent and unchanging. We think that the bad event will always be there, forever affecting us.

There is only one thing that never changes: “Everything changes”.

The reverse way of thinking – that what caused the bad event was temporary – allows for the possibility of change and will lead you into a less depressed state of mind.

Exercise 1:-

Become aware of the words you use, both out-loud and internally, especially “always” and “never”…
“You are always unfair” “You never listen to me”
Try putting in some time limits using words like “recently” or “sometimes”
Practise qualifying your “never”s and “always”, maybe see if you can blame events on transient conditions rather than something that “lasts forever”. This will help you to “bounce back” from disappointments.
Eg. A friend forgets your birthday. Do you think – s/he never thinks about me, s/he doesn’t care – or – s/he has been really busy lately, it must just have slipped his/her mind?

When we feel depressed we may fall into the trap of thinking that when something bad happens it has to affect every aspect of our life.

If you think that a failure in one area of your life means you are a failure in everything that you do, then you are much more likely to remain depressed. When we feel low we tend to catastrophise and think because we have failed at one thing we are no good at anything. Which way would you rather react?
“I’ve lost my job again, its hopeless, everything I do falls apart”
or “I’ve lost my job again, but I know I’m a good mother to my kids and people enjoy my company, so I’m sure I’ll get another”
or when you can’t find the words you want and get shy asking someone out on a date and they refuse, do you think
“I’m no good, nobody likes me” or “I got tongue tied today, better luck next time!”

Exercise 2:-
If something bad happens in your life stop and think what parts of your life are still positive, what things are you still good at? Write them down. What can you still do well? Maybe cook a meal? Go shopping? Read the kids a story? Play football? Thinking in this way will help you to be much more resilient.

Another trap that tends to lead us into depression is taking everything personally. When something goes wrong who do you blame – external circumstances or yourself?
Eg. Your boss storms and shouts at you for not finishing a piece of work correctly. Do you think “I can’t do anything right, I’m a failure” or “Whoops, the boss is irritable today, I need more time to do things the way he wants”
Salesmen have to take refusal of their wares without feeling that the rejection is directed at themselves or they would not be salesmen for long!
Become aware of situations in which you think of yourself as a failure and consciously acknowledge that the failure was in behaviour and can therefore be changed. The quickest and easiest way to gain experience is through our mistakes.

When you are criticised or handing out criticism remember to separate the behaviour from the person. You can be displeased with what someone has done whilst still appreciating them as a person.
Eg. Children need to know that parents still love them even when they are being told off about something they have done wrong.

You may be very good at criticising yourself but do you also praise yourself? Is this fair? People who suffer from frequent depression often have poor self esteem, don’t like themselves very much and find it difficult to accept praise. Culturally we English tend to feel uncomfortable when we blow our own trumpet but perhaps we need to learn how to appreciate our good qualities a little more? We are all unique individuals and each one of us is an expression of life- we carry that within us at the core of our being – even a baby that lives for only a few hours has had a precious spark of existence that has changed those around it. People are important in life’s tapestry, just by being, even before they do anything at all. By being in place A, at time B, something or someone changed or acted differently than if they had been at point C, at time B. You have as much right as any other human individual to be a loving, loveable person.

Exercise 4:-
Make a list of your good qualities. Find at least a dozen. If you have difficulty with this then ask your family members or friends.

Have you ever realised that you can only have one thought at a time? So why not consciously make it a good one? When we are depressed or anxious we tend to focus on either the bad events that happened in the past or possible mishaps in the future and miss the present. This is a shame if pleasant things are happening in the present because today very soon becomes yesterday, and tomorrow today!

At times when we are depressed we have a miserable internal picture of ourselves, the universe and the future and we lose our sense of perspective. Small setbacks become mountainous and we believe we can do nothing right. We automatically focus on things that confirm what we are thinking, so that when we feel low we focus on negatives whereas when we feel happy we tend to disregard the negative and focus on the positive aspects of things.

Exercise 5:-
Each evening write down the three best things that you noticed during the day. These don’t have to be earth shattering, maybe just the sunshine shining on a puddle, the comforting warmth of the water in the shower, or the taste of a welcome cup of tea. We take these things for granted and when we feel depressed we tend not to notice them. Bring such things into your conscious awareness by telling yourself about them internally. It is a good idea to sit down at the end of a week and review your list. You can also look at your list when you feel low and maybe bring some good feelings to the forefront of your mind.

When we feel low we tend to adopt certain body language. Notice how you stand and walk. When you feel low you tend to stoop and look downwards. If you notice yourself doing this then straighten up your shoulders and look upwards. You will find it harder to feel so depressed with this new body posture.

Exercise 6:-
When you are next taking a walk look up and notice the roof tops and the cloud formations.
Exercise 7:-
Stand in front of a mirror and make your mouth into a smile. As your muscles move into the well remembered position of smiling you will begin to have a slight lifting of your mood as the body language of smiling has been associated and therefore ‘linked’ to feelings of happiness over many years.

Rather than feeling bad because there are so many things you should do and you can’t do them, why not set a goal each evening of one thing you are going to do the next day and make sure you do it. Then feel good about it, because you have accomplished something and anything else is a bonus!

Take small steps – its much easier than a great leap and you get to the same place in the end.

When you feel depressed you will probably find that some days you feel better than others. What is different on days when you feel better? Are you doing or telling yourself something different or are you perhaps making different pictures in your mind’s eye?

Exercise 8:-
On days when you feel a bit better stop and notice what differences there are with what you are doing – internally as well externally. Write them down and practise these strategies on days when you feel worse.

If something magical happened so that your depression disappeared overnight how would you know? What would you be doing differently? How would people around you know that something had changed?

Exercise 9:-
Think about these questions and be very specific in your answers. It often helps to actually write them down. Avoid woolly concepts such as ‘I’d feel more energetic’ and write down what actions you’d take ‘I’d take the dog for a walk’ ‘I’d go swimming at lunchtime’.
Exercise 10:-
Choose to do some of the actions that you have outlined.

The feeling of lethargy and tiredness is often one of the worst things about feeling depressed, it is often difficult to motivate oneself to do anything. That is why one step at a time is important. Motivation can be difficult but if you can remember how good it felt when you previously did some activity, focus on that feeling to give you the energy and push to start to do it again.
The more energy you use, the more energy you get.
So, rather than sit down and focus on how awful you feel, go and take a walk or a swim and notice how you feel afterwards. I suspect you will actually feel a bit better.

Exercise 11:-
Sit down each evening and decide what three things you are going to do tomorrow. Write them down. Then do them.
Eg. (1) Clean the cooker (2) Walk the dog to the park (3) Read one chapter of a book.
This means that anything else you do in the day is a bonus and you can begin to feel good about that.

One thing you might like to try is to doodle or draw how you feel – not to show anyone but for your own self. Then think about how you would like to feel and draw or doodle that. This helps you to express how you feel rather than bottling it up (which always leads to trouble, physically and emotionally) and then helps your unconscious mind to help you towards the way you want to feel. Writing poetry has the same effect. If someone has upset you and it is inappropriate to express your anger/hurt to them directly, then writing them a letter that you will never send often helps one to feel better.

You may like to do this exercise in your head but I find it is often more powerful to actually walk it out on the floor, so I will describe it as though this is the way you are doing it. It is also a very useful way to help you to get out of a negative state if you feel “stuck”.

Exercise 12:-
First, stand up, this is position 1 – you, the way you are now.
Now, in front of where you are standing, imagine yourself the way you would like to be – this is position 2. Make it a really good feeling image. It doesn’t matter whether you have a visual image or not. Use your imagination to allow yourself to imagine how you would be, looking, feeling and behaving the way you would like to be.
Step into position 2, allowing yourself to bring some of those feelings into the here and now.

The start is to take that first step along the road that you want to travel.

Worry is interest paid on something that may never happen.

Everest was climbed by taking one step at a time.

Do one thing different.

© Dr. Ann Williamson