A friend of mine committed suicide last week and I’ve been hit by a wave of guilt, pain and regret that I didn’t expect. I didn’t know him well. Not at all, but he was someone I wanted to get to know well. As coincidence would have it, I was planning on messaging him and he died before I sent the message. And the shock of waking up realizing that the person I wanted to explore my connection with is gone, hit me like a brick wall.
I’m not vain enough to think that one message from me would have shifted him in his path. Yet, life is made up of a myriad of events. We all contribute to each other’s wellbeing. Each other’s happiness. Ultimately you’re responsible for your own life and the people you associate with and reach out. However, we all know what it feels like being served by a grumpy waitress, or a happy waitress, and that’s just a tiny thing. The people close to us are so much more important.
Basically, we can all help each other feel better, but by the end of the day we need to make ourselves feel good too. So I want to share what I’ve learned about depression.
I’m passionate about curing depression, because I’ve been depressed and know it’s possible to beat it. It makes me upset to know there are people out there suffering who don’t need to. That they could beat it too. That’s not to say that everyone can — I don’t know that — but I believe many can.
So, as someone who’s been there, let me share how I see depression and the tools I’ve encountered along the way. I'm not a medical healthcare professional, so please do understand this isn't medical advice — this is me sharing my experiences.
What Depression Means to Me
When I found out Dave had died, I wrote a blog. In this blog I wrote:
I was “clinically” depressed twice. For me it wasn’t the wish to die that frightened me, it was that I felt nothing. I remember the fear of that feeling. It would last for an hour, two hours, a minute…but it was horrible. Feeling nothing. No joy, no sadness, no nothing.
It was petrifying.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I acquired tools. I fought. I got help. I read books. I won the battle with my mind.
That’s not to say I’m not still fighting. I do. My mind has a tendency to walk down paths that aren’t helpful. To find weird and dark alleys that it gets stuck in, mistaking them for reality.
The truth is, once you come out of the alley, you realize you chose to walk in there. You didn’t go there on purpose the first time, you just ended up there, because life took you there, but then you chose to stay. Not because you wanted to, but because your mind didn’t know the other paths. The other roads. The other alleys. The ones filled with beauty. You could be standing there instead.
To make your mind walk into the right streets…it’s not easy. Not when you’ve been to a lot of dark places. It’s a constant effort. I can only imagine what it’s like when you’ve been to an actual war. I suffered childhood trauma that made my view of myself screwed up. I kept looking at myself seeing distorted visions that made me hate myself. Like the dark alleys, I was stuck in a place of my own doing.
The reality is, this world is filled with a shitload of crap. Of really nasty stuff and bad humans and miserable events. Once you’ve seen them, you have to choose to focus on the other stuff, or you get stuck.
For some, it appears impossible to get out of the dark alleys. With all the myriads of roads this life presents, they are captured in darkness. Always living in the shadow of their own thoughts.
I for one, believe it’s possible to get out if you get the help you need, the support you need and the have the discipline you need.
Chemicals v.s. Thoughts
Of course, your thoughts are chemicals and “brain waves” (electrical impulses). If you alter those, you can alter your state of mind.
Some have chemicals that are way out of balance. Taking medicines that alter the chemicals may therefore help.
Personally, I never went for the pills. I believed I could think my way out of depression. I also appreciate that not everyone were given the same tools I was, nor was I as depressed as some people are. We all need different forms of help.
What I do believe is true, is that you need to work on your thoughts, no matter how many pills you pop unless you're simply suffering from a medical condition that alters your chemicals. You can become depressed if you lead an unhealthy lifestyle because you're deficient in nutrients. Nothing to do with thinking bad thoughts. Likewise, some diseases and hormone problems can cause this imbalance. You can't think your way out of that. You need medication and/or lifestyle changes. This is why you should always see a doctor if you're having the blues. Always.
Other Supplements to Help with Chemical Imbalance
St. John’s Worth is touted as an herbal supplement that can help improve serotonin levels in the brain. Coffee is a drink that’s been linked to boosting your mood (personally I feel on top of the world after a small cup of coffee).
I don’t know what other natural supplements there are, but several exist. Google it to find out.
If you suffer deficiencies it can also cause mood swings and problems with depression. Therefore, be sure to eat a nutritious whole foods diet and try supplementing with a multi-vitamin for a couple of months to balance things out.
Omega-3 rich fish oil may also help your mood.
Getting Enough Sleep
If you don’t get enough sleep and sleep on regular hours, you end up constantly jet-lagged, which in turn can lead to mood swings. Sleep also affects the immune system, so you can end up burning your light at two ends (is that how you say it?).
If you are battling problems with sleep, there are sleep coaches out there trained to help you find a way to better sleep. I know because I just wrote a company bio for one company that’s worked with a lot of individuals and corporations.
On the flip side of the coin, once you are depressed, relaxation and sleep can become a problem. Various herbs (especially combined) such as chamomile, linden (possibly not good for the heart), lavender, valerian, passion flower and lemon balm have all been linked to relaxation and a lessening of anxiety.
Matcha tea, or extracts from matcha, may also help.
Just smelling lavender also seems to work wonders where relaxation is concerned. You can use it in an essential oil diffuser.
Having a hot bath an hour before bedtime could also make you sleep more easily. Anything to increase the body temperature in fact, as being too hot will make you drowsy. (Just make sure your bedroom isn’t too hot — you don’t want to wake up sweating!)
Another tip is to turn off electric devices an hour before going to bed — melatonin will be produced as darkness falls. If all lights, laptops, phones, etc. are switched on, your brain is still sent signals to stay awake and alert. Eating pineapple, oranges and bananas can also help you produce melatonin.
Exercising releases endorfins. Endorfins make us feel good. Exercise followed by eating a meal that includes carbs can actually improve your mood.
Spending Time Outdoors and in Greenery
It’s believed that vitamin D may affect our mood. Spending time outdoors every day will ensure you get your vitamin D dose (it’s formed when sunlight hits your skin). Spending time in nature also appear to boost mood. Take a long country walk once a week if you can.
This may sound ludicrous — hot baths are associated with relaxation and pampering, but I assure you that jumping into a freezing cold bath will wake you up. Of course you need to be in a hot room, or have access to one instantly, but cold baths have a way of refreshing our senses.
I learned about cold baths (and showers) from my former principal at drama school. As actors we have to walk into a different state of mind when we go on stage, or walk on set. It doesn’t matter what just happened to us — we have to switch into thinking the character’s thoughts, not our own, as we walk on stage/set. So he studied how to alter your state of mind and came across a story about mental hospitals in Russia. A woman who tried to escape one day went into a cold lake to swim across it. According to the story this cured her.
Now, I don’t know how true that story is, but I dare you to have a cold bath and see how you feel afterwards. Basically, a cold bath will shock you out of just about any state of min you’re in and clear your head. Get your circulation up beforehand and make sure you get warm straight after.
It’s an ancient practice in both Russia and Scandinavia to have cold baths followed by saunas. And I swear they rejuvenate you. Particularly if it’s in the ocean. Some research also indicates they’re good for the immune system. However, if you have heart problems, it can be dangerous. So beware.
Socializing and Love
Almost no one is so self-aware, so self-loving, that they can survive without the love of others.
Study after study, has shown that people with pets, especially the elderly, feel better. Love helps our mind.
Now, I know what it’s like to be shy. To suffer social phobias. Makes the idea of going out seem painful, right? But you have to overcome that if you are to be really happy. Feel truly free. And the best way to do it is to accept yourself for who you are, love yourself as it will eliminate the fear of rejection. Also, learn people skills. There are courses for that. You can also read books, look at YouTube seminars, etc.
You could also end up feeling lonely because you realize you’ve grown apart from your friends, or you’ve moved to a new city, or you’ve been through a divorce, or lost a friend…the alternatives are endless. You have a choice though. You can either reach out, or not.
There are Meet Up Groups, where you can meet others to do things that interest you. As a world traveller I’m a big fan of them. There are organizations like InterNations where you meet travelers and travel lovers. Then there are membership clubs you can become part of, various organizations you can join, classes you can take and apps you can use to meet people.
Several studies have shown that volunteering leads to happiness. By doing good, you feel good. You also connect with other people.
Joining a local organization to volunteer is therefore a great idea. Even if you only have time for it once a month. Do something that you know would make you feel fulfilled. Do something that makes you feel like you matter, because you do.
When I was really shy, had few friends, was teased in school and had a step-mom who, let’s say, didn’t emotionally gel with me, I was surprised every time someone was kind to me. Every smile, every hug, every kind word, every word of praise — to me it was like receiving a treasure. A very big treasure.
I was shy though. So for many years, because I was so scared of people, I didn’t give them that. I feared I was unwanted, so I did not deliver the smiles, the kind gestures, the praise, the compliments, to others. These days I try to do that, because I know what it meant to me back then. You never know what someone’s going to and how much a kind word can mean. How it can touch someone.
You can do that. You can touch someone. You can be their friend. You can smile at them in the supermarket. You can hug them. You can touch their soul.
That’s one of the reasons I liked my online friend Dave so much. He reached out to me after reading my blog to tell me I’m a beautiful person. He did it at other times too. He touched me. However small our interaction, that man touched me. And I didn’t tell him that. I had the power to make him feel good and I didn’t. I didn’t give him the gift of me.
You are a gift. Always remember that.
It’s Not About You
Here’s the flip side of the coin: you’re depressed because you’re thinking about yourself. I used to be obsessed by how not good enough I was. How much further I should have been. How much better I should have done. How much I needed to win an Oscar. It was all about me, me, me. For all my kindness and giving nature, it was still about me and my broken ego.
Then I went to South Africa and I volunteered at a crèche for underprivileged kids. Suddenly I felt incredibly loved by the kids and I also stopped thinking it was all about me. It was all about them now. My importance paled compared to the importance of them.
If you are telling yourself a story about who you should be, what you should have done…chill it. It’s your ego talking. In your heart, you’re OK.
It’s not fun to have emotions you aren’t proud of. Take it from one who knows.
I was seventeen when I became depressed the first time. I actually didn’t know what was happening to me. Suddenly I was tired all the time. I slept a lot. And I shook. Like I was literally shaking. But I didn’t know what that was. I just knew I didn’t feel well.
Once I figured out I was depressed, I thought I was mad. I thought I should hate myself more than I already did. I felt an immense level of shame. Like I hadn’t figured it out.
Yesterday, when I got upset about Dave’s death, I figured I should deal with it by myself. I even have a coach I didn’t contact because I felt it was better I proved I could handle it all by myself.
That is exactly the kind of thinking that lands you in trouble in the first place. So, instead I eventually reached out to people right left and center. I figured I could get through it on my own, but why would I? There’s still thoughts I’m confused about and I’d like other people’s opinions. I know it will help me.
That’s not to say you should unload your shit on people, because it’s not their burden to bear, but you can ask for help. You can ask for a hug.
Beyond that, seek professional help. You’re more clever if you do. It will give you tools. It will give you a way forward. There’s nothing shameful about it. In fact, you’ll probably end up a lot more switched on than the people who live their lives in the grey zone. They may never have felt desperate enough to seek help, because they never quite break, but they also aren’t as happy as they could be.
Happiness is a job. Really.
Shift Your Thoughts
As I explained earlier, undoing depression is a lot about shifting your thoughts. When I volunteered at a drug rehab center they had this thing whereby they wore rubber bands around their wrists that they snapped, or switched from one wrist to the other, whenever they felt like using. Just to make themselves aware.
I’d suggest you do the same when catching yourself having a negative thought. A thought that in any way, shape, or form, belittles you, your life, or life at large.
The point with the rubber band is to become aware. Too many times we don’t catch ourselves. We slip a little bit. Too little to notice, or quite a bit, but we don’t notice because we’re so used to it. When you become aware you have choice. A choice to redirect your thoughts.
There’s this book called Stop Thinking and Start Living. It talks about how psychoanalysis sometimes make people more depressed, because they keep thinking about their problems. Instead, by thinking about what’s going right and working to achieve things, you can shift your focus and enjoy life more.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t look at your thoughts. I believe, that if you don’t face them, but suppress them, you carry them with you instead.
I kind of think about it as your mind being a room and your thoughts winds. If you open the door to where you’ve trapped them (your subconscious), you will let them fly freely in the room and they may hurt you. But if you don’t open the door to where you trapped them, you also can’t open the door to the world and release them.
On the flip side of the coin, if you keep the thoughts in a room where you can see them and interact with them, but don’t open the door to let them go, you’ll just revel in your own pain.
You have to face your thoughts and then let them go.
Constructive thoughts help you feel better. They make you take action that moves your life forward.
If You Can’t Shift Your Thoughts
If you can’t shift your thoughts — are having a particularly bad day — distract yourself. Watch a movie. Run a mile. Bake a cake. Go to an event. Call a friend. Attend a comedy gig. Paint.
If you can, it’s a good idea to call your psychologist, or coach, if the thoughts are really disturbing. But if you’re just feeling down, find something to do that lifts your spirits. And I mean something that lifts your spirits, not getting drunk, taking drugs, or eating two pints of ice cream. That's trying to suppress thoughts, not shifting your thoughts.
If it’s an emergency and you feel suicidal and can’t reach your psychologist, call a helpline.
You need to reroute your thought patterns. Slowly, slowly build new ones. Not go down the dark alleys. Stop yourself. Take a different turn.
Incorporate Things into Your Life That Shifts Your Mood
I know that my thoughts tend to go down a dark path if I spend too much time alone. So I make an effort to schedule in social events. I also know that painting, watching certain films, dancing, etc. shift my mood, so I do my best to incorporate that into my life, not just do it to shift my thoughts when I'm feeling down.
Go Beyond Your Fears
The thing that’s holding us back in life is often fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of humiliation, fear of getting hurt, fear of planes falling down…you name it. We all have different fears. Only when you go beyond your fears are you truly free.
Tim Ferriss, in The 4-Hour Work Week talks about overcoming his fears. About walking up to people in supermarkets and talking to them. About challenging himself to do it enough times until it didn’t feel uncomfortable.
Imagine that. Imagine never shying away from an event, or a person, because you’re scared. Imagine always standing up for who you are and what you believe in.
We all have different strengths and weaknesses, fears and vulnerabilities. When I felt socially awkward I looked at friends who were sales people. I learned from them how to speak to strangers. Not just from them — I did a lot of work on myself and learned from a whole lot of sources, but it’s one example. We can all learn from different people.
And you can be free. It’s possible to lead a free and happy life.
Know That Depression Hits Us in Different Ways
Some people lose a loved one and can’t deal. Some burn themselves out at work. Some suppress emotions until they suddenly overflow. Some go through really harrowing events. Some have their confidence broken.
For some, depression is straight up feeling down (no pun intended). For others it includes panic attacks. Some develop eating disorders. Some develop phobias. It comes in different shapes and forms.
And depression can be sudden, or coming on slowly. The sudden death of a loved one can lead to complete chaos in someone’s life; a sudden sensation of not being able to cope with what’s happened. For others, childhood trauma slowly makes its way to the surface. Or years of abuse lead to someone finally cracking.
For some depression hits harder than others. And some know how to deal with it better than others, because they have tools.
Whatever way around it is, the important thing is that you get the help you need and take the actions you need. Certain things may help alleviate some pain over night. Other things may take longer to take effect. The important thing is that you do everything in your power. Yes, that includes going to bed on time, exercising, eating well, taking charge of your thoughts when you can and distracting yourself when you can’t, getting the help you need professionally and working to overcome whatever it is holding you back.
I’m not saying overcoming depression is easy. I’m saying it’s possible.
Today when I felt like shit because my friend had died, I didn’t necessarily feel like going for a run, or having a cold shower, but I did it. I did it because someone had just died because he didn’t overcome PTSD. I did it because I know if I’d been around him, I’d tossed him in the coldest bath I could find to wake him up. It’s not something that cures PTSD, but it may lead to a temporary shock of the senses. An impulse to want to survive the cold water. It temporarily stops your thoughts short. Gives you a pause. A chance to reset. Kind of like having a nap. And sometimes that’s all you need to reroute your thoughts that day.
The thing with depression is that you may very well feel like doing nothing, or doing something destructive instead of something constructive. That’s where mind control comes in. Discipline. Eat well, sleep well, think of all the good things in your life, look at your positive traits, spend time in nature, exercise, do things that make you smile, see friends, reach out to people, talk to a psychologist and if need be, distract yourself from the negative thoughts by doing something that really gets your mind off things, be it jumping in a freezing cold bath, attending a party, or watching a comedy, even if you don’t feel like doing it. If that doesn’t work and things get really bad, call a helpline.
Just don’t let the negative thoughts win.
When the dark shit hits you, know that there will be another day tomorrow. I know it may feel unbearable. When you feel the loneliest you’ve ever been, or like you’ve been dealt a hand you can’t handle, or when shit hits the fan in a way you just weren’t prepared for, or you’re so tired you can barely stand, or pain, or regret, seems to be eating you up from the inside, it’s not easy. Just know there is a different tomorrow. Know that the pain can and will go away.