Self-Help and Coping Tips to Overcome Depression
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: May 2016.
It’s the Catch-22 of dealing with depression: The things that help the most are the things that are the most difficult to do. There’s a difference, however, between something that's difficult and something that's impossible.
Start small and stay focused
Take things one day at a time and reward yourself for each accomplishment. The steps may seem small, but they’ll quickly add up. And for all the energy you put into dealing with depression, you’ll get back much more in return.
Depression self-help tip 1: Cultivate supportive relationships
- Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and it won’t mean you’re a burden to others. The truth is that most people are flattered if you trust them enough to confide in them.
- Talk to someone face to face. The simple act of talking to someone face to face about how you feel can play a big role in lifting the fog of depression and keeping it away. But it has to be face to face—communicating via text, social media, or phone just doesn’t have the same effect.
- Turn to friends and family members who make you feel loved and cared for. The person you talk to doesn’t have to be able to fix you; he or she just needs to be a good listener, someone who’ll listen attentively without being distracted or judging you.
- Try to keep up with social activities even if you don’t feel like it. Often when you’re depressed, it feels more comfortable to retreat into your shell, but being around other people will make you feel less depressed.
- Join a support group for depression. Being with others dealing with depression can go a long way in reducing your sense of isolation. You can also encourage each other, share experiences, and gain valuable advice on how to cope.
- If you don’t feel that you have anyone to turn to, it’s never too late to build new friendships and improve your support network.
- Talk to one person about your feelings
- Help someone else by volunteering
- Have lunch or coffee with a friend
- Ask a loved one to check in with you regularly
- Accompany someone to the movies, a concert, or a small get-together
- Call or email an old friend
- Go for a walk with a workout buddy
- Schedule a weekly dinner date
- Meet new people by taking a class or joining a club
- Confide in a clergy member, teacher, or sports coach
Depression self-help tip 2: Get moving
- Regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication at relieving symptoms of depression.
- Physical activity reduces stress and releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your spirits and make you feel good.
- Getting active can give you a break from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.
- Exercise is something you can do right now to boost your mood. Aim to exercise for 30 minutes or more per day—or break that up into short, 10-minute bursts of activity. A 10-minute walk can improve your mood for two hours. The key to sustaining mood benefits is to exercise regularly.
- Choose activities you enjoy. You don’t need to train at the gym or run mile after mile. Pick an activity you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick with it.
- Find exercises that are continuous and rhythmic. The most benefits for depression come from rhythmic exercise—such as walking, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or dancing—where you move both your arms and legs.
- Add a mindfulness element, especially if your depression is rooted in unresolved trauma. Focus on how your body feels as you move—such as the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, or the feeling of the wind on your skin, or the rhythm of your breathing.
Depression self-help tip 3: Eat a healthy, mood-boosting diet
- Don’t skip meals. Going too long between meals can make you feel irritable and tired, so aim to eat something at least every three to four hours.
- Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy. Aim to cut out as much of these foods as possible.
- Boost your B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins such as folic acid and B-12 can trigger depression. To get more, take a B-complex vitamin supplement or eat more citrus fruit, leafy greens, beans, chicken, and eggs.
- Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA can give your mood a big boost. The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna, and some cold-water fish oil supplements. Aim for two servings a week.
- You may hear a lot about getting your omega-3s from foods rich in ALA fatty acids, such as vegetable oils and nuts (especially walnuts), flax, soybeans, and tofu. Be aware that our bodies generally convert very little ALA into EPA and DHA, so you may not see as big of a benefit.
Depression self-help tip 4: Do things that make you feel good
- Aim for eight hours of sleep. Depression typically involves sleep problems; whether you’re sleeping too little or too much, your mood suffers. Get on a better sleep schedule by learning healthy sleep habits.
- Expose yourself to a little sunlight every day. Lack of sunlight can make depression worse. Take a short walk outdoors, have your coffee outside, enjoy an al fresco meal, people-watch on a park bench, or sit out in the garden. Aim for at least 15 minutes of sunlight a day to boost your mood. If you live somewhere with little winter sunshine, try using a light therapy box.
- Practice relaxation techniques. A daily relaxation practice can help relieve symptoms of depression, reduce stress, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation.
- Care for a pet. While nothing can replace the human connection, pets can bring joy and companionship into your life and help you feel less isolated. Caring for a pet can also get you outside of yourself and give you a sense of being needed—both powerful antidotes to depression.
- Pick up a former hobby or a sport you used to like.
- Express yourself creatively through music, art, or writing.
- Go out with friends.
- Take a day trip to a museum, the mountains, or the ballpark.
Come up with a list of things that you can do for a quick mood boost. The more “tools” for coping with depression, the better. Try and implement a few of these ideas each day, even if you’re feeling good.
- Spend some time in nature
- List what you like about yourself
- Read a good book
- Watch a funny movie or TV show
- Take a long, hot bath
- Take care of a few small tasks
- Play with a pet
- Talk to friends or family face-to-face
- Listen to music
- Do something spontaneous
Depression self-help tip 5: Challenge negative thinking
Challenge these types of negative thinking that fuel depression
All-or-nothing thinking – Looking at things in black-or-white categories, with no middle ground (“If I fall short of perfection, I’m a total failure.”)
Overgeneralization – Generalizing from a single negative experience, expecting it to hold true forever (“I can’t do anything right.”)
The mental filter – Ignoring positive events and focusing on the negative. Noticing the one thing that went wrong, rather than all the things that went right.
Diminishing the positive – Coming up with reasons why positive events don’t count (“She said she had a good time on our date, but I think she was just being nice.”)
Jumping to conclusions – Making negative interpretations without actual evidence. You act like a mind reader (“He must think I’m pathetic”) or a fortune teller (“I’ll be stuck in this dead end job forever.”)
Emotional reasoning – Believing that the way you feel reflects reality (“I feel like such a loser. I really am no good!”)
‘Shoulds’ and ‘should-nots’ – Holding yourself to a strict list of what you should and shouldn’t do, and beating yourself up if you don’t live up to your rules.
Labeling – Labeling yourself based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings (“I’m a failure; an idiot; a loser.”)
When to get professional help
Don’t forget about these self-help tips, though. Even if you’re receiving professional help, these tips can be part of your treatment plan, speeding your recovery and preventing depression from returning.