It's natural for your mood to fluctuate - everyone feels a little down sometimes. But when that low mood persists for days or weeks, you may be suffering from depression. Telltale signs include persistent negative thoughts; a loss of appetite or libido; feeling exhausted and sleeping more (or less) than usual; struggling to keep up with daily chores; and wanting to avoid other people - what psychologist Paul Gilbert calls 'go to the back of the cave' thinking, when you just want to pull the duvet over your head until you feel better.
If you have severe depression - and especially if you are having suicidal thoughts - you should see your GP straight away, because you may need a combination of antidepressants and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). But if you have mild or moderate depression, there are plenty of things you can do to lift your mood and start feeling better, either with or without therapy. Here are five of the most helpful strategies I have found for clients suffering from depression:
1. Get some exercise. I can't speak highly enough of exercise - it's what evolution designed our bodies for, so when we don't do it, we suffer. And research has proven cardiovascular exercise like jogging, cycling, swimming or dancing to be as effective as antidepressants for mild to moderate depression. If you're feeling really low and sluggish, and the thought of vigorous exercise is just too much right now, try going for a walk. Even a few times round the block and a little fresh air will make you feel better.
2. Call a friend. When we get depressed, we tend to isolate ourselves because we can't be bothered to see other people, or worry about being a burden on them. But isolating yourself means you will just 'ruminate' (thinking about your problems over and over) and make yourself feel worse. Call a close friend for some support or, if you're up to it, an evening's laughter with friends is wonderful therapy when you're feeling blue.
3. Stop bullying yourself. When we get down it's all too easy to start berating ourselves for all the things we wish we had done better, or the mistakes we've made in the past. Stop. It does you no good at all and is guaranteed to drag your mood down. Use the 'best friend test' - when you are being harsh or unkind to yourself, ask 'Would I say that to my best friend?' I bet that 9 times out of 10 you wouldn't dream of it, so don't talk to yourself that way either.
4. Help someone else. This may sound odd, but studies consistently show that giving to others helps us feel better about ourselves. Offer to do your elderly neighbour's shopping or mow their lawn; help out at a homeless shelter; sign up for a charity event for a cause you believe in. When we're depressed, it's easy to forget there's a big world out there - doing something for other people helps you remember that and takes your mind off your own difficulties.
5. Watch what you eat and drink. When we feel bad, it's easy to drink more alcohol than usual so we can relax and numb uncomfortable feelings. But alcohol is a depressant - so you will feel worse the next day. It also disrupts your sleep, which may already be a problem if you're down. Go easy on the booze until you feel better. Also watch out for caffeine, because it stimulates the adrenal system. Depression is often mixed with anxiety, so the last thing you need is more adrenaline in your bloodstream. Go for herbal tea instead of regular tea, coffee or chocolate.