Photo: fady habib/Flickr
Let me precis everything I'm about to say by acknowledging that depression is a complicated illness that can be very difficult to treat. I know this firsthand - I suffered from the malady for approximately four years, and it was only after I'd experimented with multiple medications, undertaken countless hours of therapy, read numerous self-help books, been hospitalised twice, and committed myself to living an active, healthy lifestyle that I was able to recover for good and return to living a happy, enjoyable life. Yet despite how hard the task of recovering is, I strongly feel that the process for doing so is relatively straightforward. In fact, I believe it can be broken down into four clear steps.
1. Understand what is triggering your depression
This is the first thing that you need to work out, because if you can't determine what is causing you problems, then how can you possibly go about fixing them?
In terms of how to work out what the causes of your depression are, it's best to consult with a psychologist, in addition to a qualified psychiatrist or general practitioner. A psychologist will work with you on a cognitive level to determine the behaviors and thought processes that may be triggering your depression; a psychiatrist or GP, on the other hand, will primarily analyse your illness from a biochemistry point of view.
2. Learn how to manage your triggers
Once you've worked out what is triggering your depression, it's time to learn how to manage your triggers to prevent them from henceforth triggering you.
Before I share an example from my own life regarding how my psychologist was able to help me do this, let me make two very important points:
- This step, in my opinion, is the hardest step involved in recovering from depression. Learning how to manage your triggers can take months - if not longer - and requires a lot of self-analysis, discipline, and hard work on your part.
- It is extremely, extremely, extremely difficult to learn how to manage your triggers without the help of a psychologist. This is what their job is - this is what they spend years at uni and even longer in the field learning how to do - in the same way a surgeon spends years learning how to repair a broken leg. If you broke your leg and tried to repair it yourself, chances are that you'd never do it properly, and as a result, your leg would be broken forever. At the end of the day, it's the same story with depression, too - if you don't get the proper treatment, it will never go away.
Getting back to learning how to manage your triggers, let me give you that example:
A huge trigger for me was not achieving my goals - for example, not getting as high a mark as I wanted to in a university exam. When I didn't achieve a goal that I'd set out to achieve, I hated myself. I felt worthless and inadequate. I felt like a failure. And I felt this pain so intensely that I'd become suicidal.
Before seeing a psychologist, I was convinced that all I needed to do to beat my depression was to always achieve my goals - this made complete sense to me, because it was failing to achieve my goals that made me feel depressed. But part of being human is that we're not perfect - no-one always achieves their goals - and as a result, I found myself continuously oscillating in and out of depression. For two years I never got better, because during that time, I never learned how to manage my primary trigger.
Enter my psychologist. He showed me that getting on top of my depression wasn't about never failing to achieve my goals - rather, it was about learning to love myself regardless of whether or not I achieved them. With his help, I then learned how to love myself unconditionally, and as a result, these days, whenever I don't achieve something I'd set out to achieve, I feel disappointed like anyone else would, sure - but I no longer feel worthless, inadequate, and the overwhelming urge to end my life. (Note: See how it took a psychologist to help me work out how to manage my trigger? If I'd never seen a psychologist, I probably would've spent the rest of my life trying to manage it in the wrong way, and thus been plagued by depression forever. Recently speaking to me about this very point was one of Sydney, Australia's leading psychologists (who chose to remain nameless):
"In my 20+ years in the field, I've met hundreds, if not thousands of people who have been depressed for 20, 25, sometimes even 30+ years, and the most common reason is because they still don't truly know how to manage their triggers - and the most common reason for that is because they've never committed themselves to therapy."
3. Put the theory you've learned in steps #1 and #2 into practice, in addition to leading an active, healthy lifestyle
At the end of the day, the first two steps are mostly theory - learning what triggers you and how to manage those triggers. Such knowledge and self-awareness can be incredibly powerful, but it's absolutely worthless if you don't put it into practice.
In addition to putting everything you learn during therapy into practice, it's also extremely important to live an active, healthy lifestyle, since countless studies show that eating well, sleeping well, exercising frequently and laying off alcohol and other substances significantly helps people recover from depression. Being a very active mental health advocate, I interact with dozens of sufferers a day, and in my experience, this is something people who have had trouble overcoming their depression frequently overlook. Every few hours, I'll hear something to the effect of:
"I know from experience that exercise helps my mood, but it's so much easier just to sit on the couch and watch T.V., so that's what I usually do."
"I know from experience that hitting the bottle exacerbates my depression, but it makes me feel good for a few hours so I just keep drinking."
If you're one of these people, then I feel for you - I know where you're coming from - but the truth is that unless you act, you will never overcome your depression. It can be very difficult, but it will never be as hard as living with depression for the rest of your life - which is what will happen if you don't make the necessary changes in your life to recover.
4. Repeat steps one, two and three if and when you relapse
When you fall into a spell of depression, you always want to work through steps one, two and three, and after you do, you'll recover from that particular episode of depression. However in the future, you may relapse. And that's OK - relapse is part of recovery. What having a relapse means is that at that point in time, you're not able to manage your triggers to an extent so masterful as to prevent them from triggering you. So put more work into honing your coping mechanisms. Repeat steps one, two and three by working with your psychologist to try and understand and manage your triggers better, and go back to your psychiatrist or GP to assess whether there's a more beneficial medication and/or dosage you could be taking. And if you repeat these steps every time you have a relapse, your relapses will gradually become less intense and farther between, and eventually, you'll stop having relapses altogether. To quote a metaphor from my (free) memoir:
"It's as if there's a fortress surrounding your brain that's there to protect you from getting depressed, and every time you [repeat steps one, two and three], another armed guard gets posted outside it. If depression's army still gets through from time to time, then it just means there aren't enough guards defending it yet. But if you keep working hard to understand your triggers, then--combined with diligently taking your medication [if applicable], eating well, sleeping well and exercising frequently--you will eventually have so many guards protecting you that depression's army will be shut out for good. It'll have no way of getting through."
Do not give up
Returning to my original preface, recovery from depression is extremely difficult, because it requires you to be proactive when you feel exhausted, to fight when you feel like giving up, and to remain hopeful when depression is doing everything in its power to break your will. But if you stick to this four step approach, then I truly believe that recovery is inevitable - because while it is hard for a person to beat depression, it's even harder for depression to beat a person who never gives up.
If you enjoyed reading this post, I encourage you to download a FREE copy of my memoir here. Recounting my struggle and eventual triumph over depression, I wrote it so that sufferers of the illness could realise they are not alone - that there are other people out there who have gone through the same excruciating misery, and who have made it through to the other side. I also wrote it so that I could impart the lessons I learned on the long, rocky, winding road that eventually led to recovery - so that people could learn from my mistakes as well as my victories - particularly with regards to relationships; substance abuse; choosing a fulfilling career path; seeking professional help; and perhaps most importantly, having a healthy and positive attitude towards depression that enables recovery. Multiple-bestselling author Nick Bleszynski has described it as "beautifully written, powerful, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring ... a testament to hope."