Working Through Depression

Life doesn’t always go the way we want. You might be going through emotional pain or upset. I’ve been there, and after multiple bouts with depression, I developed a set of habits that–if it doesn’t prevent The Suck from getting to me, at least shortens the amount of time I suffer through it. What follows is my approach; it might or might not work for you–and if you’re in serious trouble, I recommend a therapist. But for those times between visits to the shrink, you might find this helpful.

Taking action on your own behalf

One of the worst parts of depression is that a really bad case will even suck out of you the will to do anything about it. And the worst of the symptoms is despair: the feeling that you are so broken you are beyond help and beyond redemption. Before you end up visiting Despair Street, you have to bring yourself to the following beliefs: 1) your life is worth living, 2) you are worth taking care of, and 3) you have the ability to take action on your own behalf.

The short version of my approach to depression is simply this: do one good thing for yourself daily. I don’t mean something basic like getting dressed or paying your bills. I mean taking some direct action on your own behalf to solve a problem, achieve a dream, or improve your mood.

Making (and taking joy from) incremental progress

It doesn’t always have to be a major thing: you don’t have to commit to writing 10,000 words of that novel you always said you were going to write or sign up to return to school to pursue the degree you wanted. It could be a step toward a bigger goal, like researching degree programs or payment methods or acquiring and reading reference books that you need to make your novel more realistic. Or your one thing might be to simply make a list of the little things you need to do to accomplish the Big Thing that feels so impossible, intimidating, or overwhelming.

All this assumes, of course, that you have a situation that allows you to take the time to take actions one day at a time. If you’ve got something life-threatening going on that’s sent you into a tailspin, you might need to do multiple little things in a day. Fair caveat: this is addressed to folks living in a state of civilization–I’m dubious about how effective all of this is in conditions of serious physical distress like war, famine, natural disaster, etc. But still, if you have the ability to act, you need to.

Incremental, real progress is still progress. And if the Big Thing you want to do is compelling enough to keep you going, then the habit of pursuing it can become engrained into your daily living. You will eventually feel the ability and urge to take larger steps, until you come to the realization that you are, in fact, pursuing your own version of happiness and that effort is worth making. How you spend your life is how you spend your days, and if your days–or at least small parts of them–are dedicated to improving yourself and your life, those days are not wasted. And the process of working toward your goals–and succeeding–will go a long way toward improving your state of mind.

I’ve done this multiple times in my life because I’ve had to, and it’s worked. I haven’t always been in the best frame of mind when I’ve accomplished some of the large tasks in my life (getting the M.A., running a conference, finishing some novels), but I accomplished them by keeping myself on task, day after day, laying row upon row of individual bricks until the day I finished and realized that I’d built the skyscraper, pyramid, or cathedral I’d had in mind from the beginning. If I find myself surprised by some of the things I’ve done with my life, I have to remember, “Oh yeah, I’ve been working on that every day, haven’t I?”


So that’s the process:

  1. Pick a big, important thing you want to do to improve your life and make yourself happy.
  2. Identify the actions needed to make that big, important thing a reality, breaking down those steps into smaller, bite-size chunks that you can handle on a daily basis.
  3. Start doing those little tasks one by one until you’ve done them all.
  4. Take time to acknowledge your success.
  5. Use your newfound happiness/improved life condition to identify the next goal.

I’ll edit those steps down to be more pithy eventually–maybe come up with a mnemonic (PISTU?) or something–but that will do for now. This is not therapy in the strictest sense. It is a structured way to get myself doing something constructive when I’m feeling down and out. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you have the ability to take action on your own behalf, take it and believe that it’s worth doing.

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