Depression can be a frustrating disorder to deal with. More than the sadness, the hopelessness or any of the other well-known symptoms of depression, the thing that most people with depression are likely to struggle the most with is the lack of motivation.
With depression, the things that bring you joy no longer do the trick, and your obligations start to feel less important. All of this can leave you feeling really unmotivated and stuck.
Getting motivated with depression isn’t about just flipping a switch or “powering through,” though — there are some effective ways to get yourself back on track and feeling like you’re capable again, even if they come one step at a time.
Depression has a massive impact on our productivity and our motivation for a few reasons, and the best way to explain why is to start with the definition of depression.
A depressive disorder is often diagnosed when these patterns are recurring and frequent in your daily life, and when the feelings begin to negatively impact your happiness, performance and quality of life.
Here’s a big caveat: the medical community doesn’t fully understand why we get depressed.
Genetics, upbringing and environment are some contributing factors, and we have some scientific understanding of risk factors for depression and things that can trigger it, but there’s no one universal explanation for why it happens to some at-risk people and not others.
Depression symptoms can vary from person to person. You may be showing signs of depression if you’ve become persistently irritable or angry, tired or fatigued, are behaving recklessly (like abusing drugs and alcohol) or if you’re tired or sleep-deprived.
And, most importantly in the context of this article, if you’re feeling unmotivated.
Motivation is defined as short-term focused energy that can be used to overcome boredom, hunger and other “primary deficiencies” like hygiene or the need for power or self-actualization.
Interestingly enough, these are the very things that depression can affect, too.
Essentially, motivation is what keeps us wanting to achieve, move forward, become the best version of ourselves and find meaning or pursue our interests.
So how do we overcome this mental and emotional block between where we are and where we want to be? How do we get back on the motivation train, and off the bummed-out bench?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer isn’t simple. After all, if getting over depression could be taught in a few hundred words, we might not need all the mental health resources we have at our disposal.
Experts are always quick to caution that depression isn’t something you can just “get over” — it often takes the help and support of family, friends, loved ones, mental health professionals and sometimes medication and other treatments.
That said, some of us don’t have the luxury of waiting for motivation to return. There are personal and professional responsibilities that we have to address, whether we feel like it or not.
If you find yourself in this situation, there are some tools and exercises recommended by experts that can help you get into the right mindset to find your motivation again.
It may be counterintuitive, but one of the easiest ways to try and jumpstart your motivation is to decide not to wait for it.
You don’t actually need to feel motivated to accomplish something. In fact, you can choose to do it in spite of a lack of motivation.
Doing this isn’t just a way to make progress when unmotivated — it’s also a way to exercise some agency against depression.
By choosing to do it regardless of feelings, you’re taking depression out of the driver’s seat, and that’s a good thing for you and your mental health.
Sometimes, motivation can be found in simplifying the tasks in front of you.
Breaking big-picture tasks like “move to the top of the company” into smaller tasks (like “get a raise”) can make overwhelming tasks feel more manageable.
Keep trimming things down until you find a one-off or daily task that feels within your grasp, even if it’s, “write the first sentence of an email.”
Typically, once you get working on that first sentence, you’ll find that writing the next one comes naturally.
It can be difficult to see progress when you have so much more to do.
Sometimes, people will get so wrapped up in what’s ahead of them that they forget to look back on what they’ve done. That’s a mistake, and it’s a missed opportunity for self-encouragement.
Sure, your inbox may still have 700 emails in it, but if you’ve already handled 100 of them, you’ve made huge progress. Reinforce this with a reward, like a break, a snack, or a quick trip over to your favorite social media escape.
Remembering to honor what you’ve accomplished — even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal now — is how we build momentum and find new motivation. So the next time you fall short of your step goal for the day, remember to acknowledge the steps you did get in.
Not sure where to start? Put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s motivated. Taking a moment to try and imagine yourself with the motivation you wish you had is a great way to get started, even if you feel a bit silly.
If a motivated version of you would put on some headphones and turn off your phone to do a task, follow that instinct.
There’s no harm in failing to get things going, but sometimes you’ll find that going through familiar routines will kickstart something you weren’t able to find just a few minutes earlier.
Realistically, the exercises we mentioned above might not work for you. Or, they might work for you at first, and then stop working. Or maybe they work perfectly. Either way, it’s okay.
Depression is a condition that fights real and imagined motivation at every step and tries to convince you of how hopeless or pointless it is to try and accomplish something.
When depressive thoughts seem like they’re dominating the fight, that’s when it’s time to seek some professional help and contact a healthcare professional.
Asking for help is intimidating for many people, but it shouldn’t be.
A mental health professional will generally advise a course of therapy, medication, lifestyle changes or some combination of these treatments.
For many people, the best therapeutic option may be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is popular because it helps depressed individuals work through depressive thoughts with exercises to spot and correct negative thoughts (including the ones that sap your motivation).
Medication will generally take the form of antidepressants, and while there are many on the market, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications are generally considered the safest and most effective today.
These medications work by moderating the levels of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter for regulating mood, and by regulating the serum serotonin levels in your brain, you can take charge of some mood disorders.
If symptoms of depression are starting to affect your daily life, you owe it to yourself to address them, especially if they're preventing you from completing everyday tasks or harming your physical health.
We tend to ignore problems until they become worse, but getting mental health treatment before you experience severe depression is crucial for your long-term health and happiness.
Getting help is easy these days — resources like online therapy are an option. The catch-22, of course, is that it can be difficult to find motivation with depression — even the motivation to get help.
Push through on this one — make this your first achievement in the face of your mental health issues and get help today.
Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience.
As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.