Depression is a common mental illness that affects people of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, it’s one of the most common forms of mental illness.
In the year 2019, an estimated 19.4 million adults in the United States were affected by it.
When you feel depressed, simple things such as getting out of bed, maintaining friendships and enjoying your hobbies can seem overwhelming.
Life can seem dark and difficult, and the idea of making progress and recovering can feel impossible. You may feel like you'll never learn how to overcome depression.
The good news is that depression can be treated, usually with a mix of medication, therapy and effective self-help techniques.
Below, we’ve explained what depression is, as well as how habits, lifestyle changes and thinking techniques can help you to successfully recover from depression.
We’ve also shared nine self-help techniques that you can use to manage depression symptoms and make it through your depressive episodes.
Finally, we’ve discussed how more conventional treatments for depression, such as medication and psychotherapy, can complement self-help to assist you in your recovery.
Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mood disorder that can affect the way you think, feel and behave.
When you’re depressed, you may start to feel less interested in the hobbies, relationships and activities that you used to enjoy.
Your mental function may begin to suffer, and you may have a persistent sad or depressed mood that doesn’t improve no matter what you do.
To be diagnosed with depression, you’ll usually need to have symptoms that last for two weeks or longer and have a negative effect on your functioning.
Our guide to depression goes into more detail about what depression is, as well as the specific symptoms you may experience when you’re depressed.
While depression treatments such as medication and therapy usually have the biggest positive impact on the symptoms of depression, self-help strategies can make dealing with depression an easier process.
If you’re dealing with depression, try the nine self-help strategies below alongside your existing depression treatment.
Does exercise help with depression? Exercise has countless benefits, including for your mental health. In fact, significant amounts of scientific evidence show a clear link between regular exercise and improvements in many mood disorders, including depression.
Staying active may improve depression at a chemical level. When you run, cycle or take part in other types of exercise, your nervous system releases chemicals called endorphins, which can provide an immediate boost to your mood.
This is one of the reasons many people experience a “runner’s high” after a run around the city or other intense workout.
Exercise also has longer-term benefits on your mental health and cognition. In fact, working out triggers the release of neurotrophic factors that stimulate nerve growth and enhance your brain function.
This stimulation of nerve growth often improves areas of the brain affected by depression, such as the hippocampus.
Even if you’ve never exercised before, getting started isn’t as difficult as it seems. According to the CDC, just 150 minutes of weekly aerobic exercise and two strength workouts per week can have a huge positive impact on your health and wellbeing.
This could mean walking around your neighborhood for 30 minutes every weekday, plus doing two weekly workouts using weights or bodyweight exercises.
To make exercising easier, start by doing something that you enjoy. Create a playlist to improve your focus or try working out with other people to help you stay motivated.
Over time, you might find that exercising isn’t just a helpful treatment for depression, but also a new hobby.
When you’re depressed, it’s easy to isolate yourself and spend less time maintaining your most important relationships.
This is a serious problem that could make your depression worse, as loneliness is linked with a higher risk of anxiety, depression and suicide.
In fact, evidence shows that perceived social isolation is associated with poor sleep quality, an acceleration in cognitive decline, impaired executive function and even physical health issues, such as reduced cardiovascular function.
On the other hand, research shows that socializing with others can help people with depression get through tough times more easily.
If you’re depressed, it’s important to stay connected, especially with your family members, close friends and other people who care about you. You can stay connected by:
Letting your friends and family know you’re not feeling well. Try telling your closest friends and family members that you’re not feeling the best. These people can help you by providing support and listening when you need someone to talk to.
Scheduling lunches, dinners and other reasons to spend time together. Try taking the initiative and scheduling lunch or dinner with your loved ones. This gives you a great opportunity to connect in person and talk about anything that’s troubling you.
Spending time together, even if you don’t feel interested. If you’re depressed, it can be easy to feel more comfortable by yourself than with others. Try to fight the temptation to spend time alone. Instead, make it a priority to spend your time with other people.
Keeping in touch by phone or social media. A short call or daily chat via WhatsApp, Messenger or other applications can help you to keep in touch with loved ones when seeing each other in person isn’t possible.
If you’re experiencing severe depression symptoms, your friends and family can help you. Make sure to reach out to them if you need help finding a mental health professional, or if you’re going through a period of debilitating symptoms.
Joining a support group is a great way to connect with other people who also have depression, all while making progress towards recovery.
In a support group, you’ll have the opportunity to learn effective strategies for dealing with your depressive symptoms. You’ll also be able to talk to other people who’ve experienced the same symptoms as you.
Taking part in a support group is also a great way to get some social contact and avoid making yourself isolated from others.
You can find depression support groups locally by searching for “support group in [your city]” on Google.
You can also connect with others and learn strategies for dealing with depression from home using our online support groups.
One of the most common symptoms of depression is a loss of interest in or pleasure from your favorite hobbies and activities.
When you’re depressed, you might find that you’re less interested in maintaining your hobbies than normal.
Things like listening to music, playing sports or developing new skills may just not feel as pleasurable or fulfilling as they used to.
Even if you don’t feel the same level of sensation from these activities that you normally would, it’s always best to keep them in your life.
Simple things such as getting out of the house to play your favorite sport or finding new time for an old hobby can have a surprisingly large positive impact on your mood.
Even simple things like seeing a movie or visiting a local attraction can help you to regain some of your energy and positive attitude.
Over time, you may notice that these hobbies and activities become enjoyable again, giving you a helpful outlet for reducing stress, developing your skills and finding enjoyment and pleasure in life.
Mindfulness meditation involves learning how to pay close attention to your breathing, all while training your mind to help you stay anchored in the present moment.
Meditating offers a diverse range of health benefits, including improvements in depression and other mental health disorders.
It’s also linked to improvements in mental health in general, as well as higher ratings of quality of life.
One of the biggest benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it’s something you can do to treat depression from home in just a few minutes a day.
To meditate, find a quiet, peaceful place inside your home, then sit in a comfortable position. If you’re meditating for the first time, consider setting a timer for five to 10 minutes.
Slowly close your eyes and focus on the sensation of naturally breathing in and out.
As your mind wanders, try to bring it back to the physical sensation of your breath. Make sure not to get frustrated if your mind starts to wander — this is a natural, normal thing that happens to just about everyone who meditates.
When your timer rings, or when you feel ready to stop, open your eyes and pay attention to the way you feel and your environment.
Try stretching, sitting for a minute or two to make the most of the moment or simply get back to your daily routine.
Even a few minutes of daily mindfulness meditation can have a noticeable impact on your mood and potentially make your depressive symptoms less severe.
Depression and bad sleep often go hand in hand. In fact, research shows a strong link between depression and sleep disorders, with approximately three quarters of depressed people affected by insomnia.
Hypersomnia, which refers to excessive sleepiness, is also present in approximately 40 percent of young people with depression.
Lack of sleep can have a real negative impact on your mood, which may make the symptoms of depression worse.
Research has found that people who don’t sleep enough also show cognitive effects, including difficulty concentrating and memorizing information.
For optimal mental and physical health, it’s important for adults 18 and over to try and get at least seven hours of sleep per night, according to the CDC.
If you have trouble sleeping, making changes to your lifestyle may help you to drift off and stay asleep easier. Try the following techniques for better sleep:
Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This may help you to fall asleep faster and benefit from more hours asleep each night.
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon. It’s fine to drink coffee, but it’s best to avoid it after lunch if you have difficulty sleeping. Caffeine’s long half-life means it can stay in your bloodstream for hours and delay your body’s natural release of sleep hormones.
Avoid tech before bedtime. Research suggests that irregular light environments can disrupt your sleep habits. Try to avoid bright, direct light exposure (like your phone or PC turned up to 100% brightness) for at least an hour before bed.
Every year, millions of Americans may be affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that often develops during fall and winter.
Researchers believe that many cases of seasonal affective disorder may be related to reduced sunlight exposure and the effect that it can have on the production of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.
Interestingly, research shows that sun exposure may have benefits for people with certain types of depression.
In a study published in the journal Environmental Health in 2009, researchers found a clear link between a person’s level of sunlight exposure and their cognitive function, with low levels of sun exposure linked to reduced mental performance.
Other research has found an association between low levels of vitamin D (a vitamin produced in response to sun exposure) and mood disorders such as depression.
With this said, the relationship between vitamin D and depression is complex. While vitamin D is clearly linked to some aspects of your mood, it’s far from the only factor in depression.
If you’re feeling down, try spending more time outside during the daytime. As little as 15 minutes of sun exposure a few times per week can result in an increase in vitamin D production that may have a positive impact on your mood.
Depression is often worsened by cognitive distortions — negatively biased errors in your thinking that cause you to assume the worst in certain situations.
When you’re depressed, you might engage in cognitive distortions without realizing it. Common cognitive distortions include all-or-nothing thinking, where you assume that if a certain thing isn’t perfect, it’s worthless, or mental filtering, where you only pay attention to negatives.
It’s important to be able to identify and challenge these thoughts when you find them dominating your thinking.
If you find yourself downplaying positive aspects of your life, generalizing, or jumping to certain conclusions, try to challenge your thinking.
Look at people and situations in a neutral, objective way and try to avoid assuming the worst without good reason.
The way you think has a massive impact on how you feel. Try to identify negative thinking when it arises, then reframe your thoughts to be fair, balanced and objective.
If you have depression, you may experience occasional depressive episodes — periods in which your symptoms become more severe and intense.
During these episodes, maintaining a positive mood can feel virtually impossible. One easy way to make depressive episodes easier to deal with is to prepare a list of things that you can do to keep yourself occupied and focused on life.
Your list could include things like reading a new book, reaching out to friends for support, going to a family member’s home for dinner, listening to music, playing with your pet or spending time on a personal project.
Having a list of activities ready to go gets rid of uncertainty and helps you to avoid wasting your time working out what to do.
Over time, you may find that a few activities on your list take your mind off of negative thoughts and other symptoms, allowing you to come out of any depressive episodes feeling focused and ready to make the most of life.
Since it can be difficult to think of what to do when you’re experiencing a depressive episode, try enlisting the help of a close friend or family member to plan what you can do before you develop these paralyzing feelings.
While self-help strategies can improve depression symptoms, they’re generally not viewed as a first-line treatment option for depression.
Mental health professionals generally treat depression using medication, therapy or a combination of both.
Most forms of depression are treated with antidepressants — medications that increase levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain and body.
If you’re depressed, your healthcare provider may prescribe a type of antidepressant referred to as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to treat your symptoms.
Antidepressants are highly effective, but they can take several weeks to start working. You may need to take medication for two to four weeks before you notice any difference in how you feel, and your sleep patterns and mental function may improve before your mood.
Our full list of antidepressants provides more information about the most common medications used to treat depression.
If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, your mental health provider may suggest taking part in psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves talking to a licensed mental health provider about your symptoms, feelings, thoughts and behavior.
There are several main forms of therapy for depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
This method of therapy involves identifying the thoughts and behaviors that are causing you to feel depressed, then developing strategies to change them.
Our guide to psychotherapy provides more information about how therapy works, as well as the different therapeutic techniques that are used to treat depression.
Depression is a serious mental illness. If you’re feeling depressed, it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional for help and assistance.
You can connect with a mental health professional locally by asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral, or by searching for mental health providers in your city.
Combined with medication and psychotherapy, the self-help techniques above can help you to change negative thought patterns, gain more control over your feelings and make measurable, real progress towards recovering from depression.
Need more help dealing with depression? Our free mental health resources feature strategies, exercises and other techniques for dealing with depression, anxiety and other common mental health concerns.
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Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.