Self-Starting When Depressed

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How can you activate yourself to get anything done when you’re depressed? Several readers have asked about this basic need to keep functioning when your mood, mind and body do not want to cooperate. I’ve written before about working when depressed, but it’s not only about work. It’s about self-starting when depressed so that you can be present for everything in your life.

It’s about pushing through all the resistance of depression to be active in relationships, to cook a meal, to talk to a friend, and especially to keep practicing the methods that help you heal from the illness.

Here is the familiar litany you probably know well if you’ve lived with depression for any length of time.

  • I feel so bad I’m in no mood to get anything done. I just can’t.
  • My body and mind feel heavy. I can hardly move and can’t bring myself to get going and do anything.
  • My ability to concentrate is gone. Since I can’t focus I can’t do any work.
  • I wake up with no sense of purpose, forgetful of what I’m supposed to be doing, having no clue where to start.
  • My thoughts are flying in forty directions.
  • I have no energy or motivation to do anything.

I’ve had to fight these moods and effects of depression most of my life. I’ve probably succumbed more often than not in the past. But there are too many times when I’ve had to show up, talk to people, spend time with my family, or a hundred other things when all I wanted was to go home and lie down.

The only way I’ve been able to get through is to use some of the methods I’ve learned from several therapies I’ve worked with. Some of the most effective techniques help me look closely at what I do and what I think in the midst of the situations that I feel unable to manage.

None of the moods or mental or physical effects of depression feel good, but I’ve learned to watch for the moment between identifying all those debilitating feelings and deciding what I will do. There is a difference between a dark mood and the action or inaction that you take in response to it. If you can stir yourself into minimal action, despite the mood, you may find yourself waking up just enough to get going.

I am talking about choosing to take an action, but I’m not suggesting for a moment that depression itself is a choice. As you know, it has multiple causes that no one understands fully, but it’s a well-established condition. It’s no fiction or weakness or imagined state. It’s as real as can be.

But despite its burden, there is still a range of action that you can take. When I’ve felt completely listless and fogged in by depression – sometimes not even able to speak at a normal rate – I have usually escaped to a safe refuge where I could be alone and free to do nothing.

But day-to-day living, with its relationships, work and the basic needs of self-care, remained there, waiting to be done, not just thought or felt about.

The method I learned began with tracking the situations that were the most difficult to handle. I also tracked the physical, emotional and mental states I lived in as I tried to take part in them – and what I did and what I felt after taking each action.

This is a method that focuses on behavior above everything else. The idea is that self-activation to do the things you would rather not do when depressed has a therapeutic effect that builds over time.

Apart from any specific model of therapy, most self-help books will make a similar point. Depression is about inaction, passivity, feeling overwhelmed and generally stuck. Anything you can do to get active in your own treatment helps counter that impact. Doing things despite depression helps.

Even a small sense of accomplishment feels good. Those small steps can not only start to alter your mood and physical feeling. They can also help establish habits and skills that will be useful whenever you are depressed.

There is no simple way to start yourself going – and I readily admit that I haven’t always been able to push through a lethargy that can feel like glue.

Here are a few of the most basic steps I usually can take to strike the first spark.

  • Breathing, stretching, walking – any physical activity that helps me feel my body waking up has a mind-opening effect. My focus switches from the inside of my head and feelings to my external, physical being.
  • There’s a refreshing flow of blood in the simplest movement that has a little umph to it, like flinging arms out and stretching them straight back from the shoulders. I perk up with awareness that, yes, I can move. I’m not a hulking, immobile mass.
  • Quick meditation, even if limited to deep breathing, is centering and calming. I can focus on the movement of air in and out of my lungs, the lifting of diaphragm and shoulders with really deep breaths.
  • The same effect happens if I can focus outward on a physical object, a color, a sound – the important thing is to keep directing attention back to the focal point after it wanders away.

Then my mind is clear enough to focus on what I’m trying to do and take a first active step.

I try not to think about completing everything I want to get done but only an immediate action that starts me in that direction. There is always a first step, no matter how trivial. If I need to call someone, I can get the number from the address book. Then I can write down the first thing I want to talk about. Writing turns on another part of the brain. I can stand up, move around a little, say something out loud and feel my voice vibrating. I’m here. I can do things. Then it’s easier to focus on picking up the phone and making the call.

It wouldn’t work if I focused on the conversation from the outset. I need to take it one step at a time when I’m trying to pull out of depression.

Everything can be broken down into small steps. One action can lead to the one after that. I get busy – without worrying about getting everything done all at once. I do the initial thing.

This not only gets me going, but over time the approach turns into more of a habit. It builds on itself – start with waking up the body, then focusing the mind, then coordinating both to take a first step.

On many days, this is the only way I can push through depression and do what I need to do.

What are the methods that work for you?

(This post is reprinted from the Newsletter archive.)