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.)

21 Responses to “Self-Starting When Depressed”

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  1. Christopher says:

    S, S, S but most important for me is to allow the hot water of a shower soak in.

  2. Mike says:

    John, I am really grateful for the way you have written this blog with so much honesty and care. It has given me hope and encouragement, thank you.

  3. Elaine Phillips says:

    Hello Everyone,
    I suppose the first thing I need to say is that I am not depressed and after reading your stories I suspect that I have only ever felt remotely close once in my life so I don’t have a lot if experience. The reason I have arrived here is to tell my story which is incredible when I think about it! If your interested please read on if you have given up on my pitch already good night!
    I met my husband (paul) in 2003 and he had a brother (Joe) who was married to (Sally). They had been together/ married for 10 years when we got together. I and many others would have said the perfect couple!!
    But on a cold morning in Oct 2013 Joe came banging on our front door ” let me in let me in” when we went down he was distraught. He explained that when he woke up at 5.00am (it was dark and cold) Sally was standing at the window in their bedroom stairing outside saying in an non recognisable voice “oh it’s a wonderful life look, it’s a wonderful life”
    And then she turned to where Joe was lying in the bed and in the most incredibly horrible tone said” I know what your doing I know your trying to kill me”
    This was so far from the truth because for so many months things had been changing for Sally mentally and Joe just didn’t know what to do. I feel he didn’t get good help from the Nhs and as a result they have broken up the relationship because she never recovered. Although after several months of banging doors on Joes part Sally didn’t take the Medicine she was prescribed. There are now 3 children devastated from this. Can anyone relate to my situation?? I know I don’t fully understand depression but maybe I can try,
    Emily x

  4. ML says:

    I really like the physical aspects you bring into this. I am one who tends to live in my head as much as possible (to my detriment, I’m sure).

    One of the biggest things I found that builds up over time is eliminating the word “can’t” from my vocabulary. It takes a lot of work, but once you start to say “I won’t do this,” or “I’m not going to do this,” or “I don’t do this,” it starts to give back a lot of power to your situation.

    It obviously won’t be a miraculous change, but if you catch yourself as you start to fall back into the darkness, self-activation in general can help tremendously to at least stave it off for a little longer.

  5. Although my bouts of depression appear to be behind me now, I still recall the herculean strength required to robotically move through my day. Since my depression was tied to childhood trauma I was driven to be constantly distracted as a form of escape and denial. I love your suggestions of meditating (which can physically alter the brain for a more positive life experience), stretching and getting your body parts in motion and deep breathing. I’ve found all of those effective for dealing with the effects of Post Childhood-Trauma Disorder (PC-TD) too and speak at length about them in my book. I would welcome your comments on my site at

  6. fighter says:

    What I do lately to get myself over not wanting to start, is to think about several things.
    1. Life is difficult. Just remembering that one fact of life actually really helps. It helps me realize if I wait until life gets easier (and I’m not depressed), it could be too late. Don’t delay just because it feels awful.
    2. Remind myself over and over (and over) that moods shift and change like the clouds, and this too shall pass. But just as rain doesn’t keep us indoors, depression can’t stop me from moving into action.
    3. I’m a fighter! I’ve survived this long, and I need to remind myself that sometimes life feels like a fight. And that’s okay.
    4. I have a post-it on my wall that says, “No matter how badly you want to stop – KEEP GOING!!”
    5. And lastly, I have decided that this life is for me and that I’m on a personal spiritual journey. I’m here to learn something. Life is testing me, and I want to continue to grow, depression or no depression!

  7. FoMHealth says:

    Forcing ourselves to keep going even when we are ready to, or have already given up is one of the hardest things to do. It takes tremendous courage to keep going and keep fighting when our head and our body is telling us to quit. On those hardest days, even getting out of bed feels impossible. But having techniques and strategies on what to try when this happens is so important. Meditation is a great place to start, taking a moment to breathe and be at one with your body can often help give us a bit of clarity before the fight resumes! For me, I always keep myself busy and while I want to give up and not go, I know that I have to and the more I distract myself the more I find that when I have my quiet times, the less I feel like giving up. We all need to find little ways of coping and dealing with our mental health issues.

  8. Cara says:

    I’m struggling at the moment with my husband who has gone into depression. I was at my wits end when I woke up this morning and found your blog. It’s given me hope

  9. Wendy Chance says:

    This is an informative and helpful articles. Bravo!

  10. Jim says:

    With each small thing I do I perceive it as a small victory, an accomplishment. Even if it is just brushing my teeth. Eventually you can look back and see all of your little victories.

  11. monica says:

    Thank you all for sharing I didn’t realize I was suffering from depression until I read this. I knew something was wrong with me but I wasn’t sure what. I have a 6 month old baby girl and if it wasn’t for her I would sleep my day away and just pity my life because I never had anything to be proud of or live for. At least now I wake up knowing she is a reason to live healthy and positive . I just need to find skills and coping methods to get through the daily and long term effects of depression. Any suggestions?

  12. Mark Noo says:

    I find that I start like a train. Slow and steady until I get up to speed. Once I get some momentum going I sort of ride the day out.

  13. Susan says:

    John. So glad I stumbled across this. Just getting over a depression that lasted almost two years and rendered me almost non compos mentis. Taking baby steps back to the world of living, and all that includes including trying to write after not being able to write after not being able to for a long time.

    It’s like emerging from a coma. Every muscle is asleep and every brain cell hurts. But at least it’s living again and baby steps.

    Thank you so much for this piece.

    • Betsy says:

      Hi, Like Susan, I am now recovering from a 2 year depression that left me dysfunctional. At that time, I could not move if I wanted to. But, with medication, therapy, and a strong determination to get better, I am now fighting my way back to life. It is true that taking the first step makes a big difference. Walking, praying, and journaling help me to face each day and make the most of it. Thanks for this blog. It is very helpful and I am thankful to know that there are others who combat depression the way I do. Best of luck to you Susan as you make your way out of depression.

  14. Heather says:

    I’m not there yet. My daughter challenged me to stop giving in to depression and fight it. She says I can get over it. I’ve lived with it all my life. It got me thinking ‘can I get over depression?’ So I googled just that and found your site. Wow! Maybe I can.

  15. kim says:

    Heather, I truly understand where you are coming from. I have a 9 year old son and I have suffered from depression, since before he was born. After having him, at times my depression became unbearable.(I’ve ended up in the hospital 3x in 9 years). But, having my son has also given me the determination to go on and not give up, no matter what. There have been times that I’ve felt he would be better off without me. Luckily, I realized that is definitely not the case. I still suffer everyday, but some days are easier than others. I stayed on the couch, just sleeping my days away, not wanting to move and finding no pleasure in anything I did. I knew this was, and still is, affecting my son. He is the reason I keep fighting. I would literally wake up crying. As soon as I opened my eyes the tears would come. That is how much pain I was in. One day my son taped 3 pieces of paper to the wall. The first one said.”You have to stop worrying now”, with a stick figure of me drawn below it. This one was taped to the mirror, so that I couldn’t miss it. On the next piece of paper, which he taped to the door, it said, “…and start hugging!” with stick figures of the 2 of us holding hands and saying, “I love you!” The 3rd one said,” Stop being depressed now! Think positive!” with the word positive underlined and a line drawn to it stating, “main idea.” I realized, I HAVE to do something. My little boy needs me. And he needs me happy and healthy. This at least got me off the couch and into a day program, which gave my day structure. I’m learning how to use DBT techniques there, along with therapy, which has been helpful. I still feel like I have a long way to go, but I figure, at least I’m going!!! I’m doing something. I still feel alot of shame and guilt, and worry about the future like crazy, but I know it is making me feel a lot better than if I was doing nothing. Believe me, I know what it’s like to see no reason to even wake up in the morning, but you HAVE to find something, anything, that at least gets you to take that first step. Please don’t give up! Your daughter needs you. If you can’t do it for yourself right now, at least try to do it for her. I wish you the best and take care of yourself! Kim
    PS: Even now, as i reread what I just wrote to you, I’m thinking to myself, “Yeah, I sound so positive, but can I really do this?” The answer is, “I don’t know, but I’m sure as hell gonna try!” Please try, too! People do care, even if you don’t know it or feel it right now. Ok, that’s quite enough out of me! Have a good night!

  16. amanda says:

    you can just take things one day at a time and you will make it though believe in yourself no matter what

  17. Katherine says:

    Yeah, I have my “do as I say, not as I do” moments too–including, more than once, staying up late to crowd in time for writing a blog post on the hazards of overloaded schedules! I could use a whole book on just the first half of one sentence from the above post: “I try not to think about completing everything I want to get done.”

    One thing I find helpful in building new habits is to enlist someone to be accountable to; even just putting up a Facebook post can work there. It’s harder to break your word to somebody else than just to yourself!


  1. Storied Mind says:

    Self-Starting When Depressed

    Self-Starting When Depressed How can you activate yourself to get anything done when you’re depressed

  2. Storied Mind says:

    Self-Starting When You Are Depressed

    Self-Starting When You Are Depressed How can you activate yourself to get anything done when you’re

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