Everybody’s battle against depression is different – but regardless of how you fight, it’s always difficult to feel better when depressed. Unlike a challenge you can face head-on, depression is sly, cunning, and never plays fair. It worms its way into the brain and convinces you of terrible things. Bad thoughts that make it harder and harder to do anything.
To actively prevent negative thinking and improve upon symptoms of depression, you need to be in a better mindset. But how do you do that, if you’re constantly sad?
This blog post is a little list of things that I’ve found really help when feeling down or depressed. But don’t take it as gospel. There’s more out there to improving depression than feeling a little good, and fighting depression is often about so much more than just positive thinking and a healthy dose of optimism.
Don’t get me wrong: it can help. That’s why I’m writing about it – sometimes, you need to feel just a little better if you’re going to be fighting depression at all. But know this – only you and those around you with the experience and know-how to treat a mental illness like depression can really help you get to a better place, for good.
An Important Disclaimer
Depression can be a disorder or a symptom. Even as a disorder, MDD (major depressive disorder) 1 is just one of several illnesses characterized primarily by long bouts of severe sadness.
Your depression could be environmental, stemming from abuse or trauma. It could be an extreme response to outside stress, with factors including high tension in the workplace and at home, as well as a genetic predisposition.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve met people with very different reasons for their depression, and with very different symptoms and causes. Every single one of them was struggling and suffering, and their struggle was equally valid and equally deserving of treatment.
But the ideal treatment – the right approach – was always different. This isn’t about teaching you how to treat your depression. It’s about giving you ideas for little pick-me-ups that might help you, for just a little while, enough to get you in the right headspace to seek help.
I’ve worked to outline depression in the past, giving a little overview on things like why it happens, or why it’s a real and valid disorder. But my goal here is to help people live with depression, in all its forms, and that means including as much information as I can. It’ll be generalized.
Not all of it will apply to you or help you. But by all means, I hope you’ll find something you can work with. Keep on living and keep on fighting.
1.) Seek Out Laughter
Nothing lifts the spirit quite as quickly as a big belly laugh. Comedy is more than just a favorable pastime – it can actually be a surprising way to treat a case of serious sadness. 2 It might take a little longer for the jokes to take their effect, but when you take some time to seek out funny content, you’ll notice that you can feel better through it.
Notoriously, comics struggle with depression and anxiety. The link between both isn’t exactly perfectly documented, and it’d be wrong to insinuate that most comics are depressed or have been depressed.
It takes a lot of intelligence and understanding to be a successful comic, and while comedy is many things, one of those things is the natural ability to deconstruct a lot of what we consider normal human behavior, pointing out little absurdities that, while true, have to make us chuckle.
That comes with learning to process thoughts, often sad ones, and coming up with quick punchlines to soften blows and cope with negativity. It’s only a given that someone should pay earnest attention to the benefits comedy as a way to work through thoughts and feelings, rather than writing a laugh off as nothing serious, just because it’s funny.
In other words: attend comedy mic nights, watch stand up shows, pull up a list of your favorite funny movies, and make a collection of clips that make you chuckle or even just help you crack a smile.
2.) Get Sweaty
A lot of people groan at the thought of exercising for mental health. It’s mostly because, well, a lot of people don’t like exercising.
Listen, I don’t blame you. I hate running. Miss me with the HIIT sessions. I don’t Crossfit. No to burpees, cleans, or kipping. The majority of my time spent exercising is spent doing things I like doing. That’s what you should be doing, ideally.
If you can stand in a room alone or with a few other people and jump and dance to 90s hip-hop, then more power to you. Make a schedule around that and do it a few times a week, and you’re already exercising.
There’s a million and one ways to move the human body, and one of them is bound to be interesting and fun for you. By doing it regularly, you lessen the chance of not doing it when you’re having an off day.
Sometimes, when you’re having one of those days, doing an entire session just isn’t feasible. So, don’t – just do a little something, anything. Instead of hitting the gym, try and roll out of bed and do a handful of pushups or sit ups. Anything you can muster will make a bit of a difference – even the bare minimum of an effort affects the way you think and feel, giving you a natural dopamine boost. 3
3.) Watch Puppies Play
Cute things make us feel good. 4 You might not like puppies (for some reason), but most of humanity is wired to react a certain way to things that are universally deemed cute.
This is because we all have our own protective instincts, especially with animals that we consider generally non-threatening. Watching little lambs figure out how to jump, watching puppies wrestle for the first time, seeing kittens chase an acorn through a backyard – if it’s not a baby insect, reptile, or invertebrate, it’s likely to be pretty gosh darn cute.
You’d be surprised how watching cute things can help you calm down, erase negative thoughts, and just be a little happier for a while. Sometimes that’s all you need.
4.) Tick Something Off the To-Do List
Failure hits everyone hard, but it hits people with depression exceptionally hard. If you’re struggling with a disorder that actively tells you you’re worthless, any affirmation in that direction is likely to hit home with a lot of heft, and leave you feeling absolutely miserable. What you need in these moments is a quick and easy win – no matter what it is, any win will do.
Make a to-do list, at any given time when you’re feeling fine and motivated. Don’t go for really big goals, like, climbing a mountain or nailing a promotion. Make your to-do list with little, simple things in mind, like cleaning a single room, tackling one pile of laundry, or doing a little bit of meal prep. It can be anything – it doesn’t have to be a chore.
Then, when you’re feeling down, just take out that list – make sure it’s always clearly visible to you – and pick anything off the list to do really quick. Just tell yourself that you’re going to do it in just a few minutes. Take a couple deep breaths and repeat that thought. It’ll only take a few minutes. Several dozen seconds. You can do it! You can.
Once you’re doing it, and once you’re done doing it, you’ll often feel a bit better.
5.) Get Up as Fast as Possible
I don’t really mean get up and out of a chair as fast as possible, because sometimes, that’s a pretty good way to knock yourself out. What I mean is take things step by step, and then knock those steps out of the park as quickly as possible. Go for speed. This is an important tip for the days when you’re stuck in bed and you just can’t get out of bed.
There are many reasons why getting out of bed is a big challenge, but the simplest way to explain it is that when you’re depressed, it’s easy to fall into the rhythm of getting ahead of yourself.
You wake up and think about what’s coming up next. And the thoughts just wash over you. It gets very overwhelming.
You end up stuck in bed, unable to muster the motivation to get up. Why bother, you might think.
Instead, think of step one. Underwear. That’s it. Just repeat it in your head. I need to get up and out of this bed and put on something to wear.
Don’t worry about what. Just grab anything. Focus on the speed, not the details. And take it a step at a time. Get up – check. Grab a thing – check. Good, you’re through the worst of it.
6.) Go Outside
I don’t mean step into a jungle or hit up the nearest hiking trail – sometimes, just taking a few steps out the front door of your home or apartment build is enough. You need light and air. 5
It won’t necessarily be fresh air depending on where you live, but chances are it’ll be better than what you’ve got indoors, and the light is the more important part.
When you need a quick pick-me-up, just take a few moments to stare up into the sky and think about nothing in particular. Focus on your breathing, if you want to. Or admire a strangely-shaped cloud, and picture what it might be.
7.) Recite a Mantra
Affirmations and motivational phrases don’t work for everyone, but they can work especially well for the people that do get a kick out of them. Sometimes, it takes knowing the right phrase to make use of a mantra. It doesn’t have to be something like “I love myself unconditionally.”
It could be a phrase that gets you fired up, something that makes you clench your teeth and feel excited. Or something that reminds you of a particular thing you keep close to your heart, like a song lyric, or a meaningful quote.
Take some time to play around with – and when you’re having trouble, remember that phrase. Repeat it to yourself. The feeling will set in – words are magical like that.
8.) Get a Hug
Yeah, sometimes it’s really just that simple. All you need is a hug – well, it’s probably not all you need, but a tight squeeze from someone you love can help.
Not everyone is comfortable with close physical contact, so your mileage may vary, but there is a lot of scientific research behind this. When we’re born and begin to develop a close bond with those around us – first our mothers, and then others – our brains release a neurotransmitter called oxytocin, not to be confused with opioids that sound similar. 6
This neurotransmitter essentially makes us feel “safe”, and it’s one of the primary neurotransmitters associated with feelings of loving and being loved.
It’s not just hugging that generates this neurotransmitter in the brain. Cuddling, snuggling, spooning, kissing, and caressing are all potent ways to release oxytocin – but if you’re single or away from your partner, a quick hug from a friend or parent is a good way to feel a little better. Try it.
9.) Get a Little Treat
We all know that stress eating is a bad thing, but it’s an equally bad idea to completely write off the idea of using food as a way to combat depression.
You just have to be smart about it. Feeding yourself donuts or ordering a large amount of Chinese take-out because you’re feeling depressed is absolutely a terrible idea.
Not only will this lead to overeating, poor physical health, and related self-esteem and body image issues, but most people are overcome with negative feelings of guilt as soon as they’re through a major food binge. Most, if not all of us, know that it’s bad to “treat yourself” when you’re feeling depressed.
But there are guilt-free ways to use food to be a little happier, and actually bring a boost to your day. Protein shakes, walnuts, or a handful of blueberries or raspberries in unsweetened yoghurt are all quick and easy snacks that boost your mood and have long-term benefits. 7
Walnuts and blueberries are particularly great for improving brain health, and increased protein consumption is linked with feeling better – you’re more likely to be happy if you’ve got more protein.
That doesn’t mean shoving lots of meat into your diet. There are plenty alternate sources for protein, including chickpeas (a major ingredient in delicious hummus recipes) lentils, and various other legumes. Combine a legume with a grain (rice, bread, pasta), and you’re getting the benefits of slow-burning carbs with a protein boost.
10.) Have Tea with a Friend
Grabbing a coffee is a colloquial expression for hanging out with a pal to catch up, but coffee isn’t always the best beverage for someone with depression, especially if you’re feeling bad and need something to help you feel better. Instead, grab tea with a friend, focusing on the friend part.
The first challenge here is getting up and getting out of the house to go meet them. This is the hard part, but it’s actually a good way to get out of a negative headspace. Keep in mind the advice offered earlier, about doing things fast and in small steps.
Use that same mindset to get out of your home. Alternatively, just invite your friend over to your place. Having someone else around to talk to can sometimes be exactly what you need to feel better.
11.) Compliment Someone
It might sound like a strange suggestion, but here’s the breakdown: making others feel good can help you feel better, too. 8 It has a researched and scientific basis, and the gist of it is that if we find ourselves in a positive social interaction, our brain releases more feel-good chemicals.
The more positive social interactions we have in a day, the better we feel. Getting a stranger or a friend to smile because of an unexpected and wholesome comment can immensely improve your mood – the trick is getting yourself to make that comment.
Don’t think too much about it, and simply be sincere. If you see someone who is rocking an especially nice pair of shoes, just tell them. Or if you’re admiring a haircut from afar, leave a little comment.
Nothing creepy, obviously – just a “I like your haircut!” is enough to get that surprised and pleased smile.
12.) Hold the Door
Aside from compliments, general courtesies and niceties can also make you feel a little better. You don’t have to hold the door open for minutes at a time – just keeping it open for a stranger with their hands full can be another simple and cost-free positive social interaction to give you a little boost of happiness.
There’s a line between being nice and giving way in ways that damage your self-esteem.
Doing a nice thing for someone who is having a bad day or is obviously struggling can help your mood. But being pushed around can make you feel worse. You’ll know the difference from situation to situation.
13.) Think About the Good Things
A lot of people talk about this, and frame it as “gratitude”. It gets frowned upon and is viewed as an empty platitude, but if you take a moment to explore the idea, then you’ll see how this can legitimately help you feel a bit better.
Depression is characterized by many things, since sadness isn’t the most definite of mental symptoms. But one more specific symptom is negative thinking. This includes many forms of negativity, from “I’m a terrible failure” to “life is pointless”.
Practicing gratitude can help some people drown out these thoughts with positive ones. This is a major part of certain effective psychotherapies, like CBT. 9
What you do is think of anything in your life that you might take for granted, and you think about how nice it is that it’s in your life. It can be your pet’s unconditional love, or your partner’s affection, or the job you have, even if you’re not a big fan of it.
However, note that gratitude doesn’t work for everyone. Getting a hug or eating something with lots of healthy fats can be more effective, because it provides an immediate boost of the right neurotransmitters in the brain.
But in both the short term and the long-term, for depressed people with certain biological factors, regularly taking medication (or changing medications if your current prescription is not effective) often has a bigger effect.
14.) Spend Time with a Lover
Remember when I mentioned oxytocin? A more significant boost in feel-good chemicals can be achieved by having sex. But an important caveat here is that you’re more likely to get a useful effect from this activity if you’re doing it with a stable partner you actually love. 10
Recklessly seeking one-night stands is often accompanied by a long list of very dangerous risks to both physical and mental health and isn’t actually worth the final pay-off.
But sex with your hubby/significant other is great, especially if you both like cuddling afterwards. Again, this shouldn’t be seen as a “treatment” for depression – but more sex can be a positive lifestyle change if it’s something you both want.
15.) Rock It Out in Your Room or At A Party
Aside from the very small percentage of people who struggle to understand why music is supposed to be enjoyable, most people like music, and many people have specific musical preferences.
Listening to music has a profound and thoroughly-researched effect on the brain and the mind – pair that with care-free dancing, and you have an immediate recipe for a quick release of dopamine, perfect for when you really need a way to feel better. 11
All you need to do is put on one of your favorite tracks. And just sit there and listen. Let your brain and body do the rest.
The Importance of Getting Help
Listen here: there’s plenty of self-help information out there. I don’t have a problem with self-help books or blogs, because they all make good points and there’s a gold mine of useful tips and tricks in most of them.
But self-help will only get you so far when dealing with a real mental disorder. As people say, if you could do it yourself, you wouldn’t really need the help, right?
You should never, ever be ashamed of help. It’s a total and complete lie that we’re meant to reject help, that life consists of nothing but you and your eternal fight to tug that the mighty bootstrap.
The reality is that humans rely on interaction, social interaction, on every level. The second we’re born into this world we rely on others to survive. Think about the odds a newborn has when thrown into the middle of a jungle – bit slim, I’d wager.
It doesn’t stop once puberty sets in. Societies are built on cooperation – it’s only once we begin to tear at each other that things like families and civilizations come crashing down. But by supporting one another, we thrive.
It’s Okay To Seek Help
Seeking help is normal, and nothing to be ashamed of. So, listen to your friends and family. Listen to your doctors. Seek treatment. Things like lifestyle changes and avoiding environmental triggers can certainly help, and in some cases, it might even make the depression go away.
But when the symptoms are severe enough, there may be more going on inside the body. Medication and other treatments can help. And when the day is really, really bad, be okay with relying on others. Sure, you gotta stand on your own two feet, but there’s nothing wrong with leaning on someone. As long as you let them lean on you, too.
Here’s the kicker so many people miss out on when it comes to seeking help. You have to reciprocate. You might not be able to now, or tomorrow – but once you can, help others.
Helping Others in Need
Offer help voluntarily. Step in when you see someone in need. Be kind. Be loving. It all starts with accepting help from others – trusting them and caring enough about yourself to let someone else pour time and energy into your wellbeing. Then turn it around and be giving.
You’re not just going to be doing it out of pure altruism – as people, we’re inherently rewarding ourselves when we help others. Being a cause for good actually makes you feel good – it’s the opposite of guilt, which is a big and ugly mood in depression.
You will encounter people who will use others to their own benefit and do nothing else. Cut them out of your life. Friends like that can actively contribute to making depression worse.
But when two people support one another, you’ve got a healthy relationship. Talk to your friends and family. Ask them how you can help and let them help you as they see fit.