Simple Tips for Mild Depression

Everybody feels depressed sometimes. Mild depression often comes out of difficult life transitions or losses, especially situations in which we don’t have a sense of control or escape.  In mild depression we feel down but can still function in our lives. We can work, focus, sleep and go about the tasks of life, but often the spark is missing. We feel self-doubt but not self-loathing. We worry about the situation, but it does not look hopeless.

If work, concentration, or sleep are impaired, and feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness are part of the picture, then you may be experiencing moderate or severe depression and it is important to talk to your doctor or therapist. This article addresses mild depression, sometimes called situational depression.

What causes depression? Here are a few examples of the influences that can cause or contribute to mild depression:

  • increased work stress
  • a rough patch with spouse or family
  • ongoing financial stress
  • a stage of life transition that hits hard (adolescence, marriage, new family, health issues, retirement, etc.)

These are all situations that separately or together can contribute to mild depression.

So what can you do for yourself when you are still functioning well in your life but just can’t shake your case of the blues?

  1. Take a breath, catch your breath.  Breathe deeply and slowly. This may seem laughably obvious but under stress we stop breathing well – that is, deeply and calmly. Try this: Think about a big worry and notice what happens to your breath – chances are it gets shallow, tight and speeds up. Now consciously breathe slowly and deeply again. The problem has not changed but your response to it has. Practice slow, deep, gentle breaths often.
  2. Name the inner critic. The “inner critic” is that part of ourselves which judges our own behavior. It is that voice inside our head that puts us down, making a negative commentary about our actions or even our thoughts.  You will recognize it when you are berating yourself or dissecting some past interaction for what you did wrong. The internal critic is also there when we feel shame, embarrassment, or inferiority without knowing why. When we get depressed the inner critic gets louder, which makes us more depressed. To turn this around, catch the inner critic in the act. Call it out, and say to yourself, ”That’s the inner critic, that is not the truth.”  When you see the inner critic for what it is it will have less and less power over you. Some people even name the inner critic, “Bleak Bart” or “ Mean Mary,” and as goofy as this sounds injecting humor helps you stop buying into the negative self talk.

    Remember, the inner critic is not the voice of wisdom or truth.  It may start with a kernel of the truth but then twists it to exaggerate the negative. The wise part of ourselves – the part that helps make hard decisions and sort right from wrong – always has a quality of calm. Wisdom looks at situations with reason and balance,  without criticism or shame.

  3. Don’t let shame or guilt set up house in your head.  Shame is the fuel of the inner critic. Whereas guilt is remorse about doing something wrong, shame is a sense of being fundamentally flawed or broken:  not just that I did something wrong but that I am something wrong. There is something permanently wrong, inadequate or broken about me. Guilt or shame often arise out of situations over which we have little or no control. While this is not rational, we may have this nagging feeling that these situations are an indication of personal failure and inadequacy. “If only I were different (smarter, tougher or better looking) this bad stuff wouldn’t happen.”  We all rationally know that bad things happen to good people. We just forget to extend this compassion to ourselves.  So it’s important to recognize shame or guilt when it arises. Confront it, name it. Then reality will help you check the difference between what you can and cannot control.  Lastly, make the choice to be kind to yourself.
  4. Acknowledge Anger, Channel Anger. Most of us have heard depression defined as anger turned inward, towards ourselves.  Kicking mild depression means acknowledging and expressing what we are frustrated about, what makes us angry. You can make a list or talk to a trusted friend, one who will just listen and whose confidence you trust. Releasing anger in safe and responsible ways usually means moving the body: walking, running, swimming, even dancing. Getting physical allows your body to flush out the stress related chemicals (such as cortisol), and get the endorphins going.
  5. Externalize. Don’t stop with anger – many other emotions and thoughts tend to get stuck in a tape loop when we are feeling down. Get these out, too: if you like to write, journal – choose whether you feel more comfortable with stream of consciousness venting or making a list of all your worries. If you are not a writer then choose your own method for getting it out: a bike ride or run, singing along to a song that expresses how you feel, or watching a movie that expresses how you feel.
  6. Univeralize. The hardest part about depression is often how alone we feel, and that maybe something is wrong with us for feeling this way (there’s that inner critic again!). Yet most of the events that contribute to mild depression are an unavoidable part of living. Most of us respond with the same feelings you do.  You are not alone. When we are a bit down, we often feel alone – separate – even if we are with our loved ones. Yet most events that contribute to mild depression are not nearly as unique as they seem.  After all, we are all going through this life together. Talk to a trusted friend or seek out a group of people you can relate to and who can relate to you. It is not necessary to feel alone. The load is lighter when it is shared.
  7. Discover one small way to exercise choice, your capacity to steer the direction of your own life, and then do it. Sometimes the even the smallest change reminds us we are not victims of circumstance.  We are not talking earth-shaking changes here, just something that reminds you who is in charge of your life. As a guideline: choose something that is about exercising choice in your own life, rather than changing someone else, and plan healthy escapes: a trip to the ballpark or lunch with a friend, for instance.  Choosing drugs, alcohol or compulsive behaviors may feel like an escape but they really just dig you deeper into depression.

If you try one or two of these suggestions and the mild depression continues, seek help from a professional. If none of these ideas sounds good, or if you know they won’t work for you, or if you just don’t have the energy to try them, then you may be more depressed than you have admitted to yourself. Remember depression is treatable:  the prognosis is good, but you may need a little help to overcome it.