“These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.”—Rumi
Depressive episodes can feel discouraging and impossible to emerge from. But the truth is that depression is incredibly common—and it’s twice as common in women (though I would argue that all people struggle with depression at some point in their lives). In our culture, the word ‘depression’ can sound clinical and scary, but going through depression is a part of being human. Because of the stigma around depression, many of us do not know how to relate to depression when it shows up and we get scared when we realize we’re in a funk.
Many women I work with have a goal of being able to identify depressive periods sooner and pull themselves out of them more quickly. In this post, I’ll discuss some signs of depression, and how (and when) to pull yourself out of a depressive slump.
Signs of Depression
It can be hard to spot depression. It takes hold of us gradually, cutting us off from connection and joy bit by bit until we are in a hole. By the time we realize we’re in this hole, we may feel cut off, overwhelmed, or like we don’t know where to start. Here are some signs you may be experiencing a depressive spell.
- You might feel lonely but find it difficult to connect with others. This might mean that you don’t want to connect at all, or you might want to connect but have no energy for it. Relatedly, you might not be as interested in the activities that used to light you up. That summer barbeque might feel more exhausting than fun. Going out for a trail run after work with your friends might feel impossible, boring, or pointless. Conversations with colleagues might feel empty, and small talk might seem especially torturous.
- You might be very tired. You may have trouble doing basic tasks like cooking dinner or engaging in a routine that feels good. You may have low energy levels and not feel like moving your body. You may want to be in bed even when you know that movement helps your mood.
- You might have low self-esteem, think negative thoughts about yourself, and feel guilt or shame. Depression distorts our brains, and when we are in a depressive slump, we can’t think clearly about ourselves or our actions. You might not be able to see your ‘good’ traits, truth about your character, or the larger picture of your life and the struggles you’ve overcome. A depressive episode isn’t the time to evaluate your whole life or character, or to make decisions about how to move forward.
- You may cry easily, feel irritable, or feel restless. When we are depressed, concentrating can feel impossible, and we may be looking for the next way to dissociate, zone out or escape. Everything can feel boring, and the people around us can irritate us (or make us cry!) at the drop of a hat. We are not bad for feeling this way: these emotions are all a part of the illness of depression.
- You might feel hopeless, and you might ‘spiral’ easily. You may find that a slow week at work sends you into feeling certain you’re going to be fired and starve and never feel successful and accomplished again. It may be hard to imagine a future where we feel happy, and we can’t see our situation in a different, more helpful way. Every little thing might feel overwhelming or become a big deal in our minds.
- You may experience changes in sleep or appetite. You may want to sleep all the time, or you may suffer from insomnia or early morning waking. You may find that you aren’t hungry or food has no taste, or you may experience more hunger. Many people also suffer from increased negative thoughts about their bodies during depressive episodes.
Do you relate to any of these signs of depression? Do any surprise you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
It’s Ok to be in a funk and you’re not alone
You are not bad, lazy, or failing at your life because you are depressed at this moment. We all get depressed. In fact, many of the most beloved, creative and inspiring people in our history have struggled with serious depressive episodes (including Abraham Lincoln, Jim Carrey, Emma Thompson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Princess Di, Siddhartha Guatama, and Sigmund Freud).
Adding on to the pain of feeling depressed, we often blame ourselves for feeling depressed. Why are we feeling this way when we have a good life, when so many others are suffering, when we know it isn’t rational?
I’m here to tell you that depression is not your fault. You did not sign on for this. You did not sign on for feeling disconnected, guilty, lonely and exhausted. Depression is an illness—it is debilitating, and it is more like a cold that is going around ‘out there.’ It is not a result of an error in you. We catch depression just like we do COVID, and it is important to treat ourselves with the same gentleness with which we would treat a sick child when we feel depressed.
Congratulate yourself for the things you’re doing, however small they may be. Congratulate yourself for reading this article, and for functioning whatever way (however small) that you may be functioning right now. For people with depression, getting out of bed can be a struggle. You are running a race with a broken foot.
Self-compassion is the most important practice in healing our own depression. All the actions we take will fall flat if we do not go about them from a place of gentleness and kindness. We cannot force ourselves out of a depression, just like we cannot force ourselves to heal from trauma. Emotional growth never comes from force or beating ourselves up.
As you are emerging from this depression, think about how you would be with a traumatized child who had just come to your home after leaving a war torn country. You would never shame this child into feeling better or yell at her for experiencing terror and sadness. You would give her all the time and gentleness in the world and wouldn’t try to force her to feel any differently. You would be patient with her, cook her nourishing meals, and give her love. You are worthy of that same care. Your suffering matters.
Next, it is important to think about if you feel ready to emerge from the depression, and how this depression might be serving you.
Yes, I know it might sound crazy to suggest asking yourself if you’re ready to feel better in a blog about overcoming depression. But the fact is that many of us try and bulldoze through depression without honoring and considering why it’s here and what it might be trying to protect us from. Rilke wrote, “Why should you want to exclude from your life all unsettling, all pain, all depression of spirit, when you don’t know what work it is these states are performing within you?”
What is this depression protecting you from feeling or experiencing? How is it trying to serve you? Sometimes depressive episodes are protecting us from feeling acute grief, feeling the pain of trauma, or from doing something hard or risky. Sometimes resting in depression allows us to build our reserves and can prepare us to face something challenging such a difficult breakup that might need to occur, a diagnosis we don’t want to face, or feeling the stifled creativity inside of us. Depression can be a resting place, a numbness that we need before we can dive in to whatever is next. Honor that this depression is serving a purpose and see whether it feels ready to relax a bit.
If you check in and find that the depression doesn’t feel ready to relax….
Take some time and let yourself learn from your depression. Really feel how this depression is serving and protecting you, and let it do its job. Escape, watch a lot of tv, eat things that give you joy, snuggle up on your animals or people you love if that feels good. Thank the depression for trying to protect you, and let it know that you see the important job it has been doing.
When you feel ready, check in and see what the depression would need in order to feel like it could relax. Would some support from others help you feel like you don’t have to carry all this on your own? Counseling can be a great first step in getting the support you need to help you feel more able to face what is difficult. Your depression may also need some assurance that you can come back and retreat if you need to, and that you’re not trying to ‘force it’ to go anywhere. Maybe it also needs to be reassured that you are an adult and can handle the things it is trying to protect you from.
If the depression feels ready to relax back a bit…
You may know in your body what you need to do to feel better. Here are some suggestions, but take these in baby steps, and don’t feel like you need to do it all at once. Remember to move forward with compassion. If something feels too strenuous, back off.
1. Seek therapy or start to talk with friends about how you feel. Just talking about how we feel can help us identify less with our depression, can help us feel less alone, and can free up emotional energy. A therapist has no investment in you needing to ‘feel better’ and a good therapist will never shame you for your feelings. Having a pressure free, judgment free space can be incredibly healing. Seeking therapy is an investment in yourself and also sends your body that message that it’s worth healing. To learn more about therapy, or to schedule a free consultation, click here to reach out.
2. Talk with friends and family who help you feel less alone. Find someone you trust and respect who doesn’t judge you. When you start sharing, see if you feel safe and seen, and evaluate whether you feel comfortable continuing to be vulnerable with this person. It may be helpful to tell your supports that you’re looking for an ear to listen, and that you’re not looking for advice.
3. Engage with something that feels creative and get into your body. Depression takes us out of our bodies—it numbs us into a dissociative haze. To reconnect with your body, try massage, acupuncture or reiki, walking, yoga, meditating, painting, pottery making or writing. Do anything creative or somatic that you enjoy. Take an improv class, do an online dance class or do yoga in the park. I often treat myself to a good audio book while walking—this way I get the benefits of movement, nature, and connection to beauty all at once.
When we can revisit our bodies by moving or feeling them, when we are vital, we are reminded of the joy of being alive. When we are creative, we can process things that our logical mind can’t process by simply thinking or sometimes even by talking things out because we are connected to our bodies. In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Nagoski and Nagoski report that being creative helps us avoid burnout and ‘complete’ the stress cycle (where we allow emotions to fully pass through us and can release them).
4. Go into nature and sunshine. Being in nature feeds our microbiomes, reduces our cortisol levels, boosts endorphins, and floods our bodies with serotonin and vitamin D. Being in nature also reminds us of our connection to the larger universe and exposes us to beauty. Even smelling the essential oils of a fir or cedar tree can boost endorphins. Forest bathing lowers blood pressure, improves the immune system, and can help alleviate depression and anxiety (see this article).
5. Do the things that feed your spiritual side or help you feel connected to something larger. Try connecting with a poignant piece of literature or a movie. Or watch Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” on youtube. For me, connecting with my spirituality often involves some combination of watching Harold and Maude (or Jane Austen adaptations) with peppermint cocoa tea, going into the woods, and reading “Letters to a Young Poet.”
Rilke reminds us, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Depression is one experience we have in this life. We live on a mote of dust, suspended in a sun beam. Whatever you are feeling, trust the work that these states are performing on you, and know that this pain may be a messenger, waking you up to something new. Let it do its work on you. Trust that beauty is on the other side of pain.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist women in their 20s and 30s practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.