Escaping Depression: How I Succeeded in Getting Out of Depression
Content Updated on July 9, 2009
My Depression Story
I had dealt with depression and anxiety since childhood, but I thought I had it under control, at least enough to pretend that I was fine. Then I had children, and everything spiraled out of control. I developed postpartum OCD (something I was definitely pre-wired for since it runs in our family; having kids was the trigger) and panic attacks (something I had been on medication for in the past). The anxiety issues were a huge cause of my depression, but they weren't the only causes. I had lots of issues to work through, things I had been hiding from, but I couldn't get away from them anymore.
As the hopelessness took over my mind and body, everything became overwhelming. Brushing my teeth, taking a shower, or just getting out of bed were too much to think about, let alone actually do. Everything seemed so difficult, and my brain was making it harder. I couldn't think straight. I would have a conversation with somebody and struggle to figure out what they were talking about. I couldn't do math to calculate a tip or pay with cash. Then my brain started to do confusing things. I would sometimes use numbers when trying to spell words, as if my brain had replaced certain letters with numbers. I would grab a fork instead of a spoon to eat my cereal. At first, I thought I was going crazy.
I had no energy. No matter how much I slept, I was still tired. Not just tired-- exhausted.
I wasn't interested in anything. I wanted to be interested in something. I was bored, but nothing seemed to excite me, not my old hobbies, not sex, not learning something new, not travel, nothing! It was like the part of my brain that lets me enjoy life was turned off. I became easily frustrated and resentful. I would suddenly snap into anger over trivial things.
I felt like a failure for not being able to be the person I wanted to be. I felt guilty for being a failure and bringing everybody else's mood down. Worse, I was starting to think that it wasn't ever going to get better. And then I began to wonder why I should bother to continue living if I was just going to feel empty and wrong for the rest of my life.
I knew I didn't want to go on like that. I knew I didn't want my children to grow up with a depressed mom. Something needed to change. So I read every book I could find about depression, watched ever documentary and professional lecture I could get my hands on, and put together a plan for myself to take my life back.
Step 1: Decide to Beat Depression and Stop Being Depressed
For me, I had to realize that if I wanted to stop being depressed, then I needed to do something about it. The longer I just waited around for things to get better, for something the change, the longer I sat around being depressed. I needed to take charge and try to get better.
Rule Out Physical Problems
I went to my doctor and had some tests done to determine if the depression was caused by something like hypothyroidism, anemia, or a vitamin deficiency. Some forms of depression can even be caused by brain damage due to exposure to drugs, alcohol, toxins, or trauma. (I recently learned that even concussions can cause depression.) Medical treatment is absolutely necessary for such situations.
It would have been nice if it had been something that could easily be fixed with a pill, but it wasn't. Something else was causing it, but I had no idea what. So I began treating the depression from a holistic point of view.
Start Taking Medication for Depression (Maybe)
I asked my doctor prescribed Zoloft for me, but not just for depression. I was also dealing with anxiety and OCD (major contributors to my depression), and according to the research I did at the time, Zoloft was my best bet for pharmaceutical help and the least likely to cause problems with breastfeeding, since I was breastfeeding my youngest child at the time. (I don't know if information regarding Zoloft's effectiveness and safety are still the same, though, so make sure you research medications yourself before trying any.) Zoloft helped stabilize my moods enough to help me brush my teeth, but it didn't fix me.
I learned that taking medication without doing psychological work is like pouring dish soap on your dishes but not doing anything else to wash them and hoping that your dishes get clean. Dish soap (or medication) makes it easier, but you still have to do the work to reprogram your brain. (Unfortunately, many doctors just keep throwing medication at such problems, increasing your doses if you aren't fixed, focusing only on biochemistry and neglecting the psychological side of depression, so don't wait for your doctor to tell you to seek therapy from a psychologist or counselor.)
Medication was a tool. It only got me to a level where I could start doing the psychological work. And the therapy and lifestyle change would be the hard part, but it would be worth it.
Please note: some people don't even need medication, and medication can have annoying side-effects, so you may want to consider skipping medication and relying on psychotherapy first. For me, I felt that medication was necessary, at first, but when I was able to use the skills I learned in psychotherapy, I did everything I could to wean myself off of the medication as soon as possible. Getting off of the medication wasn't fun either, but once my body became used to not having it, I could say good-bye to all those side-effects.
Stop Doing Everything...Except the Absolute Minimum
I needed to conserve my time and energy for getting better. I could choose between having a tidy house and perfect homemade meals while being depressed and feeling crazy, or I could feed the kids cereal and microwavable meals, do just enough housework to keep the place livable, and spend my time and energy on the psychological work.
Ask Loved Ones to Help
The hardest part, for me, was telling my husband that I wasn't super woman and was actually falling apart. I had to ask him to take over things while I was getting better. Fortunately, my husband was very understanding and helpful. Together we figured out ways to make things easier for everyone. Even my kids, who weren't yet school-age at the time, were able to help by learning how to get their own snacks from a snack drawer, turn on their television shows (yay for Elmo), get dressed, and clean up their toys.
Eat a Healthy Diet / Improve Nutrition
I needed to get my body chemistry under control. I cut out white flour products (e.g. white bread, white crackers, white rice, white noodles, pastry items, etc.). I switched to whole wheat and other whole grain products instead. I stopped eating large amounts of sugary foods (e.g. candy, donuts, cake, pie, pastries, etc.). I planned my diet and scheduled in only small amounts of sugar items once in awhile. I also cut down on caffeine by switching to decaf coffee and tea. I didn't allow myself to drink any alcohol. And I began eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
Take Vitamins and Supplements
Vitamin deficiencies can cause depression or make depression symptoms worse, so I took a good multivitamin, and, with my doctor's approval, began taking supplements that were supposed to help my nervous system. (Always make sure you talk to your doctor before deciding to start any vitamin or supplement therapy.)
I'm not suggesting that you should follow a similar plan, but here's what I took:
- Vitamin C 1000 mg
- Vitamin E 400 IU
- B Vitamins Complex
- Calcium 400 mg
- Magnesium 200 mg
- Beta carotene 25,000 IU
- Flaxseed oil 300 mg
- 5-HTP as needed (up to 100 mg per day) on bad days
Eat Bananas and Peanut Butter
I researched neurotransmitter articles and was led to serotonin. I researched serotonin and was led to 5-HTP and tryptophan. I researched tryptophan and discovered that you need to have sugar and tryptophan together for the tryptophan to enter your brain. I looked for the food that had the best combination of tryptophan and sugar (on the USDA website), and I found bananas.
I started eating at least one or two bananas per day. It actually did seem to help. Now we keep a steady supply of bananas in our home (it our contribution to the economy in South America).
Peanut butter is high in tryptophan, and it tastes delicious with bananas. It's also an excellent source of amino acids other than tryptophan as well as good fats. (Make sure you use the natural stuff that needs to be stirred and refrigerated, not the stuff with hydrogenated oils and preservatives.)
I ate bananas dipped in peanut butter, peanut butter and banana sandwiches on whole wheat bread, and mini peanut butter and banana sandwiches on graham crackers. I don't know if it really made a huge difference, but it was definitely nutritious.
Eat Walnuts and Ground Flaxseeds
Walnuts and flaxseeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids (and lots of other healthy stuff too). Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for lots of bodily functions. Unless you have a diet high in walnuts, flaxseeds, or oily fish (like salmon), you may be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids (and some of the symptoms of the deficiency are the same as the symptoms of depression). Once I started increasing my omega-3 consumption (primarily thorugh flaxseed oil), I started noticing a major improvement in my mood and energy within a few weeks. Now I make sure to eat some every day.
Get 8 to 9 Hours of Sleep
Sleep deprivation can cause depression, so I knew I needed to make an effort to get enough sleep. If left to sleep according to my natural rhythms, I sleep about 9 hours per night. So I began making sure that I got at least 8 hours, preferably 9 hours per night. It wasn't easy with two small children who often woke up at night. I would sleep a couple hours and have to get up to take care of the kids and then try to go back to sleep. So to get those 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night, I often had to stretch out my sleep schedule. In order to get 8 hours of sleep, I'd usually have to stay in bed for 11 or 12 hours. (It took up half of my day, but at least the other half was much more improved than it had been before.)
Open the Curtains
After learning that increasing exposure to light could help depression, I began making sure that my home was well lit during the hours I wanted to be awake (except when it was time to go to bed). Sunlight was more effective than artificial light, but even artificial light made a difference in making me feel more energetic. Winter in Oregon can be dark, so I often had lights on from the moment I woke up to just after dinner.
Do a Morning Stretch Every Day
Every morning, I stretched. It wasn't anything fancy. I just sat on the floor and stretched in any way that felt good. No videos to buy. No time limits. No right or wrong. I just stretched my muscles so that it felt good, not painful or straining. I relaxed into the stretched while breathing deeply. When I felt like I wanted to stop, I stopped.
The stretching made a huge difference. It didn't require much motivation to get myself to do it. It felt great while I was doing it, and when I was done, I felt like I had a bit of energy to get on with my day. It was just the boost I needed to make a little bit of progresses every day.
Join a Support Group
There is no substitute for human face-to-face contact, especially when those humans are going through or have been through the same thing you are dealing with. It can be a relief to know that you aren't the only one. It can be helpful to hear how other people have dealt with similar problems. Support groups can help you feel better, and they're usually free of charge.
I found a support group by doing a search on the Internet for "depression support group in" and the name of my state. Local psychologists, hospitals, and social services (you can get their phone numbers from the phone book) can also recommend support groups.
I made excuses to put off going to a support group. I worried "what if they don't like me," "what if they think I'm too depressed or not depressed enough," and so forth. But once I got there, I realized that all of my worries were for nothing. It was a very compassionate, empathetic group of people. Just going to the group and talking to others who had made it through depression gave me hope and motivation.
See a Psychologist and Start Psychotherapy
My psychologist was very helpful in teaching me how experiences from my life have contributed to the way I viewed the world and myself. She also taught me how to let go of those experiences and reprogram my thoughts, so I could be the kind of person I wanted to be. It wasn't easy at first, but it got easier, and as I did the work, I could see myself transforming into that person I wanted to be.
Start Journaling and Honestly Recognizing Problems
As part of my therapy, I needed to find out what triggered the beliefs that led to my depression.
I began journaling about feelings and thoughts I was having throughout the day. I had to be specific. Instead of writing "I feel so overwhelmed" I would write, "I feel that washing the dishes is overwhelming because I'll just have to do it again and again, and it never ends, and tired of washing the dishes. I want somebody else to wash the dishes."
Sometimes I would have to be brutally honest, no matter how guilty it made me feel to admit thoughts and feelings I was having. The hardest feeling to admit were feelings like resentment for having to take care of my kids when I wanted to do something else with my life, guilt for feeling that resentment because I love my kids, and resentment for having to consider my husband's feelings in everything I did. I wanted to be selfish, and I didn't know why.
Then there are the "tell me about your mother" scenarios, and I did realize that I had a lot of resentment toward my parents for some big mistakes that they made. I didn't like to admit these things, but they were there, and I had to acknowledge them if I was going to fix them.
Discover Themes in the Journals
I began to read my journal and noticed certain themes appearing repeatedly. These were the issues I needed to work on first.
One theme that showed up several times a day was the feeling of being a failure. This theme started in my childhood became programmed into my brain as a core belief, something that I felt was true through and through. No matter what I did, no matter what accomplishments I made, I still felt like a failure. I had to reprogram my mind to remove this core belief and replace it with a healthier belief.
Another theme that appeared repeatedly was the "supposed to" fantasy. I had a fantasy life planned out for myself, and when my fantasy didn't play out as I wanted it to, as it was "supposed to" happen, I became filled with self-pity. I felt sad that I didn't have the childhood I wanted, the relationships with family members that I wanted, the respect from certain people that I wanted, etc. I had to learn to let go of the fantasy and appreciate my life as it really was.
Learn to Stop Automatic Thoughts
Automatic thoughts are those little thoughts that pop into your head in almost a reflexive way. For me, they said things like, "Your stupid," "Nobody likes you," "You're a burden," and "You'll never be anything."
First, I had to recognize when an automatic thought happened, such as when I made a mistake or had to talk to people. Immediately, I would say to myself, "You're such an idiot," or "That person doesn't really like you and will never want to talk to you again."
Then I had to challenge those thoughts. I had to stop and ask myself it the thought was accurate and true. Most of the time the thoughts were completely wrong. I wasn't an idiot because I made a wrong turn; I just made a mistake. I'm not unlikable because I didn't laugh at somebody's joke; it's OK to have a different sense of humor.
Eventually, the automatic thoughts began to be more positive and helpful rather than negative and pessimistic.
Get Some Fresh Air
I noticed that whenever I got outside for awhile, I felt better, so I went out as much as I could. I would sit on my porch as I worked on my computer, go for a walk, work in my yard, window shop, wander through parks, take the kids for a walk, ride a bike, have a picnic, or sit in an outdoor cafe. If I had the kids with me, we made a fun event out of it. If the weather wasn't cooperating, I just bundled up, brought an umbrella, or wore a giant sun hat.
Cuddle with Loved Ones
I spent time cuddling with my husband, my children, and my pets. The physical connection helped me realize that I was loved, and I wasn't alone in the experience. Cuddle time was some of the best time I've ever spent.
Set and Achieve Small Goals
Every day, I would plan out small goals (e.g. fold one load of laundry, call one person, run one errand, wash one load of dishes, organize one drawer or shelf, etc.). These goals didn't change the world, but they helped me realize that I could take control of my life. Gradually, my goals would become bigger.
Get Some Exercise
Exercises changes body chemistry, so I decided that one of my small goals would be to do 5 minutes of exercise. I could walk, weight lift, stair step, ride on a stationary bike, jump rope, do lunges or pushups, or practice some yoga poses. 5 minutes wasn't much time for a workout, but on most days, that little bit did help me feel much better.
Volunteer for a Good Cause
Volunteering to help others was a great way to help me stop thinking about my dissatisfaction with my own life. Being around people who had bigger problems than mine helped me to look on the bright side of my own life. It helped me to see that there were lots of things in my life that I could feel good about, and I started to appreciate how lucky I was.
Improve the Surroundings
I started with decluttering my house and getting organized. It gave me a sense of accomplishment and helped my brain feel uncluttered as well. Then I lifted the mood by decorating my house in a way that made me and my family feel good. My husband took on the task of fixing up the yard (which looks lovely), and looking out the window at a beautiful yard makes me happy.
Indulge in Good Entertainment
Uplifting music, good books, beautiful art, gorgeous scenery, and inspiring movies were instant ways to life my spirits. Comedies were the best mood lifters most of the time, but inspirational dramatic stories were good as well.
I enjoyed taking nice baths, getting dressed up, and buying myself the occasional gift. Little things like that reminded me that I'm important and deserve to enjoy life.
Let Go of Toxic Relationships
Sometimes, certain relationships can make you feel worse than better, even though you may love the person. The best way to deal with those relationships until you get better is to distance yourself and surround yourself with supportive people instead.
That's exactly what I did. It was a difficult decision, but not having negative feedback every time I talk to them has helped me break away from huge amounts of pain.
I didn't just snap out of depression. It was a gradual process. At first I'd have good days. Then I started having good weeks. And soon I was having good months. I still have bouts of the blues now and again, feeling like life is overwhelming somedays, but that's just a part of life. (Just a healthy reminder to appreciate all the happy days.) I spent the first 30 years of my life fighting off anxiety and depression. Now I expect to spend at least the next 30 creating the life that I want.