A Self-help Program For Curing Depression

There are at least a hundred things you can do — completely on your own, that will cost you nothing but a few minutes of your time — to reduce or even eliminate a depression.

The fact is that we know more about the causes and treatment of depression than ever before in history.

I know this for two reasons. I’ve been a psychologist for over 30 years, have treated hundreds of people, and I read the research on depression. I’ve also had my own struggles, at several points in my life, with depression. I’ll be sharing just a bit about that in the posts and books that follow.  (Not everything, not a lot of gory details. I think there is a value for all of us in expecting and protecting privacy.)

Over time, combining some trial-and-error and what I understood when I was young about the newly developing research on depression, I stumbled on a very simple way of managing my own depressed moods. It was, in fact, so simple to do and so effective that I felt depression free within a short period of time. After which, being busy with grad school and life, I pretty much forgot about this technique for several years. But in looking back, now that so much more is known about the effective treatment of depression than was known years ago, I have come to realize that my simple “five stroke cure” was a great example of an effective depression treatment.

And it’s this understanding of how depression works and can be managed, that I’m going to be sharing.


 Signs of depression

Depression is generally defined as a mental health condition in which one experiences a sad or empty mood (though one can also have other feelings mixed in, such as anger, hopelessness, or anxiety.) Depression symptoms can include crying spells, sleep disturbance, loss of appetite (or “comfort eating”), loss of motivation or energy, loss of interest in things, poor concentration or memory, and thoughts of suicide. Many other symptoms are possible. Depression can last for a few days, a few weeks, or through one’s entire life.

 More facts about depression

  • Depression is one of the most common psychological and medical problems. It can also be one of the most painful and life-damaging conditions on earth. Studies suggest that between six and seven out of every 100 persons will have a clinically significant level of depression in a given year.
  • Depression can affect children, adolescents, adults and the elderly.
  • Twice as many women as men tend to develop depression.
  • Depression tends to co-occur with a number of other mental or physical health conditions, ranging from anxiety problems to drug and alcohol addictions to cancer.
  • In a kind of cosmically unfair-seeming way, if you’re depressed you’re also statistically more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other difficulties (not to mention the fact that you’re more likely to get depressed if you do develop a heart attack, stroke, cancer, etc.)
  • Depression tends to jeopardize and wreck relationships. Depressed people pull back from close relationships, and tend to “wear out their welcome” as relatives’ and friends’ to help them feel better fail time and time again. Which, of course, the depressed person senses but feels helpless to prevent…further deepening their sense of being unlovable, unwanted, and isolated.
  • Depression is the leading cause of workplace disability worldwide, and it is estimated that it costs US businesses $70 billion annually, when medical expenses, productivity loss and other costs are factored in. About $12 billion in lost workdays due to depression occur annually, in addition to nearly the same amount due to lost productivity.

 Why it’s hard to get help for a depression

  • When you are depressed, it is sometimes hard to get yourself to do anything. Showering, eating, getting to work, caring for your kids, may all suffer. So it can be a thousand times harder to find the energy to start down the path of finding some kind of help for yourself.
  • But many people who do manage to get to the phone, or to tell someone about their desire for mental health assistance, find that it’s even harder than they expected to actually get the help they need. This can be for a number of reasons:
  • Therapy is expensive. If you have insurance, you may find that it’s still hard to locate “providers” who can help you, and your insurance carrier (who I can guarantee you is more interested in their profits than your well-being) may not authorize enough, or any, treatment.
  • Most people get help from their physicians, but physicians most often provide minimal assistance besides prescribing antidepressants. Which may be quite useful for many people, but not always. But physicians seldom have the time or the training to help you develop a wider range of effective self-treatment skills.
  • It’s also hard for many depressed persons to stick to the medication program once it’s started. Side effects, not being sure the meds are helping, anxiety about calling the doctor back for help, may all interfere.
  • If you do find a therapist, many may expect you to endure a long period of getting “insight” before you will feel even a bit of relief. (This can fuel the problem of “overthinking” that I mentioned in the last post.)
  • Persons living in isolated or rural areas may find it difficult or even impossible to find qualified helpers.
  • Many people simply are too scared or uncomfortable to want to share much about their depression with anyone, even a professional.

 A self-help program for curing depression

We know this from research:

Self-help approaches to treating depression can be as effective as professional treatment. (tweet this)

In some cases, they can be every bit as effective as professional interventions. This may depend on the type of self-help approach used. (I’ll summarize some of the research on self-help and depression in a later post.)

In the posts that follow, I’ll be sharing excerpts from my upcoming book on self-help for depression. My hope is that if I can share some things I’ve learned both as a patient and a psychologist about depression and its treatment, that at least some people will find this helpful.

The program I’ll be sharing is a skill based model for treating depression. That means it relies less on older notions of “insight” into things like “childhood causes” or “hidden underlying psychological dynamics” of depression (not that those things are not true and valid. They just aren’t the first things you need to attend to in order to get some relief, and focusing on them can even slow up your progress…or make you feel worse!)

Neither does my program require medications.

In saying these things, I do NOT mean to say that people should not use medications, or work with good therapists on insight or whatever they and their therapists feel is important. This program is not meant to be a substitute for needed medical or other professional care. You can use it alone, or WITH all those other treatments. You can use some of the techniques I suggest while you are a patient on a psychiatric ward, while you are taking meds, or while actively working with your psychotherapist or psychoanalyst or other health care professional. This program will not interfere with any of those treatment approaches.

Or you can just try this approach first, and see if it’s enough.

The program is research based. It collects ideas from the most up to date cognitive behavioral, positive psychology and mindfulness approaches (Google those terms if you want to have some idea what I mean, or hang on and I’ll get to them.)

Since the program is a SKILLS based approach, the techniques are often going to work best if you practice them a bit.

General approach

The basics of the stuff I’ll be sharing can be summarized simply:

First, see depression as in part as a problem that is caused or maintained by patterns in your thinking or ways of acting. For instance, people with depression tend to focus more on negative than positive events. This tends to make the depression worse instead of better. (Be careful about the rather passive idea of seeing it all as some kind of a “chemical imbalance.” Your chemistry can get “unbalanced” in large part because of your thinking patterns!) To fix the depressed mood, then, you need to make some changes in your thinking and behavior patterns.

Second, see these techniques as skills that you can learn, try out, but that may work best with some regular practice.

Third, go for what I call “incremental improvement.” This means, try to develop some “two percent solutions,” simple things that you can do that give you at least a “two percent improvement” in your mood when you do them. I’ll share at least a hundred techniques that you can try, to see which ones give you the biggest percentage of improvement in your mood.

Finally, again, this is a skills based approach. That means you can practice and the idea is to get better at the approach over time. Eventually, the new “habits of thougth” can become pretty automatic — things you do that are just a natural part of “who you are.”

And again, you can use this approach along with other approaches that you are already using: talking to a therapist, taking medications, and so on.

A quick example

There are lots of things you can do that might improve your mood a bit. Some general ideas of things you might try are below:

First, get a general sense of how depressed you’re feeling right now. RATE IT on a 1-100 point scale, where one end of the scale is anchored at a “positive” or neutral end (e.g., “feeling fine”) and the other end is the most severe depression level you can imagine. Write the number down

Next, pick one of the following actions and do it, right now. Just get up and do it:

  1. Make a mental list of five things you’ve gotten the most pleasure or enjoyment from today. Simple things: the cat in your lap, seeing the sunrise, the taste of your breakfast toast. Remember each thing on the list for just a few moments, but try to remember the pleasure you experienced as vividly as you can. Go through each of the five experiences and do that memory exercise.
  2. Call someone you feel good talking to, just to say hi. Don’t mention that you’re doing it to feel less depressed; don’t mention depression at all. Just make it a five minute or less hello call. Be sure to ask them how THEY are doing.
  3. Put on a favorite piece of music, something you think is beautiful, encouraging, that energizes you. Relax and just enjoy it for a few minutes.
  4. Go outside and stretch, take five or ten nice deep breaths. Stretch or go for a short walk.

As soon as you are done with the activity, rate your depression again. Notice any difference in the before and after ratings. It may be a big difference, but even a two point improvement is excellent. Write this second 1 to 100 rating down. If you did get at least a two percent change, do the exercise again today, at least two but no more than four more times. See if it helps.

If it did not help, try another of the exercises. Again, be sure to rate your “before” and “after” score.

If none of them help, that’s fine. Remember, this program will have over 100 suggestions, and much more information on the treatment of depression. It only takes one successful “two percent solution” to get the mood to start shifting.

More resources

That’s just a start. Much to follow. Hope this promises to be helpful!

Meanwhile, here are Amazon links to a few other excellent resources for some self-help:

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy – David Burns

Women Who Think Too Much – Susan Nolen-Hoeksema

Talk to me

I can’t necessarily respond to particular requests for information, but I am very interested in your reactions to this blog and to the suggestions and ideas I’ll be sharing. As time goes on, I’ll be setting up some surveys to determine which techniques are most helpful to readers. Talk to me in comments and I’ll get back to you with general responses (meaning, I can’t address your particular clinical needs. Sorry.)

Here is the usual disclaimer

I dislike having to mention this, but it is kind of important to remind you that a blog or book are not therapy, and I am not able to provide individual consultation to any readers. This material is here for educational and/or entertainment purposes; I hope it proves useful to readers, but I cannot be held responsible for anything that does or does not occur as a result of reading this material. Sorry, but it would be professionally unethical to attempt to provide actual psychological treatment to a readers of this blog. Please contact your own therapist, physician or other licensed helping professional if you feel that you are in need of personal assistance.