Depression isn’t just an incredibly devastating mental illness, it’s also one of the most common. Approximately 16.2 million American adults have experienced a major depressive episode in their lives, as well as 3.1 million adolescents ages 12 to 17, according to 2016 statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. If you’re one of the millions affected, it’s difficult to know how to deal with depression when you’re in the thick of it.
You may not even be aware that you have depression until your symptoms have spiked. But people with depression can learn how to cope, and one step at a time, you can get your life back on track.
What is depression?
Larisa Garski is the co-host behind the psychology and pop culture podcast Starship Therapise. She also serves as the clinical director for Chicago counseling service Empowered Therapy. In an interview with the Daily Dot, she stressed that depression is both “pervasive and often underdiagnosed in the U.S.”
“At its core, what depression does is dampen our perceptions and limits our ability to access joy in response to what we once found pleasurable—activities, relationships, sounds, smells, tastes, even sensations,” Garski told the Daily Dot. “Depression also shows up in the body as fatigue and even body aches.”
Am I depressed?
Depression works differently in every person. Some people struggle with going to the grocery store or going out to a party, while others can barely get out of bed. Garski says depressive symptoms tend to be misdiagnosed or outright ignored when it comes to people with high-functioning and persistent depressive disorders or dysthymia. This is because people with high-functioning depression can seemingly appear to be fully functioning individuals, but in reality, they are “often deeply unhappy and ill at ease in their own bodies and lives.”
“For many, depression has been with them for a long time and thus they have learned effective ways to cope and mask their symptoms. But as their battle with depression persists, other parts of their lives show the undue stress they are under,” Garski said. “This can take the form of losing close friends and family, physical manifestations of their deep internal emotional pain, insomnia or hypersomnia, and long-term changes in their personality.”
Garski stresses that depression symptoms were once confused with negative character judgments like “laziness” and “poor self-discipline.” Now, she notices that younger generations are “more willing to name depression and identify the impact it has on their lives.” This simultaneously fights back against stigma and gives people with depression more room to open up about their experiences.
“The most frequent myth that I encounter about depression is that it must be a debilitating illness in order for it to be depression,” Garski told the Daily Dot. “In other words, unless you are so miserable that you cannot get out of bed in the morning, you are not depressed.”
What to do about depression
Chances are you’ve already completed the first step: realizing you may be depressed. Garski recommends seeking out a medical or mental health professional in order to talk about your depressive symptoms and understand how they impact your life. She also notes that family and friends can help guide you to the right professional if you’re struggling to find a therapist.
“Once you’ve found someone who can help you identify depression, then you can work with them to craft a treatment plan that works for you to help you decrease your depressive symptoms and get back to things in life you once enjoyed,” Garski told the Daily Dot. “This can be a painful process and it’s not possible to ‘just go it alone.’ “
Not every single person will need ongoing psychotherapy as they deal with their depression, Garski notes, but even a short period of time in therapy can give patients “the knowledge and skills they need to limit depression’s impact in their daily lives.”
Regardless, having a support system in place is vital for every person dealing with depression. This is because friends, family, and mental health professionals can give people with depression the support they need to understand their depression and continue working through it.
“A metaphor I like to use with clients references that famous line from the original Legend of Zelda: ‘It’s dangerous to go alone,'” Garski said. “Depression often makes us believe that we are alone because we are unworthy of help. This is not true.”
How to deal with depression
After seeking out therapy, people dealing with depression can start practicing everyday changes to their routine that bring self-care and gratitude into their lives. This includes steps like meditation and mindfulness exercises, which let people understand their thought process, reconnect with their feelings, and identify negative thinking when it appears.
Medication is also a possible solution, especially for those struggling to the point where their “mental, emotional, and physical reserves feel tapped out,” Garski argues. Of course, medication works best when it’s done alongside therapy.
“I do think that antidepressants can be helpful in treating depression,” Garski told the Daily Dot. “I recommend medication and talk therapy happen simultaneously because one can effectively treat the symptom while the other explores the root cases of the depression and helps folks develop beneficial long-term changes.”
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Can you overcome depression?
Depression is difficult to work through, and it can take months or even years to understand it. That’s because depression enmeshes itself into a person’s life, poisons their thinking, and convinces people that their depressive thinking is an accurate reflection of themselves. There’s not a cure-all solution.
Using a metaphor from her fellow podcast host Justine Mastin, Garski compares depression to a “houseguest who just won’t leave.” To her, depression gradually seeps into everyday life, all the while telling people “terrible things to convince you that nobody else likes you or understands you.” This can become confusing at first, but as people with depression begin to identify the difference between their sense of self and their depressive thought patterns, they can gradually shoo away their unwelcome guest and learn to keep depression out of their life.
“The key is realizing the difference between your own thoughts and perceptions and depression’s negative feedback loop,” Garski explained. “Once you realize this difference, you can find support to help you remove depression from your home and learn strategies to turn them away should they ever show up again looking for a place to crash.”