Although it may often feel as if you’re the only person struggling to keep your emotions in check—you’re not. More than 16 million American adults deal with depression every year, making it one of the most common mental illnesses in the US.
Women are twice as likely than men to struggle with depression, and Black adults have the highest rates overall. Also, those who identify as LGBTQ are almost three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as depression.
People with what is clinically called “major depressive disorder” experience a range of symptoms, including feeling sad and unmotivated, losing interest in the activities they once loved, and loss of energy and appetite. They also often find that their sleep is disturbed in some way—either they get too much of it or too little.
No matter what your depression looks like, living with it is hard. On some days, the simple task of throwing off the covers and getting out of bed may feel impossible. For those overwhelming mornings when you can’t fathom facing the world, we asked several mental health professionals to share tips on how best to start your day. Much of what they told us can be helpful to anyone, not just those who’ve been diagnosed with depression.
If you start to feel that familiar cloud of despair and hopelessness creeping in, you can try to anticipate your mood in the morning by preparing for the unknown the evening before.
For example, try setting your alarm for at least an hour before you actually need to get up, says Joy Harden Bradford, a licensed psychologist in Georgia and host of the Therapy for Black Girls. Doing so will allow yourself more time to “ease into the day.”
“You want to avoid the instances of not getting up until the very last minute and then rushing around, missing buses, being late for work, etc.,” Bradford says, “which can further complicate your mood, because now you’ve raised your stress levels.”
She also suggests laying out your clothes or work/school materials the night before. Small actions like these can help streamline your morning and cut back on any decisions you may have to make, Bradford explains, which can sometimes be difficult for people with depressive symptoms.
When everything in your soul is telling you to stay in bed and in your feelings, self-compassion is a good place to start, says Barbara Markway, a St. Louis-based psychologist and author of The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem. This can be as simple as talking to yourself in an encouraging yet soothing tone. For example, she explains, you might say (either out loud or in your head), “I know it’s hard to get out of bed. I wish you felt better. It is so hard to be depressed like this.”
“Talking to yourself in the third person,” Markway says, “can invoke the sense of being cared about. At the same time, you can use a gentle self-touch; maybe put your hand on your [other] hand or stroke your forearm. This releases oxytocin and sets off a calming response in the body. After you’ve acknowledged the pain of your experience, you’re more likely to be able to work with yourself. ‘Let’s try to get out of bed and just have a cup of coffee. That’s all we have to do.’”
She adds: “Being kind to yourself and then just taking one small step is likely to have a much better effect than berating yourself.”
Journaling and meditation are great ways to attend to your emotions, says Arielle Schwartz, a clinical psychologist in Colorado. “When you feel sad, you are more likely to remember other times that you were sad,” she explains. “This is called ‘state-dependent memory.’ But, state-dependent memory can be used in your favor. Your positive emotions, sensations, and memories are also interconnected. Consequently, focusing your mind on memories of times that you have felt happy, empowered, or peaceful can help you recall other positive experiences.” This, in turn, can help stabilize or lift your mood.
Research shows that regular exercise can help treat symptoms of depression for some people. But if leaping out of bed onto a treadmill for a five-mile run doesn’t exactly sound appealing, try moving in smaller, yet still purposeful, ways.
“Set your alarm clock to play music that is upbeat, high energy, and will make you feel good,” says Shawna Murray-Browne, an integrative psychotherapist and mind-body medicine practitioner based in Baltimore. “Dancing out of bed is way better than rolling.”
She also suggests you do some intentional shaking. “I know—weird, right? But a powerful moving meditation that can really lift your spirits is rapid shaking of the body to drums or upbeat music,” Murray-Browne says. “This has been a real surprise for the people I’ve taught qigong to over the years—you simply can’t stay low.”
“From the moment a person dealing with depression opens their eyes,” she adds, “big efforts to steer their energy in the right direction can make a world of a difference.”
It doesn’t have to be a mental health professional. “Have the most positive morning person in your life give you a wake-up call as you’re getting ready for the day,” Murray-Browne suggests. “Talk through what good thing you’re looking forward to.”
Calla Jo, a psychoanalyst and social worker in New York, says that having someone listen to you and validate your feelings can be uplifting, but sometimes being alone can also be good for your mental health—especially if you have well-meaning family or friends who may not understand what you’re going through. Often, Jo says, those people may “attempt to force you into changing what feels unchangeable—that is, the depression itself.”
“Although isolating is usually not recommended—as most humans are social creatures— sometimes it can be more restorative to be alone than to be fighting with well-meaning friends or family members who don’t get it,” Jo explains. “During depression, energy levels are low, and having to explain repeatedly or fend off chirpy messages like ‘You’ll be fine,’ or hostile messages [such as] ‘Get over it’ may be better avoided rather than expend the precious little energy you have on people who may never understand what you are going through.”
“Since depression expresses itself in so many individual ways, the fix or thing that will help you to start your day needs to be personalized and doable,” Jo explains. A big part of understanding what that looks like is really spending time getting to know who you are. “Deep self knowledge is vital to the creation of an effective treatment strategy.”
“Part of the horror of depression for some is the fact that you are waking up at all,” Jo adds. “Many depressed people go to bed with a vague (or not so vague) wish not to wake up, and now you are faced with another unwanted day.”
So, if you are having a rough morning and ultimately decide you do need a little more time in bed, that’s OK too.
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