Losing weight. Eating healthy foods. Getting proper sleep. Exercise. Connecting with nature. Getting out of the house. Spending time with friends. A neat and tidy environment. Taking time for hobbies.
What do these things have in common? Two things. They are all things that help with the symptoms of depression. They are all things frequently made impossible to accomplish by depression.
People living with depression, as with any chronic illness or condition, are often bombarded by unsolicited advice from well-meaning loved ones, or even acquaintances. Everyone has a friend, or a friend of a friend, or a cousin of a co-worker’s sister, who was helped by something. Or they read an article. Or they misinterpret something they do to feel better when they are feeling low sometimes as a treatment for chronic depression.
They are genuinely trying to help by sharing this wisdom; but it doesn’t help. In fact, it can make things worse.
I have lived with depression since childhood. There isn’t much I haven’t tried, or at least explored trying, to alleviate it. No one enjoys living with depression; we are always on a quest to feel better. And some of the things people suggest do work. Everything I listed above can, and often does, help someone with depression cope. Exercise releases endorphins we lack. Eating well fuels our bodies. Getting enough sleep is highly correlated with successful depression-management. Getting out of the house, socializing, occupying ourselves with hobbies, that can all help ease the feelings of isolation that come with depression.
If we are able to do them.
But the truth is, much of the time, we don’t have the energy for any of it. Depression is often portrayed as deep sadness, but quite frequently, it manifests as sheer and near-constant exhaustion. I rarely feel sad, at least not in a pit of despair sad like people think of at the mention of depression. But there are many days that I don’t make it out of bed for more than minutes at a time.
I feel the weight of my messy living space. I know how good I feel when it is tidy and organized. But I cannot muster the energy to clean it. Each day begins with a resolution to tackle it, and each night ends with the guilt of having failed to do so.
I know how great I feel with regular exercise. The times in my life that my depression has been managed well enough to make this happen, I felt fantastic. Not cured, but as good as I get. But how am I going to get to the gym or the pool, or for a walk around the block, when getting to the kitchen to make lunch feels like climbing a mountain?
I have an amazing group of friends. But as an introvert and a depression-sufferer, social gatherings suck what little energy I have from me, and it can take a long time to both gather enough to get together with friends, and to recover afterwards.
People with depression do get bursts of energy. But depression is a joy-thief, and when those bursts happen, we frequently choose to grab the joy not the vacuum. We might choose to do something we enjoy, something we want to do, something that will make us happy for a moment, knowing that feeling is fleeting.
This is also what can make proper diet difficult. In addition to the energy it takes to meal plan and cook, food is comfort. It makes us feel good. Sometimes when we don’t have the ability to do things that bring us joy, pizza or a cupcake will fill in.
People with depression have fewer hours in the day than the average person. Depression is time-consuming. We need to factor into our plans that being incapacitated will happen. We have to prioritize. So when we get that elusive energy burst, instead of hitting the gym or cleaning our bedrooms, we frequently will throw that energy into our jobs, or spending time with our families. Or, say, writing this article.
When we are given advice on how to manage our depression with diet, exercise, etc., it reminds us that we are failing in that area. We know all of this. We desperately want to do it. Hearing it presented to us as a seemingly easy solution, often using the phrase “just”, stings.
It also can downplay the importance of proper medical treatment. Depression is categorized as a mental illness, but it is a physical condition, too. There are chemical imbalances that need adjusting, often through medication. Sometimes depression is triggered by trauma or circumstances that need addressing with professionals. Often behavioural therapy is needed to reorganize disordered thought processes. Despite a popular but awful meme that gets circulated far too often, none of this will be accomplished by a walk in the woods alone.
Instead of offering unsolicited advice, there are other ways to help a friend or loved one living with depression.
Listen to them. I know this sounds over-simplified, but I cannot stress enough how much this means to us. We don’t always want to talk, but knowing we can means so much. Of course you need to set personal boundaries, you should never be at anyone’s beck and call, nor should you reach a point you feel overwhelmed yourself, but if you have a few minutes and a kind ear, we appreciate the chance to bend it.
Do random acts of kindness. We take joy where we can find it, and joy we don’t have to expend energy to accomplish is always appreciated. Nothing major is necessary. Drop off a coffee. Send a kind message. It doesn’t take a lot to make us feel loved and give us a bit of a boost.
Give us advice if we ask for it. Unsolicited advice is overwhelming, but solicited advice is another story!
Check in with us. If we seem down, or if we don’t. People with depression can be master chameleons. You may not realize we are struggling. Once in a while, a quick but sincere, “How are you doing?” is helpful. It might give us the in we need to talk, without feeling like we are imposing.
Try to be patient with us. Sometimes we cancel plans. Sometimes we turn down plans. Please invite us anyway. We like to feel included even if we aren’t up to it. And please know it isn’t personal if we say no. I have an amazing friend who asks me over for wine and chat on a fairly regular basis. I say no more than half the time, but she understands it isn’t because I don’t love her and her company. She asks me again another time. It means so much to me to not feel given up on.
Just be there. That is the biggest thing. We often feel like a burden on our loved ones. The simple reassurance that you aren’t going anywhere helps more than anything.