Consider this the second part to my last blogpost; in that one I talked about my experience of depression, especially as a depressive episode approaches and unloads. In this post I’ll be detailing some of the tactics and strategies I’ve used over the past three decades. Some are old hat, some are newer. Some are par for the course and some are weird as hell. I make no apologies.
Also, a necessary preface: I’m no expert. I’m depressed, I’m anxious, I’m experienced, but I’m not a mental health professional. Please seek out the counsel of one, and take the below as anecdotal notes from my own battle, not any kind of prescription for anyone else.
And it’s probably clear, but let me state it outright: this stuff works for me, and works for me sometimes. Not all of it will work for someone else. If you’re here looking for ammunition against depression, anxiety, or similar, take what’s useful to you and leave the rest. But if there’s something here you’ve never tried I encourage you, if it seems healthy for you, to give it a shot.
It’s also worth noting I don’t always have the energy or mental bandwidth to follow my own advice. If there’s stuff on here you can’t do on any given day, don’t let it stress you out further: I have those days too. Do what you can. In the midst of depression it’s often not wellness I’m seeking, but betterness – small bumps to push me past the status quo of shallow, raw, dull pain.
The post is divided into three major categories: Initial Steps, Intermediate Steps, and Advanced Steps. There’s some bleed between the categories, and they’re not as cut and dry as they seem at first, but our brains like simple classification. So:
1. The 3-2-1 Rule Is your friend: I first encountered this in the context of going to science fiction or other conventions. Simply stated: 3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower in every 24-hour period. For our purposes consider this more a guideline than a rule. Sleep isn’t always that easy, forcing myself to eat isn’t fun or always healthy, and actually finding the energy to get out of bed and do that or take a shower isn’t always possible. But try – following 3-2-1 is a great way to engage in basic self-care that contributes to betterness
2. Seek professional help: It’s not bullshit. Not every therapist or medication will be right for you but just starting this process is a huge step towards betterness. It’s a journey and there will be trial and error but I’ve learned so much, and people who have spent their lives training for this and helping others have provided me with so much more ammunition in this fight.
3. Engage a support system: this one can be tricky for a few reasons. Sometimes the system isn’t robust, sometimes the people I rely on are dealing with their own stuff, but I still let loved ones know I’m struggling. It allows them a much better understanding of where I’m currently at, and may return dividends as resources open up in my direction.
4. Breathe, just breathe: we spend a lot of time disconnected from our bodies and the present moment, with our sympathetic nervous system (the thing that provokes our fight-or-flight response) often constantly active thanks to our brains, and the news cycle, and the world in general (imagine me gesturing vaguely at, well, everything). Breaking that cognitive cycle can be crucial to betterness. So I stop and take a few deep breaths. And then I let my breath settle into its normal rhythm, but keep my attention on it. In, out. Rising, falling. I don’t need to “blank my mind” or “go zen” or anything else. Just breathe and keep attention on it, and when attention falters, bring it gently back.
Moving from random breaths to planned sessions means I’m practicing meditation, and that’s been essential to me for years. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.
5. Do 2 things right now: exactly what it sounds like, do two things that can lead to progress and that will set me up better for the day to come. This form is slightly new to me; my advice here used to be “do something every day that can lead to things getting better.” “Do 2 things” is something my friend Snaps introduced me to and I loved it so much I insta-adopted it. Get up and do not one but two things, take two steps towards that betterness. It may be cleaning something up, or making a phone call, or taking a walk. Anything. But I love that “Do 2 things” is so simple, and yet that I’m doing two lends toward just continuing that momentum after the second is done if I can – to a third, a fourth. Ride the wave. Do the things.
You can read more about Snaps, who does great work around mental health and wellness, at Mind of Snaps.
6. Be mindful of engaging in activities that will make you feel shitty: physically or mentally. Depression possesses a terrible, self-reinforcing logic that often leads us astray. Try to examine what you’re doing in a given moment and follow it down a timeline a bit; if that action’s ultimate trajectory is negative then take the moment to stop. My two big behaviors here are overeating, and arguing on the internet. There’s some form of pleasure or fulfillment in the moment but I end up bloated or empty, respectively, lamenting what I’ve just spent time doing. The stomachache just makes me feel worse, or I could’ve spent the energy arguing in another healthier way.
Now we’re moving to the middle section. The stuff presented here is slightly more laborious, slightly more complicated, and not always accessible. But if you can reach up and grab an intermediate tactic it can result in amazing pushback against depression and anxiety.
A. Meditation: okay, this one’s huge. I’ve been practicing breath meditation on and off for over a decade now and it’s not an exaggeration to say it’s saved my life. If you breathed according to Initial Step 4 above, you’ve already started. Now it’s time to make a practice of it. There are a plethora of books, programs, and apps out there to help. I’d recommend grabbing an app like Calm or Headspace and starting from there. Here’s the important part: not how long you’re meditating, but that you’re doing it every day. If you can manage it for five minutes a day that’s GREAT. Establish your practice and then expand from there.
As a tangent to that, visualization can also be an incredibly helpful aid. Guided or self-guided visualizations can be wonderfully powerful tools to help your mind work through certain processes in a more imaginative and creative way. As an example: at the end of each day, letting go of what’s happened during the day is a great way to help yourself fall into more restful sleep. You can approach it multiple ways, including affirmation, mantra, or journaling. I got bored with those and decided I’d do it through visualization, and created a visualization I utilize each night in which I set the bullshit of the previous day adrift in a wooden boat, and burn the boat as if in a Viking funeral. You can find a writeup of that here.
Again, the point here isn’t just process but also creativity. It’s a very solid push against the narrowing, dull world that depression tries to impose, and the limit is literally whatever you can imagine and apply. During a particularly tough period in my previous job I used a visualization each morning that recast the day to come as a sort of secret cyberpunk mission full of intrigue and mystery.
Whatever gets you through the day, functionally, right?
B. Mind your environment, both physical and digital: it never fails. The deeper I move into depression, the messier my surroundings get. I neglect trash, the dishes fill the sink, piles of stuff accumulate out of nowhere. My father’s the one that taught me this probably two decades ago and it’s one of the first warning signs that my depression is deepening, and one of the most visible feedback mechanisms. Stuff gets messier because I don’t have the energy to deal with it and because I don’t have the energy to deal with it stuff gets even messier. That kind of negative feedback loop can get dangerous. So I try to keep a mindful eye on my apartment, and this feeds back into Initial Step 5: Do 2 things. It’s amazing how much better I feel if I can get up and spend a few minutes to clean the dishes or the bathroom or put up my laundry.
This applies to your digital life as well: pay attention to your feeds, to what you consume and to what you broadcast. The world is a dumpster fire right now and social media is a series of overlapping horrorshows with teeth, hungry for your attention. Take some time to evaluate what you take out and what you give back and decide whether you need to more carefully curate your feed, or whether you need to pull back from social media for a bit for your own betterness. That’s an entirely acceptable path.
But be mindful here: as I mentioned in my last post, depression is a subtractive process that tries to contract and whittle away your world. If you’re going to pull back, try to make sure you’re not doing it in a way that increases your self-isolation.
C. Stay organized and on-task: I ain’t got time to bleed. I’ve got a mission nested within another mission and there’s some asshole Predator hunting me from the trees of my own brain. And I don’t have the energy or the mental presence to handle everything at once. I spent a decade as a 911 dispatcher, handling multiple calls at once, keeping all sorts of balls up in the air as I juggled responses, but I finally had to admit that I can’t keep track of it all myself. Using organization schemes or task management software is crucial. Anything that allows me to “offboard” non-essential information allows me to preserve more mental bandwidth, more cognitive reserve, for important tasks.
I’ve probably tried every to-do app you can think of multiple times and this once again comes down to finding something that works for you. Past participants included Apple Reminders, Microsoft To-Do, OmniFocus, Wunderlist, Google Tasks, and many more. Thanks to advice from my task-busting badass friend Kathy I’ve recently taken up with Asana, team project management software that works just as well for me on my own. The base account type is free, and in addition to being cross-platform and web-accessible, Asana has a crucial advantage: it allows for both to-do list granularity, and larger project management. This allows me to keep my to do list in the same place as my ongoing projects. I’m working on a larger post about Asana, but the key takeaway is this: depression often pulls a lot of my brain cycles away, so having a place where I centralize all my ideal productivity is incredibly important. No matter how mundane, if it doesn’t show up on my to-do list, it doesn’t exist. Operating on that guideline has saved me from dropping a lot of balls mid-project and saved a lot of anxiety but there’s another kicker: Asana allows you to view completed tasks as well, buoying you for a job well done and motivating you to do even more.
There’s a caveat here: task lists can become another focal point of depression, when you list stuff that you don’t actually do and the list just keeps growing. It’s important to note if it’s doing more harm than good and react accordingly. But believe me when I say organization will save you so much time and grief.
D. Write it out: journaling in general can be incredibly therapeutic, and especially guided journaling (as in the case of gratitude lists). Expressing yourself is crucial no matter the direction, but constant depressive journaling can also create downward spirals of its own. Creating examples of gratitude counteract that in the most vital of ways, and eventually weave together into a narrative of gratitude that can be a wonderfully powerful force. Another suggestion: “Alternate Universe” journal entries, write as you from another universe, whomever or however you want to be.
Take control of the narrative.
E. Take control of your sensations and perceptions: it’s your body, dammit. Depression can rob me of my sense of agency and make me feel like everything is uncontrollable, nothing matters, and nothing *feels.* As seen in my previous post a lot of what I deal with is sensory – why not respond in kind? Deciding to take very, very hot showers is one example of this. I’ve also found that walking barefoot in grass or other natural footing can feel both grounding and renewing. Some studies have shown that weighted blankets are effective for depression or anxiety and I can anecdotally agree – my weighted blanket is a godsend. Some therapists also recommend compression vests for similar – I’ve had good experiences with compression sleeves as well, plus they look kinda cool to me.
I also get weirder here. When I say take control of your perception, I’m not kidding – I wear prescription glasses, and have multiple pairs of them with colored lenses. At any given moment I get to choose how I see what I see, whether it’s pink, or deep red, or blue, or yellow. It’s a self-defense mechanism I started in my teen years that I didn’t even realize until a few years ago.
Take some time and decide how you want to wrest control of your sensations and perceptions. Weighted blanket? Colored glasses? A new shower gel or scented candle to spread the aroma you decide?
And now we’re moving towards the endgame here. It gets more complicated, and more weird, and that’s just sort of how I roll.
I. Take the Herculean step of expanding yourself against depression: flip it the bird by refusing to let your world become small and monotonous. I’m not going to lie, this is fucking hard. As I’ve said before depression is subtractive. It removes things and leaves a featureless landscape in its wake; it contracts your world to four dull walls. One of the most meaningful steps I take against depression, and one of the hardest and most energy-sucking, is to seek to expand myself instead. I push against those walls and try to make my world bigger however I can. It may be by learning a new skill such as lockpicking (which I’m awful at but getting better). Or engaging in a hands-on project such as constructing a costume for an event (I’m working on an Odin one at the moment). Reading about different places in the world, or different cultures, is another favorite. I’m planning to learn card and magic tricks this fall partly because depression and anxiety hate dexterity and wonder and flourish.
Depression seeks to shut and lock the door. So I cut new doors out of the walls. When I can feel it, it’s fulfilling; when I can’t, it’s the spite that drives me. If I’m expanding myself depression must be pissed.
II. Fictionalize yourself: if nothing matters, you might as well become the character you want to be. In a talk delivered to Improving Reality, the British writer Warren Ellis ended with a charge:
Act like you live in the Science Fiction Condition. Act like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky. Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted. Think big. And then make it better.
Much like the world we have at hand right now, depression seeks to take both your sense of self and your sense of agency. I’m not always sure who I am from one moment to the next. That’s caused crisis in the past – but it can be turned on its head into a strength of sorts. Who do you want to be? How wild, if you could? How far out?
There are a lot of ways to work with this, but put plainly: pretend. Everyone that scoffs is jealous. Gather the energy and the circumstances and the accessories of the Fictional You that you want to be, because fuck it. If I’m going to have an identity crisis I’m going to spite it by doing a deep dive on an Alternate Me. This feeds a bit into Step I above about expanding yourself – play with your identity, who you can be, and be that person for a little while. Stroll down the block as a cyberpunk, get through the TSA checkpoint making you anxious with no one finding out you’re a wizard, write down initial notes on the next novel in your bestselling trilogy that Alternate-You is famous for writing. There are some guidelines here on not to take it too far – taking it so seriously that it causes dysfunction in your real life is counter to the point.
This isn’t delusion, this is play – and we have far too little of that as adults. But realize in playing, in fictionalizing yourself, that you control the narrative. So, yes, go play with yourself.
-The above are things that worked for me, but may not work for everyone, or may even be harmful. Approach with caution, but also creativity and, if you can, optimism.
-Professional help is one of the most powerful arsenals you have in this fight.
-So is honesty.
But most of all: that you’re still here means you’re not done yet, and things can get better. Try to find what works for you even in the slightest of ways. They all count.
Please feel free to fire feedback about this post to me on twitter at @neurovagrant.