Depression casts long shadows, which can linger after symptoms have improved. Once the acute pain ameliorates, many people experience a hollow feeling that traps them in the outer shadows of depression.
The density of depression’s shadows is partly physiological. Prolonged depression impairs the immune system. Always rule out medical factors first. Get a physical with a blood test.
The following can help:
1. Walk 30 minutes a day
Spend 10 minutes a day in sunlight and an hour per week in nature. These three activities are as effective for many people as anti-depressants, with none of the side effects and many health benefits.
2. Recondition thought patterns to promote healing
The propensity to ruminate, which is characteristic of depression, makes us susceptible to recurring thoughts of loss, failure, mistakes, and pain. Reconditioning is associating memories of past mistakes, losses, or pain with future corrections.
For example, during his depression, a client frequently yelled at his wife and children. He recognized that the depression did not excuse taking it out on loved ones, a realization that thickened the shadows of his recovery.
In addition to apologizing with all sincerity to his family, we set up reconditioning sessions of one minute to be practiced 12 times per day. In each session, he imagined states of weariness and stress when, in the past, he yelled at loved ones. With each recollection of the impulse to yell, he reminded himself how much he loved them and how important they were to him. In about six weeks, he felt empowered to regulate his emotional and physical states, as well as his behavior. As a result, the yelling ceased completely, and the shadows of depression dissipated.
In a more personal example, I suffered severe depression many years ago, following the sudden death of my mother. Once the acute grief passed, memories of her came with pain or distress for many months. To heal myself, I set up practice sessions, in which I recalled various memories of my mother and paired them with appreciation of the ways she enriched my life and thoughts of honoring her memory by loving and protecting my family. Within a couple of weeks of practice, the shadows of depression vanished.
3. Make implicit memory work for you
Feelings are amplified and magnified by focus. When we say or think, “I feel…(for example) resentful,” the brain loads into implicit memory other times we felt resentful. We’re likely to select behavior from past experiences of resentment, which are bound to perpetuate the bad feelings.
To make the process work for you, validate how you feel, but focus on how you want to feel.
“I feel resentful, but I want to feel close and connected to my partner.”
My brain will load into implicit memory other times I felt connected, times when I was more in touch with self-value and value for my partner. My behavioral impulse will be more open, compassionate, and kind, raising the likelihood of getting close and connected.
4. Replace blame (of self and others) with improve
Replace blame with improve (attempts to make situations, including internal states, a little better).
Blame subverts the natural motivation to heal, correct, and improve; hurt or perceived damage functions as fuel for blame. We cannot heal and improve while blaming. Decide which is more important to you.
5. Fight the symptoms
Don’t wait until you feel like changing. In the shadows of depression, we don’t feel like doing much of anything, especially what we most need to do – exercise and create value. Consistently waiting until we feel like doing something can cause under-stimulation in the brain and impair neurotransmitter functions.
If you don’t feel like doing it, do it anyway! Behavior changes feelings more reliably than the other way around.
“When I feel better, I’ll start to exercise.”
You won’t feel better until you start to exercise.
6. Act on your deeper values, not your feelings
When we consistently act on feelings, which are largely habits forged in the past, we make the same mistakes again and again.
Acting on deeper values elevates feelings. Acting on your more humane values makes you feel more humane, and helps you be the person, partner, and parent you most want to be.
7. Focus on empowerment, not validation
Empowerment is the ability to improve and heal, using personal strengths, resources, and resilience to create value and meaning.
Seeking validation from others will be disappointing, at best. Your personal experience of depression – what it felt like to you – was unique. Those who haven’t suffered depression won’t get it at all. Those who have been depressed will likely project their experience onto you and expect you to respond as they did. Or they’ll be afraid that validating you will drag them back to the darkness. You’re likely to feel misunderstood, judged, isolated.
Seeking validation from others keeps us stuck in the shadows, at the risk of identifying with hurt, loss, and failure. Identifying with hurt or symptoms makes us susceptible to confirmation bias. We look for evidence that confirms hurt or damage, and overlook evidence of strengths, resources, and resilience.
Identify with the healing, resilient, and growth-oriented aspects of your nature:
“I’ve been hurt, but I want to heal and grow.”
“I will focus on ways to heal and grow.”
The original version of this article was first published in Psychology Today.
At LCC we have a dedicated and highly skilled team ready to help you in Hertfordshire, or from the comforts of your own home. If you are experiencing negative thoughts we offer counselling services for depression and anxiety.