Tell me if this sounds familiar… You can’t even deal with the alarm clock this morning, and you hit the snooze one time too many. Now you’re too far behind to get a shower, so you throw on sweatpants and get the kids ready for the day. This morning, their breakfast requests, milk spills, and bickering are more than you can take, and you yell—or cry—or both—before the meal is done. You get them off to school (or plop them in front of PBS Kids), look around at the toys, dishes, and to do lists in front of you, and you think, “I can’t. I can’t do this. I’m done. I’m such a failure.”
I’m sure this isn’t how you feel every day. 90% of the time, you handle this. You get up with a good attitude, you manage breakfast with a smile—or at least, a calm demeanor. You are perfectly capable of handling the laundry, dishes, and other things that go along with, well, life. But not today. Today it is all just too much. You want to quit before you even get started on the day. You just feel so hopeless.
Have you been there? I wish I could say I hadn’t, but this scene is all too familiar in my house. My battle with depression began when Matt was born (and he’s nine now), and it continues to rear its ugly head too often for my taste. Sometimes for a day, sometimes for a season, but it is never a welcome companion. While I can’t say that I have a miracle cure to banish the blues forever, I can tell you that I have found some excellent tools to keep handy for those days when I need a little extra dose of hope.
Crank up the volume
There’s a reason so much time and effort is put into movie soundtracks. It really can have a tremendous impact on our emotions! It seems silly, I know, but you’d be amazed at what a difference your playlist can make.
Now, I do understand that sometimes an overly cheerful song can sometimes be too much to handle when you’re really down. My pick-me-up playlist actually starts with a couple of sad songs, then gradually moves to happier, peppier tunes. (Yep, I said “peppier.”)
Make a plan
Depression can be overwhelming, and suddenly everyday decisions—such as what to do next—can seem impossible. On an ordinary day I’ll drive the kids to school, then come home to clean the kitchen, start a load of laundry, and pick a project to tackle. But when I wake up feeling depressed, I’m practically defeated before I begin. I can’t pick a starting point. The messy kitchen feels impossible. The weight of every unfinished project presses on my chest until I can hardly breathe. And before I know what’s happening, I’m on the couch with Netflix as my companion for the day. So when I wake up and I’m already starting to struggle (or better yet, if I realize the night before that I feel myself slipping), I sit down and make a list—and I make it as specific as possible. If the messy kitchen makes me want to cry, writing “clean the kitchen” is not going to help. Instead, I will break that down into specific tasks: put away toaster, unload & reload dishwasher, wipe down counters, handwash pan, etc. Not only do the smaller tasks feel less overwhelming, but it feels so darn good to cross four or five items off my list when my kitchen is clean.
Fuel your body
I really cannot emphasize this enough: so many of the things that seem like a good idea when you are depressed will often serve to make you feel worse. This is especially true when it comes to food. Rarely when I am down do I crave celery and cucumbers. Instead, I find myself frantically digging for ice cream, chocolate, chips & dip, bread slathered in butter, anything that would fall under the “sometimes food” category. But when I give in to those desires, I only feel tired, sick, and guilty… and too often those feelings lead to further junk food cravings. It is a vicious cycle.
Conversely, I am amazed at how much more mild my bad days seem when I am in the habit of eating well. Food is fuel, not just for your bones and muscles, but for your mind too. Eating fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins and drinking lots of water will have an amazing effect on your energy level and outlook.
Build your team
When your emotions are out of whack, they will lie to you. They will tell you terrible things about yourself, and they will make you feel isolated. I can’t tell you how many days I felt like the walls of life were crumbling around me, and then I’d think, “I should call my husband. No, I can’t do that, he’s too busy at work. I should call my mom. No, I can’t do that, she’s got Bible study today. I should call Stacy. No, I can’t do that, she’s got <fill in the blank> going on and doesn’t need to hear about this.” And one by one, I would eliminate every person in my life, until I was convinced that I was completely on my own in my sadness. Two days later I would be back to normal, and I would think, “Why on earth did I think that I couldn’t call my best friend? My mom? My husband, who loves me more than anyone?” Of course I could call any one of those people, and several others beside.
Similar to being specific with housework, the key to this one is to make a plan. On a day when you are feeling good, make a list of the people you can call when you’re down. Then whoever it is—your husband, your BFF, your parent, a woman whom you think of as a mentor—talk to them about it ahead of time. Ask them if it’s OK to lean on them when you’re feeling down. I’m guessing that they will not hesitate to say, “Of course! I am happy to be there for you!” And I’m guessing that you already know that… but when your dark & twisty emotions whisper, “You are all alone. There is no one you can call,” your brain can answer, “Hey, remember this conversation? Let me play it back for you.” And it’s so much easier to make that call when you have the plan in place.
Tell yourself the truth
Several years ago, I started going to the gym in the middle of the “Positive Self-Talk” craze. I remember watching a video about a woman who completed her first marathon, and she said, “I came to a hill toward the end of the race, and I almost gave up. But I just kept telling myself, ‘I love hills! I love hills! I love hills!’ And that carried me through!” It sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? But I found that I could say, “I feel great today!” all I wanted, but if I knew it was a lie, it ended up just making me feel worse.
So instead of positive self-talk, I moved to positive God talk. Instead of trying to convince myself of things that I wasn’t entirely sure were true, I repeat things to myself that I know are true: Scriptures. I know that God is truth, so when I tell myself what God’s word says, I can accept it more readily. Verses like “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. ‘Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.’” (Deut. 31:8) and “We are God’s masterpiece” (Eph. 3:10, NLT) can provide encouragement and strength to get through hard days.
Move your body
Listen to me say this: Sometimes you need a break, and that’s OK. Sometimes we are stretched too thin and we wear ourselves out, and we just need to let our bodies and minds rest. I get that.
When I am struggling emotionally and I am overwhelmed by the thought of getting dressed, rarely is Netflix the answer. In fact, more often than not, indulging in a day of binge-watching “Gilmore Girls” leaves me feeling emptier than when I began.
So before giving into a day of lounging away the blues (which may backfire), try something that gets your body moving. It doesn’t have to be a full-on workout—although that’s probably not a bad idea—but a nice walk or even a dance party with the kiddos can get your heart pumping, your mind off your troubles, and your endorphins flowing. And even if it isn’t a miracle cure, it’s definitely not going to hurt!
Depression is by nature an inwardly-focused ailment. Not only can it cause its targets to withdraw and feel isolated, but it consumes us with thoughts of our shortcomings, failures, and sadnesses. One of the most effective ways to get out of your own head is to focus on someone else. And I don’t mean googling sad pictures of orphans when you’re already feeling sad—that’s not going to help anyone. Rather, make it part of your lifestyle to serve others. Find a homeless shelter to volunteer. Check out your local Habitat for Humanity. Teach Sunday School at your church. Having a regular time built into your life for serving others will help to take your focus off of yourself, even if you’re not necessarily volunteering on the same day that you are struggling. This option is more about overall lifestyle than an in-the-moment fix.
Just do the next thing
This one is so simple, but so very effective. It’s so easy to look around our houses and see everything that is unfinished. It’s easy to think of every friend we’ve been wanting to catch up with, every parenting decision we’ve been meaning to implement, every family member who needs a quick phone call. It’s impossible to do it all, and when your emotions are on overload, it’s easy to do nothing instead. At times like these, sometimes you have to take your focus off of the big picture and just do something. Put one foot in front of the other, and then do it again. Don’t focus on cleaning the whole kitchen, just try to get the dirty dishes all in the sink. When that’s done, do the next thing. One step at a time. Don’t expect a miracle and don’t pressure yourself to fix it all. Just do the next thing.