Depression and strategies for everyday life

Young adults we interviewed described strategies they had created or been taught that make it easier to live with depression on a daily basis. As Sam put it, such approaches make it “… more comfortable going through day to day life and dealing with these symptoms of depression when they arise.”

For many people short-term approaches to dealing with depression lay the groundwork for eventual healing and recovery. For some these approaches also connect to a broader sense of purpose. This part of the website, however, focuses on specific strategies that the young adults we spoke with developed to lessen the day-to-day impact of depression; why they think such strategies are important; and how they succeeded in creating them. (See links below to explore ‘Depression and healing‘ and ‘Having a purpose in life‘).

Sam says his depression has not disappeared, but he has learned from books, other people, and therapists some useful ways of dealing with his symptoms.
Interview Transcript

Which brings me to where I am today in my journey with depression. I still feel symptoms of depression fairly often. Sometimes it’s just a feeling more down than usual for a day, sometimes it is this feeling that everything is hopeless and why should I even get out of bed. But with this kind of time to process the new perspectives on my life and my illness that I have learned from other people I’ve met, from books that I’ve read, from professional therapists, who I intend to begin seeing again as soon as I am back at the university. I think that I’m able to recognize those symptoms when they start to emerge and “deal with” is a vague term that means different things, in different scenarios, but try out new and fall back proven for me, coping mechanisms to navigate my life, and my work with those symptoms.

Having a sense of structure in place, in terms of a systematic vocabulary with which to view my illnesses, with which in terms of a step by step practical plan with which to address my symptoms. Having a sense of structure has been a very powerful and concrete way of combatting the abstract and vague, but just as powerful idea that nothing makes sense and there is nothing that I can do. Having a sense of structure has given me maps on which I can definitely locate myself in where I am and where I want to be.

DEP Sam
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sam works as a young professional to earn money to resume his university studies. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is White.

Click here to view Sam's profile page

Going slowly, one step at a time

One coping strategy many people find useful is to approach things “one day at a time.” Several people said that making things “bite-sized” or “thinking about them in little stages” renders them more manageable. Others talked about the importance of slowing things down by setting priorities among competing tasks that cannot all be accomplished, or saying “no” to all but a few commitments each day. As Kate put it, “Depression makes you tired and it makes you need to recover longer than other people. So you need to give yourself a break.”

Violet says it's critical to respect that depression creates limits on how many things can happen each day, and to create firm boundaries so as not to stretch that limit.
Interview Transcript

I need to realize that ok some things are going to have to go until tomorrow. You know just very more of an acceptance, you know, that you can’t do everything, has helped me cope a lot, to, just, you know, understand that some things are physically impossible you know, that you can’t physically do everything. And again with the affirmations I’ll just tell myself “ok some of it’s going to have to wait until tomorrow I just can’t do it today, you know and I just need to accept that.” And I think that practice really has helped with that, even things like scheduling wise; I know that I can only schedule up to three things in one day and after that I’m just asking, for myself to, to trigger, to be unhappy, to be stressing myself out but I think that takes time for everyone to learn their own personal limit.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page
Crystal says taking daily things like eating and chores one at a time slows things down to a level that is more appropriate for a depressed person than is the rush of modern life.
Interview Transcript

The world’s always going to go at a fast pace unfortunately that’s how we live right now but what you can do is say, “Ok I’m going to take things step by step.” If you can’t really do anything with your body and you’re not physically energetic then maybe writing something down or just thinking about your thoughts that could be a good place to start. But if you can do something you can say, “Ok I’m going to relocate place, myself to some other place. I’m going to pick up things and I’m going to knit, I’m going to watch a movie.” Take things at a really basic minute level that is a really great, that’s a, that’s at least a really great suggestion for me just because you’re not focusing on the high level parts of your, I don’t know your day to day life or your obligations but you’re focusing on basic things that you need that are run by your own biological clock. Like, “I’m hungry,” So you should go eat or just then while you’re eating take time to process the food and think about how good it is or I don’t know just interact more at a basic level because you just have to admit you know with depression, whether you’re on medication or not, life is going to be slower for you, you are going to operate at a different pace and that’s completely ok.

DEP Crystal
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Crystal is an African American college student. She works campus jobs during the year and internships in the summers.

Click here to view Crystal's profile page

For most people, depression cycles: sometimes it is less intense, and sometimes it is more. One strategy for coping with this reality is to keep ongoing commitments flexible, so they can most easily be brought into alignment with capacity one’s on any given day. Some people described building flexible school commitments, for example by going part-time or enrolling in distance learning programs. Others talked about flexible work arrangements, such as going freelance, having work hours that can vary, or being in an environment without strict deadlines.

Nadina contrasts the benefits of working freelance with the difficult demands of hourly work in an overwhelmingly social setting.
Interview Transcript

…freelance is not really an issue with depression. Like I just do it, you know kind of robotically, even if I’m not feeling great that day. The hard thing for me is working an hourly job you know in a very social setting. I get very overwhelmed if there are a lot of people around and a lot of demands and people getting irritated with me or something, it’s very stressful. So it’s been something I’ve really had to fight with because I need to work, obviously, I need to make money. So when I’m in a social setting that’s uncomfortable to me it’s very hard and that’s something that I don’t think people get about depression there’s also kind of this issue with too many people, too much noise can be very overwhelming , oh, sensory overload type of thing.

DEP Nadina
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Nadina lives with her parents in a suburb near a small city. She completed college and works as a freelance illustrator. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Nadina's profile page

Setting goals and making lists

Setting specific goals for each day or for the week was described by a number of people as a useful way of staying organized and productive. As Kate put it, “knowing what you’re going to do next week helps you not feel so helpless.” Colin said as he came out of a serious bout of depression, he started getting more control of his life by focusing on “… how to make myself want to get out of bed in the morning, how to find purpose in my day.” For Sophie having a creative internship experience to look forward to at the end of each week helped to take her mind off the difficult parts of everyday life and thus to lessen her depression.

For Kate, making daily obligations is a valuable measure of functionality. It is not easy to do, but the rewards are significant.
Interview Transcript

Mostly I measure my normality by my functionality and my productivity. If I can make it to all my appointments and not get lost, if I cannot cancel anything that week, if I can get the dishes done, if I can make sure that my cat gets fed, if I can be functional, and if I can have something to show at the end of the day, then that would be me being a normal person. But the way I got about things is different and the way I think about things, and the way I handle things is different. But I believe that normal is relative, so I’m relatively normal [laughter].

You talked about that sense of, getting, having something to show for the end of the day. And so what is it that you show, that you want to show, does it change, something?

Yeah, it changes. I like being able to say, well I did this, and this, and this. I, you know, got a bill paid or I finished a painting or I had a full day of work. If I feel like it wasn’t wasted time, then I feel better about myself. It’s exhausting [laughter] trying to get everything done. But at the end of the day when I feel like I got it done, then I can feel valuable.

DEP Kate
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Kate is an actress who works in an art gallery. She lives in an apartment with a roommate and a cat. She is white.

Click here to view Kate's profile page
The process of setting goals and then achieving them keeps Jacob's depression at bay.
Interview Transcript

I have bouts where it’s really bad and I feel like everything is falling apart but then my drive kicks back in and I’m able to kind of get out of that rut and move towards the next goal. It’s like the constant goal setting and achieving of those goals that keeps me from staying in a rut.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page
Crystal found that many small goals help her manage day to day, and hopes they may add up to a larger, healthier goal over time.
Interview Transcript

I definitely think that it is very useful, I find, to find something that you can latch onto in life. I know that mine is transient and may not be the most healthy in the long run but it’s appropriate in the short run and it’s reasonable in the short run and while I’m also continuing to seek help, this is a rock that gets me through to the next day. And as I keep you know ticking off and making check marks and how I’m making my way through to that goal, I can also work with my therapist, so I can work with friends and I can talk to people and I can reflect on myself and I can find, find out, you know, how can I then morph that goal into something else, maybe it can turn into another transient goal and then, in which case I still count that as a success.

But perhaps it can be morphed, morphed into a more permanent and more effective and healthier one in the long run. But I definitely think that whatever it is you should have something that grounds you. Feeling up in the air will only cause you more anxiety.

DEP Crystal
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Crystal is an African American college student. She works campus jobs during the year and internships in the summers.

Click here to view Crystal's profile page

Several people found that making lists helped them commit to and track daily goals. Pete says he began “keeping like checks and checklists” to stay organized because his depression sometimes makes it hard to concentrate. Sam found list making to be “one of the biggest tools” he acquired through treatment, because “time management is, of course, not just a good way of giving someone with depression a sense of power and control over their lives, but also a necessary skill with which to engage in the world.”

Lists help Violet to be proactive and counteract the way depression can make her feel out of control.
Interview Transcript

Also, I’m very much a list person, it helps keep me organized, it helps make, it makes me feel proactive that I am, that I am attempting to at least, at least attempting, to organize myself, to keep myself on point and that has helped with, it has helped with my depression in the way that it makes me feel like I am taking steps to control it I guess, to control my situation. I’m very much when I have like a lack of control I notice it’s a trigger. I feel like things are out of my hands, I get overwhelmed, suddenly it’s giving me thoughts of “I can’t do this,” you know, “I, I’m not ready for this, I’m not equipped to do this, I can’t do this.”, so take, making the list, it really kind of paces myself the way I need to be that gives me thoughts of I’m getting this done, I’m doing it at my own pace, you know I’m not going to forget to do anything because I have this list and I can check it off as a I go…

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page

Journaling

Journaling is a process of writing down thoughts and feelings. A number of people we talked to said that for them, journaling has been an important tool – a way to understand feelings and process them more objectively, recognize patterns over time, or improve communication with other people. Some journal on their own, and others do it in connection with therapy.

Sam finds it valuable to write down what is going on because it helps him “… realize this thing is bothering me, but, actually, there are practical steps I could take to mitigate it or, actually, it’s not very consequential.” Crystal said journaling is one effective way to “process things instead of live them”; writing helps her to recognize and acknowledge thoughts born of depression without an accompanying “rush of emotions.” Ryan said the journals he kept as a child were “the best way [to] vent” that he has discovered so far. A couple of people noted that journaling is challenging for them.

Sara began journaling when her therapist suggested it, and finds it helps her break out of negative thought patterns and move on.
Interview Transcript

Between that and the medication, the journaling was a big thing. Because I would my mind is constantly going like, “What am I going to wear, am I going to look ok, is the weather, is it going to rain or are my shoes going to get wet,” Like you don’t need to worry about all that stuff and then on top of that, “Is my grandma ok, is my sister ok, is, what am I going to do today,” It’s just all at once. So I can just sit down and just write about what’s going through my head even if it’s just, “I want a cup of coffee.” It’s not, it’s floating in my head and I’m not talking about it if I don’t have somebody to talk to I could just write it down then it’s not in my head anymore and I can move on.

…The journaling is the best that is the best suggestion I ever got from my therapist. And it’s even, if you don’t have somebody to talk to right then, you can just write down your thoughts and it helps. So I think that’s a big thing because not many people realize that they can just write down what you’re thinking and just move on from there. And then you can even save it and realize like, “Oh, I got through that day. That was a really hard day. I got through that day though, so I get through this. This is no problem.”

DEP Sara
Profile Info
Age at interview: 26
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Sara is the mother of a young daughter and was pregnant at the time of her interview. She has been living with her daughter and fiancé in various places, none of them permanent. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Sara's profile page
Journaling is still too difficult and emotional for Leanna because it opens a floodgate of emotion.
Interview Transcript

I’ve tried journaling, but something about just like, writing the words. I kind of felt like how saying your experiences and how you feel, like how it just makes you like actually cry. Like every time I start journaling I just start crying because there’s just like so much, like I can’t slowly let the floodgate open, it just crashes down. It’s just too much. Maybe someday I can work myself up to that, but for now it’s kind of just like small little mental journal snippets in my head, yeah.

DEP Leanna
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Leanna lives with her husband and many pets in an apartment complex in a suburb outside a large town in a rural area. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Leanna's profile page

Exercise and diet

A number of people focused on exercise and/or diet as a strategy for addressing their depression or preventing it from recurring. One person aptly summarized common experiences by noting “Any type of exercise feels great when you’re depressed, because it makes you feel less depressed afterwards.” Some people “… just sort of figured out what worked better” on their own, while others had doctors, therapists, teachers, or others help them.

Violet says a bad diet triggers her depression, and eating well makes it better.
Interview Transcript

… the diets of people I think are a very big trigger, eating tons of fast food, tons of processed food, preservatives, I mean god knows what. But again we don’t really know where a lot of our food source comes from I notice an absolute difference when I, I’m a vegetarian so I’m eating mostly fruits and vegetables you know I eat some grains but to have fresh food, I very rarely eat processed food at all you know even cereals I barely eat you know. So fresh fruit and vegetables it makes an overwhelming difference it really does to eat to have something that is, makes your body feel clean, it makes your mind feel clean and that’s what I connect them with, when my body feels clean my mind feels clean. I feel a clarity that I really do link to eating crappy food, I do. I, in high school I mean I wasn’t cooking because you know what teenager cooks for themselves but I was eating a lot of fast food and I really do think that it weighed my body down in a way not that I like gained any significant weight or anything but it made me feel sluggish, I didn’t have any energy which again linked into feeling bad you know, in general. Also like high sugar diets.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page
Joey's doctor helped him realize how poor his eating habits were, and the role this might be playing in his depression, by checking in with him regularly about self-care and food.
Interview Transcript

I mean also yeah like somebody to ask you like questions because I didn’t think I was doing like anything like that wrong, but it was like, so like, how many meals a day do you eat and you’re like oh. One most of time, like as soon as you say that out loud you’re like, woah. Maybe that isn’t ok [laughter]. Like, maybe you could be doing something better for yourself in that area of your life.

Yup.

And so, yeah, it was nice to answer those questions out loud as opposed to like. Because even in you’re head, you’re like, you think about stuff and you’re like, eh that seems reasonable. And then you like answer questions like, ah that sounds horrible like out loud [laughter].

DEP Joey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 26

Background: Joey lives in an apartment in an artists’ building in an urban area near where he had gone to college. He works part time in retail stores and is a musician. He is White.

Click here to view Joey's profile page
Sierra Rose believes exercise would help her, but reluctance to exercise in front of other people and finding the motivation to go do it are both barriers.
Interview Transcript

I believe it was happiness 101 and this guy talked about how they’ve done studies with medication, exercise and medication, and just exercise and that the exercise is actually proven to help pull people out of their depression and as long as you’re staying active, you’re ok. The only problem then is getting up the motivation to do the exercise.

Right. Right. Is that something that you do?

It’s something I like to say I do.

[laughter]

Here at this apartment we actually have a gym that is open 24/7. There are treadmills that’s my main form of exercise, is running. If I get really angry I will go down and I will run on the treadmill. But normally the motivation to actually get up, walk down there exercise in front of people is, it’s hard. Most of my exercise is done at 1 or 2 in the morning because I just can’t stand to be there when people are there. And I can’t, excuse me, I can’t necessarily exercise in my apartment because I am on the third floor, there are people below me. I can’t, you know, be standing here jogging in place or anything because you know that’s going to drive them insane. So I like to say I exercise. I try to exercise I should probably exercise more.
So I like to say I exercise. I try to exercise I should probably exercise more.

DEP Sierra Rose
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 11

Background: Sierra Rose lives in an apartment with her boyfriend, another roommate, and three beloved cats. She spent a week in the hospital shortly before her interview, and was continuing with out-patient care but struggling to pay for some of it. She is Italian and Jewish.

Click here to view Sierra Rose's profile page

Seeking joy

For many people, depression includes the disappearance or absence of joy in everyday life. People we spoke to who developed an intention to counter this problem, and/or implemented strategies for doing so, generally found they were able to bring some joy back in. Colin says looking for “that little bit of joy” is a useful strategy for addressing depression day by day without feeling like he has to “grasp onto bigger concepts.” Several people talked about specific things they seek out in order to feel that joy – for example gardening, time with children, travel, or learning new things.

Brendan may not be capable of feeling joy each day, but he has learned to be less troubled about its absence by remembering it will return.
Interview Transcript

Do you experience feeling joy, happiness? You take—

It varies. Honestly, I have. And some days I do and some days I don’t, you know?

But you are capable of it?

I’m definitely capable. Yeah, I know, I’ve had truly, truly happy moments and there have been some times when I could– I should– I feel have been truly happy but I couldn’t because of my illness. You know, it, it can be debilitating and it can rob a peaceful moment from you and that’s the extra struggle of it that sucks. But the important thing is in remembering, that happiness isn’t gone. It’s maybe hiding around a little bit but you can find it again as long as you believe that it’s still there.

DEP Brendan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

Click here to view Brendan's profile page
Specific sources of joy for Colin include classmates with a sense of humor and cats.

Because I feel right now, it’s harder for me to grasp onto bigger concepts and find, it’s kind of more scary for me to think about the bigger picture. But it’s easier for me to find that little bit of joy, and when, for example, every Tuesday and Thursday I’ll go to my class, only one in person class and one online class, so I just go Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, and one of my favorite people are there. And I don’t really care about going to the class, I don’t really enjoy being there, but I always know that, he’s like one of the most consistently funny people, like no matter what, everything that comes out of his mouth is pure gold. I don’t know. He just has a way about that. And I just always look forward to seeing him, just like have a short conversation before class starts because it always puts me in a better mood. You know? He could always, we’ll laugh right before class starts. It’s very predictable. And then like, I never used to be an animal person, I never really was. I’d go out of the way of dogs or I’d just be like indifferent. I guess, I’m kind of seeing this girl right now more casually. But she has this cat. I want to go and see the cat every day. And he’s just like, I don’t know, I love seeing this cat. It’s like the first thing I do when I walk inside her house, I’ll just like look for [inaudible]. He’ll just come snuggle up next to me. Get me all congested but I don’t care.

DEP Colin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Colin works at the college he attends and lives with a roommate. He takes medications and sees a therapist. He is White.

Click here to view Colin's profile page

Avoiding pitfalls and triggers

Because depression decreases stamina and increases sensitivity for many people, every-day strategies for avoiding known “triggers” can be essential. Elizabeth says depression has taught her that she doesn’t “have the kind of brain” that handles drugs or alcohol well, and that she needs to stay away from them entirely in order to feel well. Jeremy has learned he needs to prepare for winter, when his depression always worsens, by keeping up his exercise routine, getting outside, and avoiding drinking and drugs. Marty knows that “lying in bed for too long, it’s just not good,” and that “being stuck in your own head and free time is very bad.” Others talked about staying away from lifestyle pitfalls like isolation and poor health by staying socially engaged, establishing healthy self-care patterns, or avoiding dysfunctional work habits.

Shayne says managing depression is like managing diabetes: she has to constantly monitor multiple factors in order to keep on an even keel.
Interview Transcript

It means I have to constantly analyze my behavior and my self and my motivations and where they’re coming from and why I’m thinking this way. I, it’s like diabetes. You have to watch what you eat. I have to watch what I eat too, but I also have to watch all of these other factors, like how much I’m sleeping, how much I’m exercising. You know, what am I eating. Like is it, is it good food, is it going to make me happy, is it healthy enough. Like, all these things. Even what you eat affects your happiness. And like I am so sensitive that I have to watch all of these factors because they all play into my mental health. So like, if I skip a meal, I’m inordinately cranky, you know. Like I shouldn’t and I just don’t want to be misbalanced in any way. I’m just, I’m so fragile at this point. So I have to, I have to take into account really closely everything in my life that is a factor into how I’m feeling. It’s a lot of work and I didn’t realize it was going to be that big of a deal when I was first diagnosed with it, I guess.

DEP Shayne
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Shayne lives in a house with two roommates and three cats. She works in research, exercises regularly, and does art. She is White.

Click here to view Shayne's profile page

See also ‘Depression and everyday tasks’, ‘Depression and healing’, ‘Having a purpose in life’, ‘Signs and symptoms of depression’, and ‘How depression feels’.

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