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My experience with depression over the years has been marked by a lot of introspection and personal insights into how both my mind and body work — the strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, triggers, values, and so much more.
But, as you probably guessed, these insights didn’t just fall out of the sky and into my anxious mind.
It’s taken a lot of work to wade through the haziness of mental health challenges over the years to figure it all out. Compared to how I was feeling and living previously, though, I can tell you that all the effort is well worth it.
Now that I’ve had quite a bit of experience trying things out, I want to share what’s worked best for me to hopefully help you in your own journey to better managing your depression.
As always, it’s important to discuss these types of options and tools with your doctor or mental health professional. They can help to provide more insight and tailor things to suit your unique needs.
Here are five ways that I’ve used alongside my treatment plan to help me better understand and cope with depression.
One of the most important insights I’ve gained over the years is how vital it is to express things and get it outside of my head. I stayed silent for too long and it took a massive toll on me. Not letting those thoughts and worries out just made them feel bigger and more overwhelming the longer I kept them pent up.
I’ve used many different kinds of writing — from journaling to more creative writing such as poetry and prose — and for me it’s a great way to not only let it out, but also to process my thoughts and emotions in real time as I put it onto paper. I have stacks of journals that I kept on a daily basis for years, and it was a huge help to be able to privately let out the worries or stresses of the day and start fresh the next.
Plus, it’s simple, quick, and easy to do — even one small page a day can make an enormous difference when it’s done consistently over time. Don’t think, just write.
Sometimes I’ve written out certain things and then burned the pages as a cathartic process (if you try this, please do so safely). The big benefit of writing poetry or journaling (if you’re not planning to burn it) is you can refer back to it weeks, months, or years later and gain new perspective on it or see how far you’ve come since then.
I went for some counselling sessions during a particularly chaotic point in my life when my relationships, finances, and work were all in a head-spinning whirlwind of anxiety and confusion. Sounds like a fun time, right?
It was invaluable to have a professional hear me out, ask the right questions, and give me a safe, confidential space to figure it out. Sometimes just like with writing, as you say it out loud, you can gain new insights or perspectives on what you’re struggling with and a therapist can help guide you.
Besides listening, therapists and mental health professionals are trained and have the skills to help you work through these major challenges — and can provide other tools to help you manage things.
One of the big problems I came across when first wanting to speak out about the depression and anxiety I was struggling with was feeling like I didn’t have the words to properly describe it. Amongst the stigma, the complicated physical and mental experiences of symptoms, and my own anxious internal narratives, it was very difficult to say some of these things out loud. That’s where photography came in for me, as a nonverbal form of communication and way for me to express what I was going through.
The first way I started talking about my story was with a photography series that eventually evolved into The One Project.
It can be very cathartic to share your thoughts and feelings in a photo, especially when someone else is able to connect with it, or even praises you for your work. Sharing in this way gives me an extra layer between myself and my story (people can interpret it in their own way) and, like writing, is another way to have moments that you can look back at and reflect on later.
The best part is, your photos don’t need to be technically accurate or beautiful, you don’t need a professional camera (use your phone!), and you don’t need to be a photographer to do this. It’s all about the practice.
Processing emotions or trauma can be complicated, and from my experience it also requires activating different parts of your mind and body. That’s where more visual or physical practices like sketching, painting, or other visual arts can come in.
Try drawing or sketching what depression feels like. Who are you when you’re depressed? What were you like before depression?
Quick sketches or creating art around topics like this have helped me to dig into insights or pieces of myself that I wasn’t aware of. Many times I find that I may discover more during the process of making than from the final product.
Just like with photography, you don’t need to be an artist — just make art!
I believe it’s important to be surrounded with a group of peers who understand and can support you in your journey, especially within a structure that helps ensure some kind of routine.
I’ve been a part of a few different groups that met on a weekly basis, and during different points in my life and my struggle with depression, being connected with those groups was a game-changer. It was comforting to know that whatever happened during the week, I could bring it to the group and get alternate perspectives, advice, or just someone to listen with their full attention. Even hearing the stories or experiences of others gave me so much value.
Groups operate differently and it may take time to find the one that fits best for you. Talk with your doctor or mental health provider about what qualities you might want in a group — they may be able to suggest a few options in your area.
Wherever you are at in your journey with your mental health, there may be ways to gain a better understanding of how it affects you and how to better cope.
You are the most important project of your life. The investment is worth it.
For more information on how to manage depression, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.