When was the last time you exercised? How’s your healthy eating resolution coming along? Are you keeping up with stress management? If you're like many of us, you get through the challenging holiday months more or less intact, but find yourself deflated, listless, unfocused once they're over. To top it off, you may also be feeling a little SAD (Seasonal Affect Disorder, due to loss of sunlight and the natural Vitamin D it provides) now that the clocks are set back and the night is longer!
Of all the times of year, the post-holiday season is most often connected to the onset or worsening of 'the blues'. Depression, severe or moderate, makes it harder for us to take care of ourselves and show up for others--which can be a problem when students and parents are home together for winter break, or perhaps facing tough challenges in the semester or work/family year ahead.
But it doesn't have to that way. There are things you can do to mitigate the blues, both after the holidays or in your general life throughout the year. Now is the perfect time to create a depression treatment plan to get you through the winter season stronger and more focused!
What is depression, and what fuels it?
Simply put, depression is getting stuck in negative thinking, feeling, and doing patterns. If these negative patterns are practiced over time, they can become chronic habits that are difficult to break, and link to other physical-psychological issues like anxiety, anger, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Chronic depression is long-lasting. People often describe it as, “feeling this way for as long as I can remember.” They may report weaving in and out of bouts of depression over weeks, months, or even years. It’s a challenge to shake this kind of depression, and people who seek treatment are often prescribed medication to alleviate their symptoms--so they can better work out the issues that contribute.
Reactive depression is what I'm discussing in this blog. It's a more recent, acute reaction to emotionally-charged events or trying situations. Adjustment to college (or our kids leaving the nest for college), losing a loved one, ending a relationship, a change in financial status or employment, and post-holiday limbo are common examples of reactive depression triggers.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Depressive symptoms range in severity. You may have experienced such a range yourself. Whether your depression is chronic or reactive, symptoms are generally rated from None to Mild to Moderate to Severe. People challenged by depression can move from one level to another during their experience, or swing back and forth. Often the severity of depression dictates the level of care required for treatment.
Brain chemistry, overall health, specific medical conditions, life experiences, thinking and behavior patterns, and lifestyle choices can all be factors in depression. Clients usually identify symptoms that fall into three categories; these categories are interconnected and influence the course and severity of depression:
- Thinking (Technical term: Cognition). Thoughts, types of thoughts, and patterns of thoughts; most often a series of negative thoughts--about self, the social world, and the past and future (including a preoccupation with dying)--that cycle repeatedly in the mind. A person challenged by depression is often certain these thoughts are true despite contrary evidence, making the thoughts 'irrational'.
- Feeling (Technical term: Affect/Mood). Sadness, irritability, frustration, emotional numbness, apathy, lack of interest or focus, a sense of isolation, and tiredness are all feelings associated with depression.
- Doing (Technical Term: Behavior). Many of these symptoms are related to the causes of reactive depression, and create a feedback loop that perpetuates acute or chronic depression. Social withdrawal; avoidance of work or responsibilities; decrease in self-care; alcohol, marijuana and other drug use; excessive sleep; and poor nutrition can all maintain and worsen depression.
How should I treat depression?
The good news is that depression is treatable. The challenge is learning which approach or combination of approaches works best. Every depressive experience is unique. For example, Sidney described feeling depressed since the 7th grade, while Rob, a first year college student, never had symptoms until a career-ending sports injury. Parent Susan’s medical diagnosis with a thyroid disorder led to an understanding of her depression. Parent Charles learned that alcohol and marijuana use made his symptoms worse. And student Jane goes through a depressive cycle every December through February. Each of these people undergoes depression differently, and each of them uses a different approach to treat their symptoms.
People progress at different speeds and in different ways, so be patient with yourself, or with a loved one in treatment (especially if any medication is involved). The important thing is to take action, and be as consistent as you can. Certain depression-beating practices will need to be incorporated into your lifestyle, and that happens in stages, over time.
In the meantime, practice self-kindness and self-acceptance daily, as you take action! Start creating positive thinking and doing habits now. Apply these general treatment approaches and resources:
1. Talk it out: One of the most effective ways of addressing depression is through talk therapy. There are different theoretical approaches to therapy, and people improve at different paces because they have different experiences of depression. The important thing is that you begin talking about your experience. Therapy may be conducted individually (one on one) with a licensed therapist or psychiatrist, or in group settings. Maybe you'll try a combination of these. Professional sessions are confidential, and therapists can only break confidentiality under specific emergency circumstances. Don't fear owning your depression; just because someone is depressed does not mean a therapist can or will hospitalize them. Seek out counseling services for depression, or find other kinds of groups that talk about the issue.
2. Lifestyle Activity: Lifestyle plays a huge role in depression, and in the treatment of it. Exercise creates chemical readjustments in the brain that contribute to a sense of well-being. Sunlight--1/2 an hour a day minimum, if possible--alleviates Seasonal Affect Disorder in a big way. Good nutrition can help the body feel energetic and whole. Reduction or elimination of sugar intake can itself affect the severity or onset of reactive depression. Meditation and other relaxation techniques help us diminish and better-manage stress, which increases our sense of health and our good place in the world. Socializing with people we care about is beneficial, too, by helping us lose that sense of isolation, and forcing our thought patterns into different grooves. And addressing addiction behavior, on one's own or in a professional or 12-Step setting, is a critical treatment for depression connected to addiction.
A coach, trainer, or other experienced professional will be helpful in co-creating lifestyle plans and maintaining accountability for following through over time.
3. Medicine: Psychiatrists are specialists in prescribing medication to treat depression. Not everyone who is depressed requires medication, and if yours is of the post-holiday blues variety you probably don't, but know that there is a wide spectrum of effective medications available, and with good oversight they can help lift you out of the blues. NOTE: Medication for depression can be prescribed by many other types of doctors, like family doctors, so it's important to ask a non-psychiatrist what their experience is in prescribing these medications.
4. Campus Resources: Counseling/Psychological Services, Health Centers, Dean of Students, Advisors, Faculty, Campus Safety/Police, and Student Groups such as Active Minds, are all examples of campus resources that either provide direct help resources or direct you to the best campus resource. In addition to depression referral, college counseling centers encounter an incredible range of other similar concerns, like test anxiety, relationship breakups, roommate conflict, adjustment to college, anxiety, psychosis, substance abuse, gambling addiction, suicide, eating disorders and body image concerns, cutting, sports and performance psychology, crisis management, bereavement, relationship concerns, chronic medical condition, and many more--so be open to their assistance. Most of them will have websites for their centers (especially Counseling/Psychological Services), and offer anonymous, confidential (and online) screenings for depression. Their services are often free to enrolled students.
Whether you're suffering post-holiday blues, or wrestle with depression on a larger scale, take hope! Many millions of people are effectively treating both reactive and longterm depression, or even had depressive symptoms that no longer occur. In most cases, you can take control of depression, and move on to healthier, happier living--maybe even by spring!
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Dr. Joel Ingersoll helps college and high school students develop college transition, performance, and career success skills. As president & founder of Take On College, Joel has empowered thousands of students to maximize their potential, college experience, and return on tuition. Joel is the author of the forthcoming book Take On College: Winning Strategies for College & Career Success!