How to Overcome Depression
The first half of my life was pretty rough. My father, though a very kind and fun man, was struggling severely with anxiety and depression, and was self-medicating with alcohol and various pills. He lived his life in such a hard way that he passed away when I was 14. As I loved him greatly, and still do, I went into a deep sorrow, that gradually morphed into depression.
Being depressed is like being a fish swimming in the sea. Eventually, you’re incapable of distinguishing between your depression and your overall mental state. For the fish, the water is all it knows about, your depression can become take this role – it becomes ubiquitous.
I hear people say, “you aren’t your depression”, but that isn’t always the case. What is a human being but the sum of its thoughts, emotions and experiences? When you are severely depressed, the illness shapes most of your thoughts about yourself, your surroundings and your future.
You are disgusted by yourself. You think everything is hopeless, that you have no future. Depression is your water, and you are the fish.
And that brings us to step 1 in overcoming depression.
1. Understand that you are depressed, and that it is an illness
You’re not supposed to be depressed, but you are. It’s not a condition you shall accept as normal, you shall not succumb to depression, you shall not think that this will last forever. Because it doesn’t need to. This is an illness, and research tells us there is plenty that works against it.
But before you can start the journey out of this hell, you have to realize and accept that you are depressed. There are tests online that can help you determine whether you are depressed, or if you’re simply in a slump of life. Or better yet, you can get a proper diagnosis from a mental health professional.
For me, this realization took a long time. I was a teenager and was incapable of seeing my reality as an illness – for too many years I just suffered, unable to distinguish a normal existence from my mental anguish. But eventually I realized that life wasn’t supposed to be this way, and that what I experienced was abnormal, and that it had a name: depression.
When you have determined, and then accepted your condition, it’s time to go to step 2.
2. Understand that there is plenty you can do to improve your situation
My mother and sister had told me all those years that I needed to seek help, to talk to someone. In the beginning, they suggested grief groups, where I could meet other teenagers who struggled with loss of a close family member. Over the years, they realized that my grief had morphed into depression, and they started suggesting I seek therapy. It’s always easier to spot depression in others than to do it for yourself.
But I didn’t realize I was sick. I didn’t believe anything could end the suffering I was going through. So, I didn’t listen to them.
At this point, I had already gone through several years of intense suicidal ideation. My suffering was so intense my highest wish was to end my life. There wasn’t a day without me thinking about death, how I would end it. What kept me from suicide was the knowledge of what it means to lose someone you love dearly, like I had lost my father. Surviving another day meant that I was sparing my sister and mother another devastating loss. This is what the brilliant therapist and author Viktor Frankl refers to when he writes about meaning through suffering.
On some accounts, my life had improved by this point. I had survived my worst year ever, as an 18-year-old in the Norwegian armed service, which was mandatory back then. I had moved to the city of Trondheim and was living with three roommates. I had regained a social life, which had been missing in a lot of my teenage years, due to depression. So, I thought, I need to do something, because I can’t go on living like this.
And that’s when my process of overcoming depression really started. I finally listened to the great advice from my sister and mother – and sought help.
After a waiting period, I was assigned a psychologist, and started therapy. This was a wise, experienced man, who focused on psychoanalysis, which is a way of therapy oriented around your relationships with your family, and especially your parents. This was very relevant to me, due to my suffering springing out of my story with my father. I went to therapy for two intense years.
There is no doubt that this helped me a lot. I was able to confront my past, I allowed myself to be angry with my father for the first time. I was able to finally accept everything that had happened. My situation improved.
But I was still depressed. Being motivated by the improvement I got from therapy, I decided I would do whatever it took to get rid of this suffering for good. I was a student at this point, and I had learned from university that using science as a guide is a good idea.
So, I started reading up on psychology textbooks and self-help books. I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology. I devoured it! Finally, there were things I could do by myself, that didn’t require a psychologist. I read about how physical exercise and improved diet is important to your mental health.
With knowledge, you are armed to change your life, and that brings us to step 3.
3. Try out a lot of things, and keep what works
I learned how to meditate, I taught myself techniques from CBT, I started keeping a gratitude journal. I improved my social skills, and through that got closer friendships. In short, I became a better friend.
And I even got a girlfriend! For all those years of loneliness, I had longed for closeness and intimacy. But the hard truth is that depression isn’t that attractive. Working with myself and improving my mental state had brought me to the ultimate prize – love! Eventually, we got married, and have now been living together for close to 20 years.
Science is clear that the following works against depression:
There are even more things that work, such as medication (for many, but not all), but the list above are the interventions that are most important from my perspective.
I tried working with all of these dimensions. As I worked with myself, I kept a diary, jotting down notes on what specifically was most effective to improve my mental state. Eventually, I had so many volumes of notes that I thought I should write a book. I spent ten years (!) writing that book, but eventually published it in 2015. It’s called Rise from Darkness, and basically is a menu of techniques and interventions that a depressed person might try.
Having mapped out what is available as tools in your toolbox, there is one final step in the journey out of depression.
4. Keep up the effort – and let time work for your
Armed with the knowledge of what science has determined works against depression, the rest is actually not that hard. It just takes time.
What you need to realize is that your depression might go over by itself, or it might worsen. What is certain is that following this process will speed up recovery. And for those thinking that this process might work for those who only suffer from mild or moderate depression, know that I was as depressed as I could be without killing myself. Had things been worse, I wouldn’t exist at this point. So, I was pretty severely depressed. You should also know that when Martin Seligman and his fellow pioneers in positive psychology did research on gratitude journals (which is simply writing down things you are grateful for every day), they observed that it was those with severe depression that reported the greatest effect!
In the beginning of the process of working yourself out of depression, you are fighting yourself. What I mean by that is that depression will seek to do everything it can to stop you from trying to get better. This is one of the insidious self-reinforcing attributes of the illness, and why I refer to severe depression as a demon.
The illness will steal away your energy, motivation and hope. That sometimes makes it very, very hard to continuously work to improve your situation. After all, it took me many years to recover. All in all, I was depressed for more than a decade, and thus, the illness stole my happiness for a quarter of my life.
But there is an important trick to overcoming this nasty side of depression: you start by taking a single tiny step. Then you take another, and gradually you step up the effort.
The road out of (severe) depression consists of thousands of baby steps, not a handful of giant leaps. This is a hard truth, but I believe it’s important to realize. If you believe there is a magic solution to getting rid of depression once and for all, I think you’re just setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Having said that, many people get excellent help from medication, and I believe you should try medication if your medical doctor suggests it. You can always stop taking them if they don’t work.
I hate depression. It has destroyed so much of my life. I will never get those years back. But what I can do, is try to help others improve their life, by telling my story. I have been depression free for two decades now. I still have to use many of the tools in my toolbox to stay that way. When I enter a life crisis (as we all do from time to time), and the old demon knocks on my door, I initiate my program:
I prioritize harder which people I spend time with (the best of those I have around me), I use gratitude journals every day, I step up my meditation and I exercise more. This package is what keeps me out of depression, it really works, and it works every time. Therefore, I am not afraid of depression anymore. It does try to take me down from time to time, but it can’t hurt me. Not anymore.
I think getting free of depression might not always be the best goal. It’s probably better to seek to just improve your life. We are all different, and what works for me might not work for you. But the only way to find out what could work for you is to try a lot of things.
With all of my heart, I wish you all the best. I do not know you, but I care for you and for your well-being. I am sure that you will be able to improve your life and find happiness again. Just follow these four steps and keep working.