In this article, you’ll learn how to cope with depression by using essential techniques from Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT can basically be described in two steps: 1) identify what is important to you 2) take concrete steps in that direction. ACT teaches us how to cope with depression by choosing our actions and by not letting negative thoughts and feelings take control of our behaviour. The commitment part of ACT refers to the idea that we can achieve mental health by committing to actions that are consistent with our values. No matter how we feel, we can try to do the things that are most important to us, the things that give life meaning.
A common symptom of depression is experiencing life, or certain aspects of life, as meaningless or hopeless. Unfortunately, the voice of depression can be very convincing and actually make us believe that this is true. So, whenever you think life is pointless or meaningless, say to yourself:
“That’s depression talking.”
ACT can give us powerful tools to cope with the experience of hopelessness. First of all, we need to understand how it works. The next section aims to explain why hopelessness and other symptoms of depression make it so difficult to do important things and live according to our values.
The difficulties of coping with depression
There are many things you can do at home to cope with depression, for example:
- Exercising – Regular exercise is as effective as psychotherapy or antidepressant medication for treating depression.
- Changing your diet – The Mediterranean diet is antidepressant.
- Changing your sleeping habits – A good night’s sleep is like overnight therapy.
- Meditating – Mindfulness will help you handle strong emotions.
Read more about 5 treatments for depression without medication.
Evidently, there are many natural cures for depression, but why is it so difficult to do all this?
Why is it so difficult to make changes when coping with depression?
As you’ve probably noticed, being depressed means feeling down all the time, having little energy and having difficulty enjoying the things you usually like. These common symptoms of depression can get you stuck in a vicious cycle. Because you don’t feel like doing anything, you stop doing the things that usually make you feel better. Then, you start missing out on positive experiences, which makes you feel even worse. And the cycle keeps spinning. Before we go on, please understand that this is not your fault. You get stuck in this cycle because that is how depression works. It’s not about laziness or being unambitious, it’s depression. Luckily, you can reverse this vicious cycle once you understand it.
Take a look at this 3.5-minutes video, explaining the cycle of depression and how to cope with depression by reversing it:
What can you do to cope with depression?
One of the best ways to cope with depression is to start doing important things, even though you don’t feel like doing them. Starting doing the things that are actually important, perhaps the most important things in life, will stop symptoms from worsening and help you get out of depression. It probably won’t be enjoyable at first, but with time, feelings of pleasure and enjoyment will grow stronger. The tricky thing about depression is that you can’t wait for feelings of interest or pleasure to emerge before you do something. You do first, and positive feelings will come later. The next few paragraphs will show you how to cope with depression in 3 steps:
- Step 1: Exploring your values; your guides out of depression
- Step 2: Coping with depression by finding your #1 value
- Step 3: How to cope with depression by creating value-based goals
Step 1: Exploring your values
– your guides out of depression
Coping with depression is about doing meaningful and important activities, no matter how you feel (if this seems confusing to you, go back and watch the video). It’s a big challenge and it’s important not to take on too much at the beginning.
The best way to cope with depression is to do it one small step at a time. Values help us make sure those steps are on the right path. Values are the most important aspects of life. They give us directions that we can strive for, so we don’t waste energy doing stuff that really doesn’t matter to us. We can never fully ‘live up to’ a value, but we can always try to get closer and closer to it. Values can be things such as:
- ‘Being a good parent’
- ‘Learning new things’
- ‘Taking care of my health’
- “Contributing to society”
- “Treating other people with kindness”
So, when coping with depression, you practice taking small steps in the direction that your values are pointing at. The activities you choose to start with should be based on what’s important to you. Easy, right? Well, it can be a difficult task to decide what are the most important things in life or the things that make life meaningful, especially when going through depression. We are constantly reminded of other people’s opinions, what our family members or society think is the right thing to do. Sometimes we’re trying to live up to an ideal that’s not even our own.
To help you cope with depression and find your values, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I want to do with my time on the planet?
- What sort of person do I want to be?
- What activities made me feel happiness and pleasure before getting depressed?
- Before becoming depressed, what made life meaningful?
- What are the most important things in life? (Family, friends, painting, writing, nature, work, politics, football etc.)
Good work. The next step includes a visualization exercise to help you explore your values in further detail and find out the meaning of your life.
Step 2: Coping with depression by finding your #1 value
The next step towards breaking the negative cycle and coping with depression, is an exercise called the 100th Birthday party. It’s frequently used in Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) and it will help you formulate your #1 value.
This exercise is 8 minutes and you’ll need a pen and paper:
To help yourself break the negative pattern of depression, choose one area of life to start with. Something that seems important to you or that used to feel important to you. For some people, close relationships are the most important and for some it’s creative activities, such as painting/building/singing/playing. For others, it can be politics or working with something meaningful. Based on your reflections from the 100th Birthday party, what area do you think is most important or relevant in your life right now?
- Family 👨👨👧👦
- Friends 👫
- Creative/recreational activity 🎷
- Health ❤️
- Work 💻
- Education 📚
- Political engagement 🌍
- Other ❓
Difficult to choose? It usually is. Luckily, there’s an exercise to help you proceed. The following steps will help you create your own Life Compass:
1.Take a look at your life areas, one at a time, and ask yourself: What is the most important thing about this? For example, what is the most important thing about having a family? What is the most important thing about playing football? Why is it important? Write it down. One or two sentences is enough.
Here’s an example of what it might look like:
|Life area||What is important about this? (Values)|
|Family||Feeling love and closeness. Hugging. Doing things together.|
|Friends||Sharing problems with others. Getting support and advice.|
|Creative/recreational activity||Getting a sense of harmony and joy. (Playing the piano.)|
|Health||Feeling more alert, stronger and less depressed (regular exercise). Figuring out what I need to feel better (going to therapy).|
|Work||Contributing to society. Getting food on the table.|
|Education||Learning new things.|
|Spirituality||A sense of community with others and connection to my God.|
|Political engagement||Doing something important to society. Changing the world for the better.|
2. Again, look at every one of your life areas (family, friends, recreational activities, health and so on). Rate how important every area is on a scale from 1 to 10. 10 is extremely important and 1 is not important at all. For example, you might think that spirituality is very important (a 9 or 10), but could easily live a life without an active political engagement (a 1 or 2), or maybe it’s the opposite.
Here’s an example:
|Life area||What is important about this? (Values)||Importance 1-10|
|Family||Feeling love and closeness. Hugging. Doing things together.||10|
|Friends||Sharing problems with others. Getting support and advice.||9|
|Creative/recreational activity||Getting a sense of harmony and joy. (Playing the piano.)||6|
|Health||Feeling more alert, stronger and less depressed (regular exercise). Figuring out what I need to feel better (going to therapy).||10|
|Work||Contributing to society. Getting food on the table.||6|
|Education||Learning new things.||6|
|Spirituality||A sense of community with others and connection to my God.||8|
|Political engagement||Doing something important to society. Changing the world for the better.||5|
3. For every life area, rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how often you have moved in your desired direction over the past week. Did you do the things that you think are important regarding family, health, work etc, or not? For example, how much of this important spiritual stuff did you actually do over the past week? Maybe you engaged in daily meditation exercises or visited a religious building or maybe you cancelled your prayer group? Did you attend a political meeting or talk to your friends about how to improve society? Has it been years since you last demonstrated for human rights?
1 means no committed actions at all and 10 means that you devoted almost all of your time and energy to it. This rating is very subjective. Still, try to rate how often or how much you committed to actually doing something important over the past week. Do this for every one of your life areas and don’t be too hard on yourself during this exercise. Let the ‘inner critic’ rest for a while.
This is an example of a completed Life Compass:
|Life area||What is important about this? (Values)||Importance 1-10||Committed actions over the past week 1-10|
|Family||Feeling love and closeness. Hugging. Doing things together.||10||6|
|Friends||Sharing problems with others. Getting support and advice.||9||3|
|Creative/recreational activity||Getting a sense of harmony and joy. (Playing the piano.)||6||5|
|Health||Feeling more alert, stronger and less depressed (regular exercise). Figuring out what I need to feel better (going to therapy).||10||2|
|Work||Contributing to society. Getting food on the table.||6||9|
|Education||Learning new things.||6||6|
|Spirituality||A sense of community with others and connection to my God.||8||4|
|Political engagement||Doing something important to society. Changing the world for the better.||5||4|
4. Pay close attention to the life areas where you find a large discrepancy between how important it is and your recently committed actions. It’s usually a good idea to start making changes in one of those areas. In the example above, we can see that health is very important (rating: 10), but that the person hasn’t taken much action in that desired direction over the past week (rating: 2). Maybe this means that she/he cancelled the weekly therapy session and ended up on the couch instead of taking walks? Because this is a life area with a high rate on importance, the person would probably benefit from making some changes in this area.
Sometimes we spend too much energy on a life area that is not very important. In the example above, we can see that the person spent most of her/his time and energy on work (rating: 9), but doesn’t consider it to be the most important thing in life (rating: 6). Maybe this person has worked overtime during the week or taken on too many projects at work? If this is the case, she/he might benefit from lowering the ambitions at work and spending more time with the family.
The key to coping with depression is to make changes in small steps. That’s why we choose only one life area to start with. So, based on your recent reflections, choose one area that seems most important or relevant in your life at the moment.
Now, ask yourself these questions:
- What stands in the way of you living out your value? What are the barriers? For example, what’s stopping you from doing things together with the family? Perhaps it’s stress from work, anxiety or worry about what will happen, negative thoughts that pop up out of nowhere, painful memories, fear of failure or change. Whatever the barriers may be, write them down so that you can keep an eye on them. There’s always a reason for why we don’t live life to the fullest. Reflecting on your barriers prepares you for the task. Now you know what you’re up against.
- Is there anything you can do to get more of the important stuff? (For example, calling an old friend, spending more time talking to your kid, visiting a religious building more often or kicking a ball around with your friends on weekends.)
Good work. Now, let’s have a look at step number 3 and turn your value into a concrete goal.
Step 3: How to cope with depression by creating value-based goals
Let’s continue steering your life in a more meaningful direction. To prepare for this section, you have chosen one specific life area and reflected on why this is important to you. Perhaps you have also realized that this is an area that has been neglected in some way. It happens to all of us and is especially common when coping with depression. Living according to your values can be difficult to achieve, unless you create specific, relevant and timebound goals. So, let’s turn your values into long-term and short-term achievable goals.
Values are different from goals. We can never fully ‘live up to’ a value, but a goal is something we can measure and achieve. Take a look at these examples:
- A value might be: ‘To stay healthy’
- A goal is: ‘Exercising for 30 mins every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday’
- A value might be: ‘Spending quality time with my friends’
- A goal is: Call Sandra on Wednesday at 17.00 and ask if she wants to go to the movies.
In other words, values give us direction and goals help us stay on the path. Now, let’s try to set a long-term goal based on one of your values.
A long-term goal can be a routine you’d like to achieve in 6 months, for example eating a salad for lunch 6 times a week, or playing the piano for 10 minutes every day. Formulate your long-term goal by answering this question:
- Take a look at the most relevant life area that you reflected on in Step 2. Based on what’s important to you, what would you like to achieve in 6 months? (Write it down!)
Nice work. Now, you have a direction and a 6-month milestone on the road to getting out of depression.
Let’s continue with the short-term goal. It’s something you can do today or within the next few days to take a step closer to your long-term goal. Remember, it’s supposed to be something quite small. When coping with depression, it’s important not to take on too much at the beginning. It could be something like ‘washing the dishes immediately after dinner tonight’, ‘spending 15 minutes playing with my son today at 18.00’ or ‘eating a salad from my favourite restaurant at lunch today’. Ask yourself this question:
- What can I do today to take a small step closer to my long-term goal? (Write it down!)
It’s important to make your short-term goal specific and measurable. Whenever we fail to achieve a goal, it’s usually because we didn’t make it specific enough. So, to help yourself follow through with this short-term goal, ask yourself these questions and write down your answers:
- On what day will you do it?
- And for how long?
- How will you remind yourself? (set an alarm right away)
- Are you doing this alone or with a friend? When can you tell your friend about it?
- What could stop you from doing this? (For example thoughts, work assignments, kids, anxiety, feeling tired, etc.)
- So, what’s plan B?
- How will you reward yourself after completing the short-term goal?
- How will you remember to reward yourself?
Setting value-based goals is one way to cope with depression and start reversing the vicious cycle. Hopefully, you’ll find it helpful. It’s a big challenge to take on when most things might seem meaningless or pointless, but remember: That’s depression talking. Depression is a treatable condition and people recover from it every day. Just continue to set up specific goals and you’ll be amazed by how rewarding it can be to live according to your own values.
Free app-based treatment programme for depression
If you want more help coping with depression, download the free depression app from Flow Neuroscience. It’s based on the latest research on depression and includes a complete treatment programme about how to cope with depression by making lifestyle changes at home.