There are more things that can cause depression as we age. I can’t run as fast or as far as I did ten years ago, my weight only fluctuates upward, I take more time to process information, and I feel under attack from a variety of infirmities associated with aging and chronic illnesses. If you’re over 50 (I’m 70) you probably have similar complaints.
My Father’s Noises
When I was a child, my father had a set of noises of which I would make fun. My favorite target was “oy,” a sound he made when he sat on a sofa after working 13 hours in his grocery store. It was the sound I adopted at 40 without realizing it. I became painfully aware of my mutation into my father when my son asked, “What’s that noise you’re making, Dad?”
The longer we live, the more likely it is we will experience depression. Some of it will be short-term (e.g., fearing the outcome of an IRS audit), while others can last indefinitely (e.g., management of cancer).
What Professionals Say About Managing Depression
You probably have read articles suggesting ways of avoiding depression. Or may have been or currently are in therapy for it. Most authors emphasize the importance of talking and thinking about the cause of depression as a way of treating it. The approaches range from psychotherapy to meditation.
If your results were less than successful, did you blame the approach or yourself? We are often too quick at blaming our “character flaws” rather than the inappropriateness of the treatment. My experience with patients and clients suggest to me that the key to reducing depression may have nothing to do with talking about it or deeply analyzing it.
Please understand, some of my best friends are psychologists, therapists, and counselors. They genuinely believe in the value of their approach, and they do have positive results. They look at the management of depression as a long-term (and possibly expensive) joint effort between them and patients.
Patients, however, may not feel reassured when in answer to their question, “When will I feel better?” the professional says, “There’s no way of knowing that, it’s a process.”
The Four Strategies for Reducing/Eliminating Depression
The mathematician and philosopher Jacob Bronowski said, “The world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.” I believe the same applies to depression. Thinking about depression and its causes is an inefficient way of managing or eliminating it. I’m not suggesting that there is no value in talking about what depresses you or “going deeper” into your understanding about the causes. What I’m suggesting is that for many people, this may require too much time, too much money, and not leading to anything positive. So what should you do? Become your own therapist and daily evaluate your efforts.
Most therapists would maintain you can’t subject an interpersonal process to objective scientific procedures. I disagree. It may not be strictly scientific, but it’s a whole lot better than throwing up your hands and saying “There’s no way of knowing.”
So here are four things you can immediately do to manage, reduce, or eliminate your depression AND measure your progress.
1. Rate Your Depression at the Beginning of the Week
Use a 10 point rating scale (1=very happy, 10=very depressed). My scientific friends would maintain there is nothing objective about this “feeling” scale. I would agree, but since there is no way of objectively measuring depression, this will have to do.
There’s an old saying, “Don’t ask the doctor if the medicine works, ask the patient.” I place a depression rating scale in the same category as pain scales used in hospitals. The scale provides a baseline number patients can use to determine whether or not their physical pain is abating, remaining the same, or increasing. Rate your depression every evening before you go to sleep.
2. Do Three Rewarding Activities Every Day
The emphasis is on doing. It doesn’t mean thinking or talking about what makes you happy or depressed. I choose three activities from a pool of things that consistently give me joy: writing, running, biking, playing my flute, fishing, and woodcarving. Will doing three positive things every day guarantee you won’t be depressed? No, but it will reduce the effects of whatever is depressing you.
Think of your depression as a 300 lb bully who sits on a see-saw and keeps a 145 lb person suspended in the air, taunting him that he will never reach the ground. Reasoning with the bully (equivalent to talk therapy and insight thinking) probably won’t work, since he is a bully. But if a friend gets on the see-saw to counter-balance the bully’s weight, the person will come closer to the ground.
That’s what happens when you do three rewarding activities very day. You may not completely get rid of your depression, but you can significantly reduce it. Every day do three activities that have consistently given you joy.
3. Complete One Unfinished Activity Every Day
Think of your brain as a giant scorecard that registers what you start to do, what you complete and what is left unfinished. It delights in finished projects and frets over ones left uncompleted.
As a bedside hospice volunteer and caregiver counselor, I repeatedly saw how a person’s “unfinished” business affected their happiness. As projects in various stages of completion pile up, you may feel overwhelmed or even depressed about your inability to complete anything.
Make a list of your unfinished projects and rank them from easiest to most difficult to complete, both in terms of time and effort. Now select the one that’s easiest in both categories. Your selection shouldn’t substitute for any of the three enjoyable activities.
Work your way through the list, again starting with the easiest for both time and effort. You may wonder why I don’t suggest starting with the most “oppressive” one to give you the greatest relief. Here’s a simple rule of change: The more difficult an activity, the more likely you’ll fail at it.
By starting with something relatively easy, you increase your probably of succeeding—something of great importance in reducing depression.
Complete a simple unfinished project every day; don’t start a new project until you complete an uncompleted one.
4. Reassess your level of depression at the end of the week
If your rating of depression went down, try to determine what it was you did that caused the change. If there was no change or your depression became worse, substitute one or more of the positive activities you did or the amount of time you spent doing it.
Track your depression for the week and use the results as guidance for what to do the following week.
Is this the magical, quick, and transformative approach to eliminating depression? No. It’s a simple, no-cost, step-wise, efficient and effective approach for nibbling on a persistent problem.
While you shouldn’t expect to get over your depression overnight, you shouldn’t have to wait a lifetime or spend a fortune to render it manageable.
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