Stress can take a toll on anyone. But if you have depression, you might not bounce back from stress easily. The death of a loved one, a job loss, or a divorce could trigger symptoms such as guilt and hopelessness. But there are steps you can take to get better.
“You need to see that you’re about to go down the rabbit hole, and take a step back,” says Jeannie Lochhead, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine. “Meditation, mindfulness, good sleep, avoiding alcohol, spending time with people who actually care about you — that’s what builds resilience. It’s not push, push, push. Try harder.”
You can manage your depression, no matter what causes it. Here are some common triggers and expert tips on how to take action to reduce their impact on you.
You might have a lot tied up in your work. For starters, a job loss can take you away from an entire network of people. “That alone causes social isolation, which can cause depression,” Lochhead says.
Advice: Try to gain some control of the situation, says Tim Pearman, PhD, a professor of medical social sciences and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Pearman suggests you update your resume but stay flexible. “There may be a whole bunch of job opportunities available to you that you might not even think about outside of your field,” he says. “Maybe it’s time to break the mold of how you self-identify in terms of your career path and consider other options.” Casting a wider net in your job search may help you feel more in control and less hamstrung by the recent job loss.
No one likes to feel unwanted. But rejection, whether from a potential employer, a friend, or a significant other, can spark depression in some people. That includes those with rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD).
Advice: Use a technique called benefit-finding. “The idea is basically finding silver linings,” says Kate Sweeny, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
Sweeny studies strategies that help people get through stressful or uncertain times. She says people tend to feel less depressed when they think about positive things that might come out of bad news, such as the loss of a job or relationship.
The end of a relationship is hard, whether you live with depression or not. That’s true whether you’re the one who decides to leave or not. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride,” Lochhead says. “People need to expect that. Even if they’re the ones who decide they want the divorce.”
Advice: It’s important to plan for your future and feel hopeful about it. To do that, Lochhead suggests you look to the things in your life that fulfill you most. And don’t pull away from your loved ones. “Avoiding social isolation is really important after divorce,” she says.
A marriage and family counselor can be a big help. Pearman says a couple’s therapist can help you decide to stay together or “make the splitting-up process as non-traumatic as possible.”
All families have their ups and downs. But you don’t have to push through and fix your problems on your own.
Advice: As a parent, you have lots of outlets. Pearman says to reach out to a family counselor, peer group, or friends and family. The same is true for children and teens. “Kids who do the best, in terms of their emotional health, are the ones who have a really strong social network.”
Pearman suggests you head off family problems at the pass. Check in with your kids every week. Ask them about school, friends, and their likes and dislikes. “It can be in the context of something fun, like going out for ice cream or taking a walk,” he says. “But if your child knows you’re going to have that time, it can really open the door for them to be a little more communicative.”
It’s normal to feel sad after you lose someone close to you. But depression and grief aren’t the same thing. “Active grief tends to be a little bit more dramatic. It’s crying spells and not being able to focus on anything because you’re so torn apart by it,” Pearman says. “With depression, a lot of what people experience is a sense of numbness.”
Advice: Pay attention to your symptoms. If you can’t focus on your work or get out of bed, or you’ve been depressed for more than a few months, “at that point, it’s probably time to seek professional help,” Pearman says.
You can seek grief counseling before or after your loss. A counselor can help you work through strong emotions. Also, give yourself a break if you think you’re “not grieving right.” Don’t beat yourself up for grieving for too long or feeling too sad or not sad enough. “It’s not a linear process,” he says.
The anniversary of a loss can also be tough. It can help if you plan something for that day. “That can be as simple as having a moment to reflect on what that person meant in your life,” Pearman says. “Or it can be as big a thing as getting family or friends together to talk about that person.”
It’s normal to feel uncertain and lonely when your kids leave home. It’s a major change.
Advice: Lochhead almost always suggests mindfulness meditation for soon-to-be empty nesters. It’s OK to be upset for a little while. But, she says, you need to focus more on “accepting the change that’s about to happen and letting the thoughts go.”
Pearman thinks it’s a good idea to volunteer or take a course to learn something new. This can help fill that newfound time and space with something that brings you joy.
Without a job, your days can feel as if they lose their structure. This can open your time up to all kinds of bad habits if you’re prone to them. For example, Lochhead says, “You’re more likely to drink alcohol. If you usually drink only on the weekends, now you can drink Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.”
Advice: Try to figure out what it is about retirement that might trigger depression. Then learn how to manage those cues. Lochhead says it’s all about planning. For example, do you feel low without a routine and a full social calendar? If so, create your own schedule and meetups with friends.
As with empty nest syndrome, Pearman suggests you volunteer or take a class. But he says it’s also the perfect time to get active. “Try a bunch of different things,” he says. “And if one kind of exercise doesn’t speak to you, try something else.”
Depression can sometimes be a symptom of an ongoing illness. It’s easy to get mentally or physically overwhelmed if you’re sick or care for a loved one who’s ill.
Advice: You might get the message that you need to stay positive. But it’s natural to feel bad when bad things happen, Pearman says. “Let yourself feel that.”
But more importantly, he says, is that you ask for help. Be specific. Maybe you need meals a couple of times a week. Or perhaps you want someone to stay with your loved one while you go to the gym. Don’t worry about being a burden. Friends and family usually want to help. Pearman says it can actually “be a gift” if you tell them exactly what you need.
The holidays can be a time for celebration with friends and family. But all that activity can be hard to handle. The holidays often trigger depression for people. The stress of the holidays can lead to anxiety, too. “If you have social anxiety, going to a holiday party may actually be incredibly stress-inducing,” Lochhead says.
Advice: It’s healthy to limit the time you spend with certain people. That includes family members, friends, or co-workers. And don’t feel bad about it. “Realize your own need for space and [figure out] how you can get that,” Pearman says.
But if you do start to notice unhealthy thoughts or behaviors, “that’s where mindfulness and meditation can be very helpful,” Lochhead says.
The holidays can also throw you off your otherwise healthy routine. Keep an eye on your holiday sleep habits, eating patterns, physical activity, and alcohol intake. “All of those things impact depression relapses,” she says.
Many people have new or worse depression when the seasons change. That’s called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Advice: Talk to your doctor. They might suggest light exposure, talk therapy, or antidepressants. Physical activity can also help. “Exercise is the number one most important strategy,” Pearman says. “It really can turn things around.”
Write down your feelings as they happen. You might see that you’re more depressed in the morning or as the day goes on. “It’s really important to notice those patterns, because then, you can actually plan for when you need to get things done,” he says.
Certain hormonal shifts can affect your mood. For women, that includes before the start of your period and during or after pregnancy or menopause. “It can be overwhelming to feel like your emotions aren’t in your control,” Lochhead says
Advice: No matter the cause, hormonal changes can bring serious symptoms that affect your daily life. Lochhead suggests you ask your doctor about medication or other treatments that can help you feel better.
If you get premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), plan for your symptoms. “Set an alarm 4 days before your cycle that says, ‘Hey, warning, for the next 4 days, you’re going to feel things much more intensely,’” Lochhead says.
People with depression are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. On the flip side, a substance use disorder (SUD) can worsen your low mood and other symptoms. This is what Pearman calls a “circular relationship.”
Advice: Keep track of your substance use. “People who regularly overuse alcohol, or who’ve had any problems with addiction in the past, should make sure to keep a record of their drinking to ensure that it is staying within the limits they set and not increasing over time,” Pearman says.
Seek professional help if you can’t control your drug or alcohol use. Pearman suggests a certified alcohol drug counselor (CADC). They’ll help you manage your depression and your substance use.