When it comes to reducing depression, focus on the small things you can control. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. He is considered possibly the greatest collegiate coach of any sport in history. At the beginning of each year, the first thing he taught his players wasn’t something flashy or mysterious, but it was simple and profound. His first lesson? How to put on your shoes and socks to avoid blisters. They are the most important equipment associated with basketball, he said, and a simple blister can hobble and derail your season very quickly. It’s crucial to smooth out the socks over the little toe, the most likely spot to get a blister. Smooth it over the heel as well, and make sure that it remains smooth when you put on your shoes. This seemed like silly advice to some of the biggest basketball recruits in the world, but it was likely a small secret to Wooden’s ten national championships at UCLA.
It’s All About the Small Things
The small things are critical for addressing depression as well. I have a major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and am a physician who addresses these issues every day in my medical practice. I understand how everything that needs to be done appears so much bigger than usual when you are in the throes of these terrible illnesses. That’s why my best advice is to address life one small thing at a time and relish those small victories. While I am not suggesting that these are the only things that are needed to address the challenges of depression, they will absolutely compound into better overall functioning.
Physical Ways to Reduce Depression
- Drink more water. This may sound ridiculous, but poor hydration can worsen your mood, thinking, and a whole host of other physical issues. Drinking water specifically is crucial to mental and physical health. I recommend a minimum of 2 liters per day (~64 oz), but some people need more.
- Get more sunshine. We all know that some people struggle more in the winter when the sun shines less, but this helps at any time of year. It’s more than vitamin D, but helps awaken many of the positive mood centers in our brain. If you live in a cold-weather climate, I would suggest investing in a special lamp to provide that needed light during the winter months.
- Diet and exercise. The irony is that when you are depressed or anxious, you have no motivation. I didn’t exercise for years for this specific reason. But every little bit counts. Even if you can only go on a walk for 5 minutes, or do some jumping jacks at home, that can still be helpful to reduce depression. Same with your diet; it doesn’t have to be perfect to be helpful. Just do what you can and give yourself some positive reinforcement for what you did.
Emotional Ways to Reduce Depression
- Secure close relationships. As you probably know, mental illness can be just as hard on your loved ones and friends as it is on you. Make sure to communicate with them. Let them know what they should or should not do to help you, but don’t isolate from them. During periods where I am struggling, my wife will often ask me “Where are you today?” It’s important for everyone to stay on the same page.
- Allow yourself some grace. This has become my mantra. It’s certainly easier said than done, but it has helped me. It’s okay that you’re not perfect. You are allowed to forgive yourself for an illness that isn’t your fault, but for which you feel extremely guilty.
When it comes to reducing depression, these are just a few small things to focus on that you can control. Above all, just remember that you are worth all of the efforts to get better.
Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP
Kyle is an Associate (Clinical) Professor in Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He has worked at the Neurobehavior HOME Program, a clinical program for individuals with a developmental disability. Kyle is also the author of the best-selling and award-winning book Fallible: A Memoir of a Young Physician’s Struggle with Mental Illness.