A day in the dumps is part of the human condition. Days when hope feels lost, depression clouds the mind, and life feels too heavy to carry are just a part of life. However, when these days continue ad nauseum, it is time to take a deeper look at why your sadness is clinging on and how to do more than just escape the pain.
The truth is that depression and feeling down are caused by a number of factors, chemical to situational, and each affects our feelings in distinct, yet similar ways. There are endless articles that detail what you can do to improve your mood, but those are only addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of your particular sadness.
Aristotle wrote, “One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.” Improving your mood through experiences may be one fine day in the middle of winter, but it isn’t enough to pull you out of the darkness of depression and those extensive feelings of melancholy that drag you down.
Everyone is different and can experience feelings of sadness in unique ways, but there are some key factors that may be causing you to feel down and the remedy to each of these root causes varies.
What You'll Learn
The easiest place to start when diving into what might be causing you to feel down is to take a hard look at your health – what you eat (and when), how often you exercise, how much sleep you are getting, and whether you are battling any health conditions or taking medication that may affect your mood.
Many therapists encourage their patients to begin working to improve their physical health through diet, exercise and a full night’s sleep, while simultaneously diving into deeper emotional struggles in counseling. Many times, these holistic changes can remedy feelings of sadness and depression. In fact, in some cases, depression may result entirely from an undiagnosed food allergy.
In fact, a dear friend of mine struggled severely with depression and anxiety until she began seeing a holistic physician who suggested some diet changes. For her, cutting out gluten caused a significant change in her mental health. To this day, if she accidentally eats something with gluten, she struggles with depression until it is out of her system. This is one example that highlights the connection between our diet and our mental health.
In addition to this, recent studies have revealed that exercise can produce a chemical in your brain that is more effective than prescription antidepressants. This means that exercise is actually an effective way to treat depression and feeling down, and it comes with no negative side-effects.
When you get stuck in the blues, force yourself off the couch to do something as simple as going for a walk. If the weather is awful, find an indoor mall or walking track and get your body moving. The endorphins will help you to fight depression and you may end up feeling better than you would have if you let the sad feelings win.
If exercise feels overwhelming, start with small diet changes. Cut out sugar or refined carbohydrates as these can be major contributing factors to depression. These simple steps towards a healthier body can lead to healthier thoughts and feelings. You may be surprised to find that the culprit of your depression is something unaddressed in your physical health.
2) Clinical Depression
While improving your physical health can dramatically improve even clinical depression, some people do suffer from severe depression that may not be improved through lifestyle or health changes. If you suspect you are suffering from severe depression, please contact a health professional as soon as possible.
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), a type of severe depression, is characterized by:
- A total loss of interest in anything previously enjoyed
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Unexplained pain
- Reduced sex drive
- Angry outbursts
- Trouble thinking or concentrating
- And in some cases accompanied by hallucinations and delusions
In people with severe clinical depression, the best thing to do is reach out and get in touch with a mental health professional who can help treat and provide relief for your depression.
JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, battled depression and described it as the most unpleasant thing she has ever experienced. She writes:
“It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.” ― J.K. Rowling
In some cases, you can take practical steps to change your mood or feelings, but when battling the monster of depression, it is important to get help.
There are some types of clinical depression, or feelings of sadness, that can be swept away with a little sunshine. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can actually be improved simply by getting out into the sun. Our bodies absorb Vitamin D from the sun which has led the medical community to recommend getting a sunlight lamp, taking Vitamin D supplements, or moving to a sunnier climate as a way to treat SAD.
“I saw the world in black and white instead of the vibrant colours and shades I knew existed.” ― Katie McGarry, Pushing the Limits
If you have found that you feel down during the dark days of winter, try testing out these options and see if they improve your mood. Maybe plan a tropical vacation during the grey months of winter so you can soak in all that Vitamin D lounging poolside drinking a piña colada.
Stress can be a huge factor in your emotional well being. Recent studies have shown there are connections between psychological stressors and the development of depression. If you are feeling down due to stress or environmental factors, like your job, it may be time to consider a change.
Your environment plays a huge factor in your emotional well being and is something that you likely have the ability to change. Perhaps you can’t sell everything and move to Hawaii, but you could consider downsizing your lifestyle in order to take a job that is less stressful.
If your stress stems from relational conflict, consider seeing a counselor who specializes in relationship issues. It may be time to take inventory of what is working in your life and relationships, and what can be changed to improve things. It’s amazing the assumptions we make about how our lives should look which may not actually be what is best for us.
I once thought that in order to be a good mom, I needed to be a stay-at-home mom. However, as time went by and I struggled to feel fulfilled in my role at home, I realized that I had pigeon-holed myself into a lifestyle that didn’t fit who I am. Finding work that I loved – writing and helping in a community program that mentors teen moms – brought so much life and fulfillment to my soul that the overflow of those changes poured out into my family’s life. At first, it felt selfish to take time away from my kids and family, but in the end, it has been one of the best decisions I’ve made for my family. Sometimes we need to think differently about the assumptions we’ve made about how life should look, and consider doing what we are passionate about and inviting our friends and family into that passion. It may bring life and joy to not only you but the people who love you as well.
If you find yourself in a situation that you can’t or don’t want to change, you may want to consider learning techniques to help you manage your stress, like meditation and focused breathing. Small changes to how you respond to stress could lessen your overall feelings of sadness and depression. There are a number of amazing ways to stay calm when you’re feeling stressed that will help you learn to address stressful situations in a way that is healthy for your body and mind.
And if all else fails, as Dodie Smith says, “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” Go do something nice for someone and take a long hot bath. You may be amazed to find how the simple act of caring for others and yourself can go a long way toward lessening feelings of sadness and depression.
5) Negative Thoughts
When you are feeling down, it’s amazing how negative thoughts can begin to invade your mind. Feelings of failure and hopelessness can cling like a watery vortex, dragging you down beneath the waves. This inner critic can make you feel like you are the bane of society and the scourge of the world. Whether these thoughts are due to a legitimate mistake you have made or are baseless and unwanted, it is these types of inner conversations that keep us down and depressed for days, weeks, months, and years.
I once heard that you are what you believe. If you believe that when you walk into the street, you will be hit by a car, you won’t walk into the street. That belief will keep you from moving forward. The same is true with negative thoughts. If you believe you are destined to fail, you will never try. If you believe that your life is worthless, you won’t get out of bed. If you believe that no one needs you, you will never help anyone.
Dealing with these negative thoughts is complicated and can be challenging. However, it is not impossible to be free of them. Begin by listing out every negative thought you have. Once you have finished your list, begin to cross them out and write out what is true instead. As you change what you believe about yourself and the lies of the inner critic inside you, you will find that they begin to lose their power over you.
Choose to speak kindly to yourself and only say things that you would want others to say of you. If you fail, tell yourself that you made a mistake and tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it. If you did something dumb, tell yourself that you’ve learned from it and tomorrow you’ll be wiser. Regardless of what your inner critic says, cross it out in your mind and replace it with life-giving truth.
There are a number of ways to improve your mental health and happiness, and facing down the negative thoughts that keep you from really living your life is a great place to begin pushing down the darkness and finding joy.
Katie McGarry, in Pushing the Limits, said, “I saw the world in black and white instead of the vibrant colours and shades I knew existed.” When you are faced with the darkness of negative thoughts, paint the colors you know are there. You may be surprised by the beauty of the masterpiece you design when you take a grey world and paint it bright.
6) Grief & Trauma
If you walk on this earth long enough, you are bound to experience very real and lasting trauma or loss. The problem with living in a broken world, where people die and sometimes hurt others, is that it is nearly impossible to make it through life without experiencing the pain of losing someone or being harmed by another. These types of loss – internal and external – change the landscape of your life and heart. While healing is possible in both situations, they leave scars that permanently impact your heart and mind.
Trauma changes how your brain processes your life. When you encounter a traumatic life event, your hippocampus (the part of your brain that deals with decision-making and logical thought) can become suppressed, whereas your amygdala (the home for your instinctual emotions such as fear and anger) increases. These changes can so dramatically impact your life that depression co-develops alongside. There are questions about whether the development of clinical depression is a symptom of experiencing a traumatic event or whether it develops in response to the life changes that occur after the trauma or loss.
Regardless of its development, walking through grief and trauma is a life-changing experience that requires reaching out for help. There are counselors who specialize in trauma and grief recovery, support groups, and resources that offer practical steps on how to move through your grief.
Henry Wadsworth Longfollow wrote, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” This deep sadness that robs the world of color and joy can make a sunny soul feel cold and barren, but healing is possible. The scars of loss and pain can begin to heal, but they leave their mark, reminding us of what we’ve lost and who we’ve become.
You may be feeling down due to loneliness and lack of emotional connection with others. While people vary in the degree and intensity with which they need personal connection, it is scientifically proven that total isolation from the human world can create mental health problems and severe depression.
If you are struggling with feeling down, consider pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and begin pursuing more emotional connections with people. Putting the real you out into the world can lead to genuine human interactions that fill up your soul in the same way your favorite meal fills your belly. It warms you to the core and provides a sense of well-being that brings flavor to life.
Loneliness is something you can defeat. The cure is simple and widely available – people. Whether you start small by grabbing coffee every week at a local coffee shop and chatting with the baristas, or you dive all-in with a community of people to share your soul with, these experiences will begin to chip away at feelings of loneliness and replace them with feelings of belonging. Remember, everyone is seeking belonging and genuine human connection, so don’t be afraid to go first. Maybe your vulnerability will be the connection someone else has been looking for.
8) Lack of Meaning and Purpose
The last cause of feeling down that we’ll dive into is a lack of meaning and purpose. It is the sense that there is more to life than simply existing. It is likely, that at one point or another, you’ve asked questions about your purpose and the meaning of your life. In reality, we are all searching for these deeper motivations for being alive and the question, “Does our existence matter?” is one that we all long to know.
However, this above all else is the hardest question to answer. Is loving people our purpose? Is saving the earth? Is pursuing our greatest desires? And then when we achieve all the things we’ve defined in our hearts as our purpose, and those things still feel meaningless, what then?
At its core, this question is a spiritual one. Questions and answers abound in this arena, so I won’t try to give you any, but I will say this: discovering the answer to this question may take you on the greatest journey of your life and reveal a deeper meaning to your very existence that can light your world up in a way that is barely imaginable. It certainly has for me.
However, it isn’t a journey anyone can take for you. I heard once that the person who seeks will find. Perhaps seeking answers to the question of, “Why do I exist?” is the place where we find our life’s true meaning.
Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, “The pupil dilates in darkness and in the end finds light, just as the soul dilates in misfortune and in the end finds God.” Perhaps all your days of feeling down and trapped in darkness are just leading you to the light.
Feelings of sadness, while normal, can come from a variety of situations and experiences – all different and unique. It is easy to want to avoid feeling down, however, it isn’t always beneficial. There are times when sadness wells up and instead of running from it and trying another 8 practical tips to improve your mood, we need to face it head-on and really experience the discomfort of it.
Emotionally resilient people are not the people who feel good all the time but are the people who can walk through life’s pain and challenges, and even their own grief and sadness, and not run away and try to escape it. Escaping our pain can lead to the greatest harm we can experience in life, things like an addiction that can suck a person under. The problem isn’t that addicts love drugs, sex, alcohol, or any other addiction too much to give up; the problem is that people become addicts to escape their pain. Then, giving up their addiction is too difficult because it means they have to face the reality of their own pain, grief, sadness, loss, and loneliness.
Whether you are simply feeling down or struggling to bear the boulder of grief and depression, the choice to walk through that fire without numbing or retreating may be what actually brings you to the other side. Sometimes we have to feel our pain and sadness in order to move forward with our life. Don’t let feeling down consume you and drag you under, but face it and choose to walk with it until you’ve walked past it.