Beating the Blues

Everyone gets down sometimes.  Whether it’s full-blown depression, a case of the blahs, or a reaction to the weather, we just feel beaten – listless, unmotivated, discouraged.  Though it’s easy enough to get there, you don’t have to stay there.  Usually there’s a lot you can do to help yourself.

Take Yourself Seriously

For starters, consider the possibility that the blues are nature’s way of getting your attention.  Often we’re down for a reason.  The two most common reasons are: an unresolved problem is eating away at us; or our life is just too small, it lacks “juice.”

If either of these possibilities is true for you, the key to beating the blues is “self-efficacy” – finding ways to act, rather than being a passive victim.  As simple as this sounds it’s sometimes hard to do.  The blues generally sap our energy and decrease our capacity to think logically or creatively.  So think small.  What starts us on the road to recovery is usually a small step in the right direction.

What Helps?

There are three aspects of your life where even small acts are likely to have a significant impact on your mood. Take a look at each of these with an eye toward discovering ways to act.

Self-Care

It’s hard to feel good about the world when you don’t feel good about yourself.  Often when we’re down we get sloppy in our eating and hygiene and irregular in our sleep pattern.  This inattention takes its toll physically in terms of a tired, run down body.  It also takes a toll emotionally because in treating ourselves as if “it’s not worth it,” it’s only a small step to “I’m not worth it,” and “I guess I’m not worth much.”  You probably don’t need to embark on a total make-over, but it would help to invest some energy in yourself.

Self-care is about eating, sleeping, and exercise.  The single most effective response to depression is regular, moderate exercise.  When you’re down you probably can’t get yourself to do the daily workouts you experienced on the cross-country team, but something as painless as walking at a brisk pace for 20 minutes, 4 times a week is enough to make a positive difference.  There’s a second benefit to exercise – light.  People feel better when they increase their exposure to natural sunlight.  You may think, “This is Seattle.  We won’t see the sun until July.”  But even on a cloudy day a walk outside exposes you to 6 times as much light as a well-lit office, and 10-15 times as much as most homes!  If being outside just doesn’t work for your schedule, consider buying a light box or using the one available free at the Counseling Center.

It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway), your body can’t do much when fueled by Twinkies and Mountain Dew.  Nutrition counts.  A normal, balanced diet is sufficient for most people, but if you want to consider vitamins a recent study by the UW School of Nursing found the following daily supplements helpful:

B1 50 mg
B2 50 mg
B6 50 mg
Folic Acid 400 mcg
D 400 IU
Selenium 200 mcg

The key to sleep is regularity. Your body develops a rhythm that allows true rest, not just a period of unconsciousness. Minimal light helps too, as darkness stimulates the production of chemicals important in brain functioning.

The best news about self-care is that it’s often the easiest aspect of your life to improve today.

Affirming Relationships

Although there’s a natural tendency to pull inward and self-isolate when you’re down, this is a time when reaching out to others is doubly important.  Just as we need good food to be at our best, we need to regularly experience respect and caring from people who know us personally.  A lecture class with 300 strangers doesn’t do it; a quick exchange of grumbles in the cafeteria line about the lousy food doesn’t do it.  What’s needed is real, affirming relationship with someone who knows us well enough to make a judgment and who still chooses to be around us.

When we’re down, we sometimes find reasons to not actually encounter friends and family members who might well be there for us if we would let them.  Sometimes there simply are few or no friends and family around.  That’s one of the best reasons for seeking counseling – to create a relationship where you can be known and accepted.  In working with a counselor you might also discover new ways of dealing with that unresolved problem that eats away at you.

Another good way to create affirming relationships is to give to others.  Regular volunteering or “random acts of kindness” draw you out of yourself and, if your giving is genuine, are often rewarded with appreciation.

Meaningful Work

The key here is meaningful.  Being a student is usually work; it is not always meaningful.  Your studies are likely to be satisfying if you have a sense of where you’re going and a belief that the labor you’re putting in now moves you forward on a path you want to follow.  If you don’t have this sense, or if knowing where you want to go is the hard part, working with a career counselor can help sharpen your sense of a desirable future.  A part time job, an internship, or volunteering can give you an experience outside of school of being involved in something that matters.

For many of us, the biggest obstacle to creating a more meaningful life is time.  How can you add one more thing to your schedule?  In fact you don’t have to.  What’s important is not more but better.  Aim for the highest possible quality of both work/study and recreation you can manage.  Quality recreation is anything in which you can ‘lose yourself’; where you’re so involved in what you’re doing that you lose track of time and forget about your to-do list. By this standard, trying to study and watch television is pretty low-quality recreation and you’re not likely to feel very refreshed by the experience.

What About Medication and/or Therapy?

Sometimes the above suggestions are not enough; or you just can’t muster the energy to take any action.  If you are overwhelmed by depressive symptoms, medication can help by reducing the symptoms enough that you can begin to act on your own behalf.  But medication doesn’t change the underlying issues that may be causing your blues; that requires action.

Several possible uses of counseling have already been mentioned – creating an affirming relationship, getting a sense of direction, discovering ways to actively deal with problems.  An additional use might be to simply create a way to take stock of what’s happening in a non-judgmental way that’s sometimes difficult to achieve with a friend or family member.

If you’re fighting the blues, call or visit the Counseling Center to set up an appointment.  You’ll have taken the first step on a path that you create, that leads toward where you want to go.

Suggestions for Reading:

Copeland, M.E. (1994). Living without depression & manic depression.

Brown, M. & Robinson, J. (2002). When your body gets the blues.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness.

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