Dealing With Depression
Being a psychologist, I often get asked what people can do to help a family member or friend who seem to be depressed, or have actually been diagnosed with clinical depression and is on psychiatric medication.
I’d suggest this: promote behavioural activation.
Behavioural activation as part of therapy for depression includes engaging in meaningful, healthy and pleasurable activities such as socialisation, exercise, relaxation, self-pampering and hobbies. Running errands, doing chores, and making time to personal development all contribute to a sense of satisfaction. Having these activities built into daily timetabling can increase commitment to them, which contributes to recovery.
Behavioural activation is about engaging in activities that makes you feel good. Even if you’re not in the mood, it doesn’t matter. Just do it. Accept the mood, but just carry on with the activities. Get used to it. It takes practice. So, all the more important to have social support.
These activities can be encouraged by sharing them with family and friends. Having social support in behavioural activation can make it part of everyday life, rather than as a treatment modality. So, there’s less stigma, if not stigma-free.
Recovery from depression happens not in the clinic, but in the community. It is not dependent on medication alone, but is facilitated by cognitive restructuring, behavioural change and social support. Nevertheless, it is important for family members to understand that part of treatment involves lifestyle changes to be made. For example, certain psychiatric medication causes drowsiness and therefore would reduce the individual’s cognitive functioning after taking them.
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic that is turning endemic, behavioural activation is easier to engage in as we are no longer isolated due to restricted movements. It is important to stay connected – call someone daily, just reach out to say ‘hi’ and see what happens. From there, encourage each other to carry out behavioural activation.
I’d say that behavioural activation is for everyone. You don’t have to be depressed to do engage in behavioural activation. In fact, it can be a good buffer against depression. Completing your chores, errands, and keeping busy with other meaningful activities provides a sense of accomplishment, and keeps you away from ruminating. Even if you do ruminate (which is an ineffective way to find solutions), you can always actively start problem-solving steps and get proactive in finding help resources, which is part of behavioural activation.
How exactly to carry out behavioural activation? Speak to a mental health professional. You don’t have to be ill to seek help. There are heaps of research evidence supporting behavioural activation as part of therapy and continued recovery. It’s not magic, but it’s healthy and it works! Professionals would know.
So, given my professional training, do I still ruminate? Sure, I do. Do I get anxious and depressed? Sure, I do – because I ruminate. However, I practice behavioural activation and therefore, these unpleasant emotions don’t last long and so are not incapacitating for me. Just because I’m a psychologist doesn’t mean I’m immune to stress, catastrophic thoughts, anxiety, depression, anger and many other unpleasant feelings. They’re all part of the human condition as are pleasant feelings.
What’s more important is to stay functioning as much as possible because research on subjective wellbeing show that what we call ‘happiness’ is not a destination where you have joy and elation. It is more of a process that generates a sense of satisfaction and general wellbeing in our life.
Do joy and euphoria factor in? Of course! Positive emotions facilitate better creativity and effectiveness in problem-solving and productivity, leading to continued improvement of subjective wellbeing.
So, get active in meaningful behaviours. They don’t just help you recover from low moods and misery – they contribute to finding solutions and help you thrive. When you function well, despite your mood, you continue to be productive, creating more opportunities for little successes that you can celebrate.
These little successes keep your unpleasant emotions at bay and help to promote a positive momentum that also rewires your brain to be less focused on negativity, while becoming more familiar with positivity. Yes, because of neuroplasticity, you can train your brain to be more positive by engaging in healthy habits.
Even better if these activities are carried out with significant others and colleagues because you can also infect others with positivity as well as create a pleasant and supportive environment.
So, get activated. Get together. Get support. Give support. Call someone. Just do it. It’s healthy.
Professor Alvin Ng Lai Oon
School of Medical and Life Sciences
This article was first published in Business Today, 23 July 2022.