What can you do when you’re flattened by depression? Plan for it

Justin Tran

Justin Tran

By adopting a take-charge approach towards living with depression, you can start to feel more in control and less powerless, says health activist Jessica Gimeno. She shares three helpful strategies.

“Depression takes practice,” says Chicago-based health activist and writer Jessica Gimeno in a TEDxPilsenWomen talk. Wait — that sounds unrealistic and unwise. Depression just happens to a person, and if you’ve ever been seriously depressed, it’s something that you sincerely hope will never happen again, right?

“What I’m saying is that living well with depression takes practice,” clarifies Gimeno. “Being productive every day despite depression takes practice. Being a student or an employee with depression takes practice.”

Knowing how to live with depression is important for many of us — with more than 300 million people across the globe living with chronic depressionit’s the leading cause of disability worldwide. “With a visible disability, we assume it will take practice to cope, including things like physical therapy,” says Gimeno, who has a blog called Fashionably Ill. “Yet when it comes to depression, we think that a label and medication are enough to cope. It’s time to go beyond getting a diagnosis, into giving people actual coping mechanisms. Without coping mechanisms, we’re trapped in a downward spiral. Being depressed leads to falling behind; falling behind leads to more depression.”

After she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder when she was in college, Gimeno was helped by therapy and medication. However, she was eager to find out how to continue living her life and get things done while she was depressed. In the absence of existing resources and dealing with other challenges to her health including myasthenia gravis (a debilitating autoimmune neuromuscular disease) and polycystic ovarian syndrome, she created her own strategies. Note: This advice is not intended to cure or treat depression but to help you better manage the rest of your life while living with depression.

1. Be proactive.

It’s a cliche because it’s true — the best defense is a vigorous offense. Do you know what you’ll do the next time you’re depressed? “In order to make a plan, you need to know two things: your symptoms of depression and the strategies that work for you,” Gimeno explains.

While mental-health professionals and physicians have uncovered many common symptoms of depression — such as feelings of anxiety and hopelessness; changes in sleep, appetite and energy; inability to concentrate — Gimeno says it’s important for you to pinpoint your individual signs. It could be sleeping too much or barely sleeping at all, losing your appetite or wanting to eat all the time, excessive irritability or excessive apathy, or anything else. Your signs don’t have to be only physical, however — they may be specific behaviors. For example, writer Chris Dancy has noticed that when he’s feeling depressed he spends much more of his time using particular apps (in his case, Twitter, Fitbit and Facebook).

Next, you need to identify helpful actions that you can take as soon as these symptoms arise. Gimeno asks: “What do you need when you get depressed? Is it faith, is it family, is it friends, is it exercise, is it reading, is it listening to music?” Note: Your go-to activities should be ones that can truly make you feel better, not just cope, and also ones that won’t make you feel worse in the long run. While eating a pint of ice cream is one coping strategy, getting ice-cream with a friend or family member is a better tactic to take. Be prepared to act whenever you notice an episode of depression is beginning for you. As Gimeno says, “Know yourself, plan now, don’t wait.”

2. Zoom in on what’s most important for you to accomplish.

For Gimeno, this means prioritizing her to-do list. She says, “If something’s due today, it gets 4 stars; if it’s due tomorrow, 3 stars; sometime this week, 2 stars, next week [or later], 1 star. And when I’m depressed, I ignore anything that has less than 3 stars.”

Urgency isn’t only about getting things done, she says. It’s “also about being able to say no to non-essential tasks. So, meeting your work deadline is essential; the church bake sale is non-essential. When we say yes to everything, we amplify our stress.”

3. Figure out the difficulty of your tasks, and let this guide your actions.

Gimeno says, “When I’m depressed, I label all tasks as a 1, 2 or a 3. If it’s an easy task, it’s a 1; examples include eating breakfast or taking a shower. If it’s a moderately difficult task, it’s a 2, and a 3 is reserved for difficult tasks. For example, finishing a paper in college, scheduling an appointment with your child’s teacher, or meeting a difficult work deadline.”

If she’s in the midst of an episode of depression, she explains, “I focus on finishing all the 1 level tasks first. And every time I cross something off my list, even if it’s taking a shower, I feel empowered … And as I finish off all the 1 and 2 level tasks, I build the confidence to tackle the 3 level tasks.”

When it’s possible, she also tries to turn 3 tasks into 1s or 2s. For example, when she’s depressed, working out for 30 minutes is a 3. But working out for just 10 minutes makes it easier to accomplish, so that’s what she does.

Despite all her best efforts, plans and lists, Gimeno admits that there are still days when illness wins. Know that’s OK, and don’t add to your suffering by beating yourself up because you’re human. She says, “I want to share this with anyone who … fights depression or who loves someone that does. Yes, depression is real. But hope is real. Courage is real. Resilience is real.”

Watch her TEDxPilsenWomen Talk now:


Daryl Chen is the Ideas Editor at TED.

This post was originally published on TED Ideas. It’s part of the “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.