I cleaned off some shelves this weekend and I came across an article that reminded me of these effective techniques for combating depression and anxiety. I teach these principles every day in session and, when practiced, they can make a big difference in people’s lives.
Notice that phrase, “when practiced.” Everyone says they want to feel less stressed, less anxious, or less sad, but so few people follow through. I get it; everyone is busy or distracted. I also know when we are fighting serious stress, anxiety, or depression it can be hard to do things that are good for us instead of relying on old coping skills like drinking, sleeping too much, or reaching for the remote and a box of cookies. I promise you, however, consistent baby steps toward these new skills will reap a big payoff in terms of feeling better.
1. Practice daily relaxation techniques.
I am not talking about a long vacation or a day at the spa (although I am all for doing those things). I am talking about some specific tools for relaxing 10 minutes at a time. Progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and belly breathing are just some of the techniques that I teach both kids and adults in session. Type any of these keywords into Youtube you will find a host of videos of different lengths and different bents to appeal to anyone. Here is a great one that I use for small children: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mZbzDOpylA.
Do one of these every day for 10 minutes. Can’t do 10 at the beginning? Try doing it for 5. Reward yourself with a comedy video when you are done.
2. Do one pleasurable activity every day.
This has to be specific to you. It’s best when the pleasurable activity is not watching television (which does not engage our brain, our body, or our senses) or anything else that you find difficult to stop doing (internet, video games, gambling, etc.). It’s great when the activity is something you previously enjoyed but haven’t done in awhile. Here is a list of ideas to get you started:
Walk in the park.
Have coffee with a friend.
Visit the pet store.
Soak in a long bath.
Get your hair cut.
Bake or cook for someone.
Play a musical instrument.
Listen to live music.
Go to a live sports performance.
Read a good novel.
Browse in a bookstore.
Ride your bike.
Walk on the beach.
Visit an antiques store.
Write fan fiction.
Spend a morning at garage sales.
Clean your car.
Go to the batting cages or the driving range.
It’s a small list. Humans have managed to invent endless ways of amusing and entertaining themselves. The point is to find activities you enjoy and spend a few minutes every day doing one.
3. Take care of your physical self.
a. Get some exercise (it doesn’t have to be a lot at first).
b. Notice your eating. Do you need to cut back on junk food, eat more often, or include some fruits and vegetables? Begin making small steps to do that today.
c. Get enough sleep.
I feel like that last one should have category all its own. I don’t know what percentage of Americans struggle with insomnia, but I’d bet it’s 85% of adolescents and adults that I see in counseling. Here is a page with some tips to help with insomnia: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-tools-tips/healthy-sleep-tips. Insomnia that has gone on for any length of time or is disrupting your life is worth a trip to a sleep professional to talk about options.
4. Track your negative thoughts (and find more helpful thoughts).
This can be confusing if you have never given attention to the automatic thoughts that are swirling through the background of your mind. Automatic thoughts are like a virus on your pc that doesn’t shut everything down, but causes your computer to be slow and glitchy. Tune in and you will begin to recognize them. When you are awake in the middle of the night those thoughts are pretty obvious, but as you rush through the day, negative thoughts can be hard to notice.
Here is an example of a negative thought cycle:
“I can’t believe how stupid I sounded when I was talking to my boss today. She must think I’m so unprofessional. I’ll never move up in this company. I always screw up like this.”
Left unchecked, those thoughts spiral until you have worked yourself into a knot.
Write down just one of the thoughts contained in the above paragraph and find a more helpful thought. For instance:
“My boss has never called me unprofessional before. She laughed at what I said and later told me she liked my ideas at the meeting this morning. Everybody speaks without thinking once in awhile. One silly remark doesn’t reflect my overall performance.”
Try this exercise anytime you feel your anxiety growing. Practice it several times each week.
That’s it. Four simple techniques that will begin to change your life. It takes time to build new habits and for some reason humans seem to resist change under stress, even positive change. Give yourself some grace, but keep moving forward and you will see big differences in yourself.
Like I tell my clients: it’s not magic, but it acts like magic when we practice every day.
Sometimes we need help making changes. A professional therapist can act as a coach, a cheerleader, and, well, a therapist when we are struggling on our own. Ready for help? Reach out today.