What Helps You When You Are Depressed?

The comment thread on my post Founder Suicides is vibrant and full of lots of different things, including plenty of challenging stuff to read and figure out how to respond to.

My inbox was also full of private notes over the past few days. Many of them were thank yous for writing about this, some were suggestions, and a few were angry reactions to what I wrote. Regardless, I read them all and thought about them, what they meant, and what I could continue to do to be helpful on the topic of mental health, especially around entrepreneurship.

The suggestions were generally interesting. Some resonated with me and would be helpful when I’m depressed (which I’m not right now). Others wouldn’t have helped me, but might help someone else.

This morning, as I was reading through my email, I came across this one, which I decided to post as an example. It’s thoughtful, has several specific things I’ve done when I’m depressed (spend 1:1 time with friends, drink green drinks, stop caffeine, do little things that create joy for me), and represented the constructive tone of so many people that I interact with.

I hope it’s helpful to you. And – to the person who wrote it – thanks for sharing and taking the time.


“I can’t tell you how much it has meant to me that you have openly discussed depression and suicide. I would like to share with you the following if you wanted to post it on your blog anonymously –perhaps it could be helpful for someone:

What does help someone contemplating giving up on life? Looking on my facebook notifications this morning, there were two posts –one from my daughter who survived an alcohol overdose as a suicide attempt five years ago, and who I believe is grateful to still be here, and another post from a family notifying their son’s facebook friends that he had ended his life on September 30th. There but for the grace of God go I as a parent. Furthermore, I have been at the door of suicide contemplation this past year myself. I feel like I know exactly what Robin Williams was thinking before he took his own life. My depression is not the gray, non-feeling that another writer described, it has been active pain. Pain so hard and awful that you just want it to stop. The universe is punishing you and it seems like it will never be any different. So what would be helpful to me at these rock bottom times? Not well-meaning platitudes, not “change your thinking, change your life”, not more words assigning responsibility to me for creating my reality.

There are a couple of things that I have actually found to help change my spiral. Engage me in small tasks, easy tasks; chopping carrots, washing dishes, some light bookkeeping on quickbooks, something that physically engages me, or lightly mentally engages me. Even if I don’t feel like doing it, get me actively doing some rote work with my hands.

Mention to me a time when I was happy- an actual memory of a good moment. Bring that picture back to my consciousness. Remind me that there have been good times even after I have been down, they do come back. Help me see the pictures in my mind of things that have made me smile before – my cat splayed out on a lounge chair like a drunken squirrel basking in the sun for example.

Ask me to fill my body with a deep breath and let it out, emptying my belly of breath several times in a row. And then to focus on a good image. The beauty of gorgeous fall leaves that I saw on my bike ride, for example. (From the book, Forgive For Good)

For the longer term, spend time with me. We don’t have to have deep talks, just companionship. Alone-time is obsessing time, spiraling down time, too much wine drinking time.

I heard the Dalai Lama’s longtime translator speak recently and he pointed out that depressed people revolve in their cocoon of self-obsession. Compassion is a way out. I used to volunteer my time a lot, and grew away from that somehow in my life. I used to get so much from hanging with the 3-5 year olds at my church’s childcare room. What natural joie de vivre radiates from a five year old! “Would you like to do the hokey pokey? Sure!!!!” I have signed up to look into volunteering in the play room at the Ronald McDonald house. Yes, even for busy people with important jobs and positions, make time to give of oneself where you can be in the moment.

And most importantly for the long term, look at your diet and exercise. Get a coach. Someone you have to report to. I found that I had been draining my adrenal glands from too much exercise, even though I didn’t think it was too much or too hard. The first thing my health coach did was to get me to drink a green drink every day (juiced kale, celery, apple, etc) and to get in as many greens in as I could in a day. Greens chase away depression. Her philosophy is to add things first, not take them away. Over time, I have on my own started to reduce the caffeine, which could be draining my adrenals as well. I had an incredibly happy day yesterday. I want more happy days like that, so it becomes easier to give up the things that could be causing me physically to slip into the bad space. Unfortunately a lot of us rely heavily on the substances as coping strategies, so it is baby steps at first. Add in the good stuff, maybe be a little lighter on myself on the exercise piece, and let me evolve to better choices.

Thanks, Brad. I realize that everyone has different experiences of depression and pain. My little suggestions could completely not work, but if they helped someone at all change the direction of a spiral, they were worth sharing. Perhaps, you have suggestions of your own, perhaps your blog readers do – and not the naturally happy readers trying to help, those of us who have been right there, at the door of ending it. I thought your sharing of your pact with your wife to share when you were thinking suicidal thoughts was powerful. Thank you.”

  • brittany koenig

    omg love it.

  • Change is like an ocean rising one inch at a time. Every little thing you can do that feels good, that feeds your soul, is a step towards building habits that can change your life.

    Never give up. One foot in front of the other, and even though you may not see beyond the dirt crunching under your footsteps. You will look up one day in the not too distant future, and find yourself surrounded by people who love you, by the fruits of your labor, by the dream you thought was too distant to ever be real.
    Never give up.

  • Two things have worked for me when I’ve been depressed (both knowingly + unknowingly) over the years: adrenaline rush behavior + volunteering.

    The volunteering works (for me) by changing the focus of the moment – I don’t (can’t?) fixate on myself when I’m in the middle of helping someone or a group that is, at least visibly, in a much worse situation than me.

    The adrenaline rush stuff is harder to understand. Maybe it’s a purely chemical thing (dopamine etc), but I can’t be sure. Being sure isn’t the point, obv, so I’m not too hung up on it. But I always feel better after doing this stuff, even tho sometimes I’m briefly terrified in the midst of it (i.e. racing, skydiving, hopping trains, jumping off cliffs, free-climbing rock faces, scaling radio towers, etc)

    • Rick

      Hey I’m glad you brought up dopamine. There is a way to increase the release of that with amino acids. You’ll need to do some research as I can’t remember which aminos to use and what schedule you follow.

      • There’s a ton of research on this.

        • Rick

          Right. You’ll just have to go through it. I know you use one or two aminos and you schedule them between meals.

  • Rick

    A nice shiny new project to work on! Preferably one that is huge and has the potential to make fat stacks of cash!!! One that is funded at the start would even be better. I’m looking for that right now which is probably why I’m sleeping more than usual.

  • Tennis

  • Well said!

  • This is good-and it seems like it would work for early stages, but what happens when it’s a spiral? Had a friend who was hospitalized. He was so smart, he faked everyone out and was released, then ended his life.

  • jerrycolonna

    “Compassion is a way out.”

    This was my way out. This is how I crawled out of the last black hole of death–by forcing myself to think of others. And not just the people who would have been hurt by my suicide. Years ago, I wrote to the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart–an amazing book, btw, and poured my heart out about recently recovered memories from my childhood. Memories that had sent me into the swamp of pain and self-loathing. She gave me a specific instruction: sit in meditation and send lovingkindness to myself, to those in my closest circle and those further and further out until it encompassed everyone everywhere who had ever suffered physical and emotional abuse as children–including those who had perpetuated such abuse.

    Months later I was at a retreat with about 300 people and she was teaching. Near the end of the day, I stood at the microphone and wept as I told her, “It worked.”

    It doesn’t make the pain go away; it makes the pain more bearable.

    “Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our
    personal pain, only to the degree that we’ve related with pain at all, will we
    be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel
    the pain of others. To that degree we will be able to take on the pain of
    others because we will have discovered that their pain and our own pain are no
    different.” Pema Chodron Start Where You Are.

    May all beings be happy. May they be at peace with the world as it is, with the people in their lives, and with themselves.

    • Thank you Jerry. Beautiful and helpful.

  • jerrycolonna

    Oh, and folks might find this discussion I did with Parker Palmer helpful. It’s about how to work with depression as an entrepreneur. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlSp16ZhiXg

  • I find that in my most difficult depressions, I don’t actually want help. That feels hard to admit, but it’s the truth.

    The key implication of this is that I’m not the person to be in charge of getting myself out of a depression when I’m in the middle of it.

    A few years ago I connected a number of my friends with each other so that if I’m not doing well, they can conspire on my behalf. Several of them have keys to my place. They don’t need to wonder in isolation if my lack of response to messages just means I’m busy – they can check with each other and quickly ascertain if I’ve gone quiet. If so, it’s likely I’m depressed. They can then delegate who might come by my place or brainstorm ways to tempt me to allow some contact.

    I find great help in friends who will listen without trying to fix me. Or simple invitations to walk or eat. If I’m in a really bad spell where I don’t want to go out, I’ve told my friends that bribing me with offers to bring food over will probably work. We haven’t had to try that one yet, but part of how I experience depression is that I don’t eat enough even though I still have my appetite. So the idea of meeting for food or having food brought to me is appealing.

    One last thing that works if I have the willingness to do it – completely self-indulgent pleasures. I’ve felt immediate improvement in my mood when I gave into my desire to go out for ice cream, build my own computer from parts, or crawl head-first under my sheets like I did when I was a little kid (all real examples). Even while the self-critical part of me wants to say that I “should” be doing more productive things, the reality is that I’m not doing anything productive when I’m in a depression. Self-indulgence sometimes helps me turn the corner.

    Thanks, Brad, for continuing to highlight this incredibly important issue.

  • I am agree well said and it’s interesting to know …

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  • Exercise, exercise, exercise! I rely heavily on physical exertion.

    I’m just getting back from a trip in which I did an 80 mile mountain bike ride for that matter :).

    When my exercise level drops off, so does my mental state.

    Beyond that, I tend to immerse myself in something if I’m starting to spiral. Work, a project, the kids, what have you. Something to engage my mind. When that’s not working, I exercise.

    Basically bounce between those two approaches to try and have options.

  • markb

    Three things that have helped get me out of the black hole: compassion and love from others and for myself, hope that I’ll find hope again, and (this is a weird one) a tanning bed.

    I think others like Jerry have touched on compassion and love, so I’ll talk about the tanning bed thing.

    I stumbled on it one winter when I had been sick for a few weeks. I felt like my body was CRAVING sunlight, almost like my skin was itching for it, so I decided to just go to a tanning salon. Literally that afternoon, I felt a little better, and the next day, I was feeling tremendously better. I often get sick in November or December, so the next winter, I proactively went to the salon a couple of times, and never got sick. I noticed my mood was better after tanning, too, so I started using it as an antidepressant as well.

    Now, whenever I start to feel depression tugging me down, I hit the tanning salon, and it seems to have really shortened my depressive episodes. Before tanning, even with meds, my depressive episodes would go really, really deep, and would last months and months. Now, they rarely last more than a few days. I’ve done a lot of work, too, but I truly attribute a lot of the change to tanning and a boost in vitamin D.

    For those that are wondering, yes, I’ve tested my vitamin D levels, and yes, they are low. I’m on vitamin D supplements, and I still test low. I suspect a lot of other depressed people have low vitamin D, and for some reason, a lot of psychiatrists don’t think about testing for it.

  • Depression / suicide has hit close to home and I appreciate the discussion around it… I’m “listening” and learning. Hopefully I’ll be able to recognize / respond appropriately should the circumstances require…

  • Guitar. Play guitar. Learn an instrument because the creation of music, the creative process, is a known “mental mechanism”. I actually learned that in class in middle school – enlightening at the time. It’s an outlet I have to access or else I feel withdrawal symptoms.
    And exercise…swimming, for instance, is a great way to get started with exercise because no one can tell you’re doing it wrong…no weight room judgement…and it’s easier on the joints than running or biking. Also requires less equipment. 🙂

  • Some of the best advice that has consistently worked for me (which you also mentioned, and which I want to underline) is: “If you’re depressed, go help someone else.”

    Volunteer your time at a shelter. Make hats for the homeless. Find a place where people are asking for advice in your area of expertise, and give some.

    Do anything you can to get outside of yourself and re-connect with the world.

  • Though the advice and tips to help ‘with depression’ are sincere and heartfelt I’m not sure a Robin Williams at the 11th hour would have saved himself with guitar lessons, green tea and/or volunteering. I recognize these are great tools and should be considered and are helpful over the longterm, providing a distraction to get back on the rails, but a leopard cannot change it’s spots with will power alone. That’s the point. There are too many empty minutes in a day, every day. Like Chinese water torture.

    What do you think about when you close your eyes at night?

    People commit suicide knowing their children, spouse, family and friends will be devastated and will never understand. But yet they still go through with it?

    Severe depression, and suicidal thoughts, start to become natural despite knowing that it’s completely irrational – no other species ends it’s own life willfully. The darkness doesn’t feel natural, nothing does, but it’s shadow is cast over almost every waking minute. So you attempt to avoid the shadow with a distraction, like training a dog not to be obsessed with something by focusing on something else (booze, drugs, promiscuity, bad and erratic behavior…. to drive those who care away… Setting the table so to speak). Until, I suppose, you’re at your wits end? Climbing becomes too much with little progress, slipping becomes sliding, all the way down until one day you’re literally at the end of your rope?

    And then one day….What, then?

  • Karen Counts

    I want to tell you all about a series of books I read recently entitled “Healing the Mind and Body” (http://drpaulcoronamd.com) by Dr. Paul D. Corona. As someone who suffers from mental health issues I try to stay informed about the medications I take, and also what is available in the future. These books are an amazing source of information about bleeding edge ideas and practices that could very well help many people with these problems. Dr. Corona seems to live and breath the treatment of these disorders and therefore comes across as a passionate and trustworthy resource.