People who are showing early signs of depression may notice one or two of the following symptoms:

  • It seems more difficult to get out of bed, you are having a hard time facing the day.
  • There’s a decrease in your overall level of motivation, maybe even for things you normally enjoy.
  • You’ve become more likely to pass on social engagements or opportunities.
  • You might see an increase in use of mind or mood altering substances, like alcohol, marijuana, or medication.
  • Sleep habits have changed – you may feel sleepy more often or have a hard time sleeping at night, or both.
  • You find yourself eating when you aren’t really hungry (stress eating), or you’ve lost your appetite all together.
  • Negative thoughts and feelings about yourself increase. You may feel more guilty, self-critical, or pessimistic than usual.
  • It has become harder to stick to routines, like cooking meals at home, participating in hobbies, or following an exercise routine.
  • Life has just lost a bit of its color, everything is just a bit more dull.

If you find a few things on this list that apply to you, you might be experiencing early stages of depression. Taking preventative measures can keep it from getting worse, or turn things around for you. Depression is a real disease and you can’t “just cheer up” or “pull yourself out of it” without taking action. Early detection and treatment may prevent a full blow major depressive episode.

There is nothing new to these prevention strategies. Most of us have heard all of our lives that exercise, healthy eating, and sound sleep are keys to good health. These rumors keep circulating because they’re true! The new part about it is that neuroscience has become better at determining why they work. Here are some simple steps you can take to prevent or treat early signs of depression:

Talk to Someone — If you haven’t told any of the people closet to you that you aren’t feeling so hot, let someone know. Sharing your experience with even one person in your support system can help you feel less alone. Nobody wants to be a complainer, but it is important for others to know how you’re feeling. Those who care about you most will want to help, and there’s a good chance someone has already noticed that something is off. Think of the person or people who are most likely to be able to be supportive of you and just let them know what’s going on. Human beings are social animals, and we need to feel connected in order to thrive.

Take a Substance Break — For those who use recreational drugs, including alcohol: you may find yourself wanting to use a bit more, or a bit more often. When your mood is low, the temporary escape that comes with drug use becomes more tempting. It is crucial that you don’t allow yourself to give into this urge. In fact, you will start to feel better faster if you give yourself a break from recreational drugs and alcohol. It could be said that when it comes to drugs, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Having a few drinks may make you feel better for hours, but the subtle after effects make you feel worse for longer. Alcohol is a neurotoxin, and a depressant to the central nervous system. Smoking weed will decrease motivation (for most people), and if your mood is down, you need all the motivation you can get. Finally, giving in to the temptation to use as an escape can create a cycle. The risk of becoming addicted, psychologically, physically, or both, in increased when your mood is low.

Socialize — Having the blues can make you want to skip that phone call, or decline social invitations. Every one of us, from the most extreme introvert to the social butterfly extrovert, needs human contact. You don’t have to go all out and fill your social schedule, just make sure you connect with someone every day. Go to lunch with a colleague or two from work, make a coffee date with a friend, or invite someone out for a walk in the greenbelt. Hang out with your family or roommates for a bit instead of isolating in your room. Face to face contact with other people is on the decline with the rise of social media. Buck the trend and make an effort to do something nice for yourself and people in your life. It is not uncommon to feel as if you have nothing to talk about if you are feeling down. Ask others how they are doing! Making someone else feel important has a positive effect on both of you.

Exercise — If you have a regular exercise routine, make every effort to keep it up, even when you don’t feel like it. If you don’t exercise regularly, now is a good time to start. Even a 20 to 30 minute walk a few times a week will increase the flow of oxygen to the brain, resulting in a mood lift. Get into (or back into) a yoga or martial arts routine, or try out the gym in your apartment complex. Exercising the body keeps the brain and nervous system healthy and balanced. Exercise may be the most important aspect of a healthy mind. If this is particularly difficult for you, you might try to find an exercise buddy to help keep you accountable.

Enforce Good Sleep Habits — The best environment for sleeping is cool, dark, and quiet. Make sure you’ve done what you can to create a sleep habitat. Light blocking shades can be installed pretty cheaply if your bedroom has light leaks. Sound machines are available to block out intrusive noise. Remove any clutter from your bed before sleeping, so you have room to move. You can condition your mind to associate falling asleep with lying in bed by using the bed for nothing but sleep (and sex, you can use it for having sex, with or without a partner). Find another place for using your computer, watching TV, studying, etc. Don’t eat a large meal or drink much in the hours before you want to fall asleep. Prepare your mind for sleep by lowering the lights, getting ready for bed, and participating in a quiet, soothing activity for 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.

In order to get the best quality sleep, you may have to work on setting a sleep schedule, where you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. If you aren’t on a regular schedule, it may take a few days (and an alarm clock) to make sure you get 8 or 9 hours of sleep per night. While setting a sleep schedule, don’t allow yourself to nap during the day. If you are doing all these things and your sleep doesn’t improve after a few days, you might consider consulting a doctor – sleep disorders can be a cause, as well as a result, of depressive symptoms.

You Are What You Eat — Maintaining a healthy diet means eating just enough of the right things. You can indulge in a less than wholesome treat on occasion, but in general you body and mind will be healthier if you eat reasonable portions of nutritious food four or five times per day. Make sure you get a good balance of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and good carbohydrates. Avoid saturated fats and highly processed foods, and sugary foods. You know the score. Eating many, small meals each day will keep your metabolism working and provide you with adequate energy throughout the day. Think of a few things you can eat even when you don’t have an appetite, if that is a problem for you. Suggestions include a boiled egg, a handful of nuts or trail mix, a smoothie or bowl of oatmeal or cereal. Eight ounces of milk can provide a lot of nutrients. Add a shot of espresso or chai to it and you have a special treat!

The #1 Most Important Thing I can tell you is that none of these things will help your mood if you just read this article without implementing changes in your life! You have likely heard most of all of these things before. As a person who has suffered from major depressive episodes, and as a professional who has, for over 10 years, worked with others who suffer from depression, I guarantee you that if you don’t make any changes, nothing will change (at least not for the better). Preventing or alleviating depression and depressive symptoms requires conscious choice, and then action. If you feel you may have some symptoms of depression, it is important that you act now, before it gets worse. If you have a significant number of symptoms, or if you feel the changes suggested here are too challenging, it is never too early (or if you are reading this, never too late) to consult a psychotherapist or professional counselor. You might talk to your doctor about your symptoms as well. Depression is a potentially fatal mental illness. The good news is that there is help, and you don’t have to go through it alone. Being at your best for the ones you love means taking care of you first! If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for them. The rest will follow.

— Mary B. Mattis, LCSW, LCDC