People who suffer from depression are often highly attuned to their symptoms. They may notice a heaviness in different parts of the body. They may notice sleepiness or lethargy. Certain types of thoughts may bother them on bad days, or certain images may flash through their minds when they are feeling very bad. Each depression sufferer’s symptoms are unique to them.
As people emerge from depression, they will typically notice more good days, or good periods, when their symptoms are less troubling, less frequent and generally have less of a hold on them.
But even after recovery, the individual’s symptoms can often retain the power of ‘alarm bells’. This means that for some time after the period of depression has passed, the ex-sufferer can be unnerved by noticing, say, a heaviness in the chest, or a thought that ‘I’m useless’ or the fleeting image of a self-harming cut. Ex-sufferers of depression are well aware of the seriousness of that condition, and may naturally feel fear or anxiety about becoming depressed again.
However, it’s also important to remember that most people have periods when they feel low, and that this is normal. So if you are worried that you feel like you are having a relapse into depression, here are a few suggestions for how to navigate the feelings you are having.
1. Ask yourself if there is any obvious reason why you are feeling bad? There may not be – sometimes people feel low without knowing why, and this is OK. But if there is a clear reason, ask yourself how long this situation is likely to continue: it may be that you are going through a difficult time at work or at home, but that there will be a clear end to this period.
2. Accept that you are feeling low today, and this is OK, in fact it is normal. To be able to accept that you feel low, without trying to fix it, is not wallowing. Depression sufferers are sometimes very angry with themselves for being unhappy. Accepting that sometimes we just are unhappy is in itself a sign of emotional growth.
3. Treat yourself as you would treat a loved one who has a really nasty cold. In other words, be nice to yourself: give yourself permission to achieve less than usual, indulge in self-comforting activities, whether for you this is curling up with a favourite book or TV show, or playing computer games. As you would with a nasty cold, have faith that you will feel better in a day or two, and treat yourself with care: eat meals that are both comforting and reasonably healthy, avoid alcohol, try and get a good night’s sleep.
4. If the symptoms continue, you may decide to take more serious action to avoid a full relapse into depression: you might seek counselling or consult your GP to explore other options.
5. Other things you can do, if you are worried about a full relapse are to take exercise, and look after your physical health generally. If you aren’t the sort of person to join a gym, perhaps you could enjoy a stroll in the park. Depressed people are often hard on themselves, so give yourself permission to exercise in the way that suits you.
6. People who are feeling depressed often withdraw from friends and family, so try and ensure you stay connected to others, whether through work, social activities or hobbies and pastimes that you enjoy.
Although the path to that recovery will probably not be steady and straightforward all the time, lasting recovery is achievable. And part of that process is to re-learn what it is to feel low, anxious, or sad, without feeling the additional weight of hopelessness that most people say characterises depression.