Depression

Breaking Down Mental Barriers in Depression

I've found behavioral activation - setting goals and acting opposite to my feelings of depression - is the best way to break down my mental barriers.

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When I was in intensive treatment for my eating disorder, we had a couple times a week when we focused on behavioral activation. Behavioral activation is a therapy specifically targeting depression. The basic premise is to counteract depression by engaging in activities to activate one’s behavior.

The goal is for the depression to become more manageable over time and with continued work, for sustained recovery to be achieved.

But treatment and recovery from depression are not black and white – mental barriers are always involved in recovery of any kind. For me, my mental illness was, and sometimes still is, my mental barrier to recovery.

The more my treatment team encouraged me to set goals of activating my behavior, such as going to see a movie, calling a friend, doing laundry, and some days, even showering, the more my depression got in the way. As I tried to act opposite to my depressive urges of wanting to stay in bed, sleep, isolate, and withdraw from everything, they continued to increase. I got to the point where I felt like I could not do anything but allow my depression to overtake me.

But that’s the thing- my barrier to overcoming depression has been allowing my feelings to dictate my actions.

In treatment, my therapists had a saying, “If you wait until you feel like doing it, you will be waiting forever.” When I am in the midst of my depression, I don’t feel like I can do anything except lay in bed and sleep. Mustering up the stregth to do something as simple as get out of bed and take a shower feels impossible.

That’s when I have to actively work to break down the mental barrier of how I feel and activate my behavior to overcome my depression.

One of the most effective ways I have found to activate my behavior is to set goals for every day. I even still use the goal sheets that we used when I was in day treatment, but in reality, just a plain old piece of paper would do.

The trick is to make your goals manageable so you don’t set yourself up for failure (in my case, not meeting my goals tends to make my depression worse).

Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful:

1. Write your goals down.

If I keep my goals in my head, I get overwhelmed. Writing them down helps me to hold myself accountable. It also gives me a to-do list so I don’t have to think about what I need to do, I can just look at the next thing on the list.

2. Don’t set too many goals.

I usually stick to three to five for one day.

3. Make your goals realistic.

In other words, don’t make a goal that is too much or too overwhelming. Don’t set a goal that you know will not be achieved.

4. Take into account how bad your depression is that day.

There are some days when my depression is worse than others, and on the really bad days, my goals are usually more along the lines of “shower” or “get dressed.”

5. Have accountability.

Depression takes away most of my motivation, so having some sort of accountability is very important for me. On hard days, I will text a friend and let them know what my goals are for that day and let him or her know when I have completed them.

6. Set diverse goals.

Don’t focus all the goals on one area. What is something you can do to self-soothe? What can you do to increase positive emotions? Where can you do to be interpersonally effective? What can you do to help build a sense of mastery? Make sure that at least one of your goals involves some form of self-care.

7. Don’t wait until you feel better to do it.

With depression, I’ve found that I never feel like doing anything, so if I wait to start on my goals, they will never get done.

8. Be compassionate with yourself.

I don’t always achieve every single goal that I set, but I also don’t beat myself up over it when I don’t. I try to validate how hard behavioral activation is for me.

9. Reward yourself.

Sometimes it is as simple as telling myself that I did a really good job, while other times it looks like buying a new book I’ve wanted to read.

I’ve found behavioral activation – setting goals and acting opposite to my feelings of depression – is the best way to break down my mental barriers.

It is not always easy and it usually doesn’t make me feel better in the moment. In a lot of cases, it can make my depressive symptoms worse. But, my short-term discomfort does indeed lessen my depression in the long term.

The mental barriers depression puts up are very difficult to break down. I have not yet found any one thing to eliminate them completely, and I’m not sure I ever will. Goal setting and behavioural activation help to break down those mental barriers for me. And through a combination of medication, therapy, nutrition, yoga, social interaction and sunshine, my depression really does become more manageable.


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