How can I save each day from failure?
November 10, 2010 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm depressed. What can I do to keep one small negative experience from spiraling into a cascade of negative thoughts about myself? I'm working on getting into therapy and getting on meds, but I need some strategies that will help me cut these cycles now.

I've just been diagnosed with depression. My inner monologue is pretty consistently negative, but recognizing that I'm depressed has given me some ability to distance myself from it when there isn't any logical reason for the negative thoughts. What's really difficult is when I have some sort of negative interaction with someone, usually because I've done some task poorly or neglected to do it at all. Because I have done something wrong, it's really hard to keep those thoughts from just completely taking over and grinding my desire to do anything to a halt.

I've got an appointment with a therapist, and I've just started taking meds for my depression, but I know that neither will be effective immediately. If you've been depressed, what do you do to remind yourself that you are not your mood, and to get yourself through the seemingly small things that can otherwise lay you low with vicious cycles of negative thinking?
posted by ocherdraco to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 115 users marked this as a favorite
See if your local library has any books on cognitive behavioral therapy. I recommend The Feeling Good Handbook.
posted by radioaction at 8:04 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

One technique I learned in therapy that helped me immensely: checking in with my body whenever I'm having negative or anxious or otherwise unpleasant thoughts. Are my shoulders hunched? Am I breathing shallowly, is my face scrunched up, am I firmly pressing my tongue to the roof of my mouth? Usually the answer to all of those questions is YES! ... so I try focus for a moment on relaxing/resetting my physical state.

It's just an in-the-moment thing that can help break the spiral of negative thinking you note above. It's not necessarily going to fix everything but it can give you at least a moment or two where you're not thinking about that THING.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 8:08 AM on November 10, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I prefer the Garth Algar technique: "Get over it. Go out with somebody else." Translation: distraction, distraction, distraction.

Sometimes that means getting a breath of fresh air or change of scenery. Go hang out in the bathroom. Get a coffee. Go to the store and buy every self-indulgent, foofy food or product you can think of; this way, not only are you being nice to yourself and letting yourself try new things, you are also capable of being genuinely good to your body and appearance.

Sometimes that means indulging the bad mood, so you can try to avoid being cranky/letting the depression get the best of you in another situation. Give up and go to bed/sleep. Eat something. Watch Pageant. Do Sporcle. Read romance novels. (Kindle is fantaaaaastic for crappy books you don't want people to know you're reading. I have a free app for my iPhone.)

Sometimes that means trying to accomplish something. Of course, feeling like you haven't accomplished things (whether it's true or not) is part of the depression, but I guarantee there are little things you can do here and there. I clean my desk. I go to someone else's house and fix something there. And man, do I love projects that involve Excel. I update those cells like crazy. oh, god, that was terrible.

Finally, just remember that loads of people you respect and enjoy go through the same thing, or other difficult times, without you knowing it. Repeat this mantra: "It's not me vs. them. Everybody messes up."
posted by Madamina at 8:16 AM on November 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and HALT: are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Get back in balance with those things, if you can. It's a great reminder to take things one step at a time and focus on a more general sense of equilibrium instead of the minutiae which drove you to feeling awful in the first place.
posted by Madamina at 8:18 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding CBT, which works for a lot of people. I'm neither a therapist nor a depressed person, but I have had big problems with negative thoughts about things I've done (e.g. I avoided an acquaintance for YEARS because of embarrassment over a stupid but off-hand thing I said to him once at a party). I'm doing much better now.

My unscientific, anecdotal recommendation is to do anything you can do to interrupt the negative thought as soon as possible. For me this sometimes means saying the negative thought out loud to a friend I trust - if you feel one of these negative thought cycles coming, is there someone you can go to and say, "I know this is my depression talking but I am still obsessing about [whatever]" and then let it go?

Also, this is specifically related to procrastination (I don't know if that's a problem for you but it sounds like it might be with the doing a crappy job/not getting things done problem) but there is some research that suggests that forgiving yourself for procrastinating can help you not do it in the future.

And when I'm lying in bed and I am having trouble stopping the negative thoughts, I listen to audiobooks. The same audiobooks, over and over. They're enough to interrupt my thought-process but not enough to keep me from falling asleep. It's like a very low-key version of using video games to stop PTSD.

So, my advice: nip your destructive thoughts in the bud! I know, it's harder than it sounds. But in my experience the longer I give those thoughts brainspace, the stronger they get.
posted by mskyle at 8:20 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that helped me was to sit down and write a list of the things that I like about myself. Not only did it force me to think about the good in me, it gave me something I can carry around and look at when I'm feeling down on myself.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:26 AM on November 10, 2010

Second Feeling Good or The Feeling Good Handbook. It teaches you how to argue with negative thoughts in a way that really works.
posted by callmejay at 8:27 AM on November 10, 2010

Best answer: If you've been depressed, what do you do to remind yourself that you are not your mood, and to get yourself through the seemingly small things that can otherwise lay you low with vicious cycles of negative thinking?

Do something. Seriously: do something. Anything. Physical activity is best, whether its exercising at the gym or just taking a walk. If for some reason you can't do that, find something else to do. Go grocery shopping. Replace the burnt-out lightbulb in the hallway. Rearrange your CD collection. Tidy up the kitchen shelves. Do anything at all that can (1) take your mind off yourself for a few moments, and (2) is a discrete task that can be completed in one go. Don't think too hard about this - it doesn't have to be the perfect activity, it just has to be something that you can finish easily and will distract you.

This is not a long-term solution to the vicious cycles of negative thinking (a friend of mine aptly calls it the "shame spiral"). Its a short-term solution that acknowledges that while its extremely hard to think your way out of negative thinking, its possible to momentarily distract yourself from negative reflection. And, by completing something, you may brighten your mood ever so slightly.

So, to reiterate: do something. Anything. Get up out of that chair right now and go do something.
posted by googly at 8:40 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I recommend The Work of Byron Katie. It is a process for examining your thoughts and discerning whether or not they're true. I'm linking to the audio version of the book because I found it very powerful to listen to her go through the process.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:46 AM on November 10, 2010

What's really difficult is when I have some sort of negative interaction with someone, usually because I've done some task poorly or neglected to do it at all. Because I have done something wrong, it's really hard to keep those thoughts from just completely taking over and grinding my desire to do anything to a halt.

I think the key here is to recognize that while the interaction may indeed have been negative (and you may indeed have made a mistake) that your reaction to this small negative event is out of proportion. You don't need to deny that something negative happened; it's all about how you assess it and react to it. This is exactly the kind of detailed mental exercise you work on in CBT therapy. The other stuff being recommended here -- like getting exercise, taking deep breaths, distracting yourself -- all have their role, but you also really need to work on dealing directly with the negative thought patterns.
posted by yarly at 9:40 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Brisk walk around the block. Headphones. Loud raunchy music of choice (something humorous and boastful works well, like "My Kick-Ass Life" by the Supersuckers. Or big dumb cock rock, like AC/DC or The Cult). Coffee and/or a cigarette. OK. Cycle of spiraling negativity interrupted. Now dive back into that pile of shit and keep shoveling until you find a pony.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:52 AM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Do something. Seriously: do something. Anything.

Indeed. I don't have full-on depression but I am moody and I've developed a bunch of schemes for snapping me out of a mood. I often think of myself as a TB patient sitting out in the cold backyard with a book, wrapped in blankets as approximating my general mood sometimes, but just moving your body, exercising your mind and getting a change of scenery are the three things that are integral to me snapping out of it.

I also have good friends who I can sometimes talk to about weird interactions that make me all flippy. So if I have a weird/bad interaction at the coffee shop [this happened to me, I'm a little embarassed I still think about it] I can tell a friend about it and they can say "Oh man, that person was a JERK to you, no wonder you were irritable!" and it helps me remember that my reactions are, by and large, falling in the normal range of how people treat each other. Having people whose opinions you respect tell you that you're behaving within the range of acceptable behaviors is extremely helpful to me.

Add to this, if you have perfectionist people in your life [I believe I remember which profession you work in and I think it's one prone to this sort of perfectionism and resultant browbeating and other stupid posturing] learn to set appropriate boundaries for yourself. If you make an all-out mistake, do the normal apology thing [I am sorry, this is what happened, this is what I am doing to ensure that it doesn't happen again] and then you are DONE with that interaction. If people go out of their way to make you feel like a fuck-up about it, or don't let you forget it, that's their baggage and not yours.

I have a list of things I like. It sounds ridiculous to me because when I'm in a good mood I KNOW what I like why do I need a list, so silly. But when I'm feeling blue I look at the list "Write someone a postcard, you like writing postcards" "Go eat an apple, you like eating apples" "Go outside, you LIKE being outside" and decide to do a thing on it even though I am certain in my heart of hearts that I will not enjoy the thing. But I do it anyhow. And usually I am wrong. And seeing myself as wrong helps e get perspective that I am in a shitty mood, not having a shitty life. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 10:15 AM on November 10, 2010 [20 favorites]

Best answer: I've had days where anything that I accomplish is a triumph. A friend told me once "even if you only move ahead by 1 centimeter, that's still forward progress." So, take a shower, trim your toenails, go get a cup of coffee, send a friend an email, pick up your socks. You know how bad you feel and how much of an effort these simple tasks can take. Congratulate yourself on a job well done and try for 2 centimeters the next day. There are a lot of people in your boat, remember that and try not to beat yourself up.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:25 AM on November 10, 2010 [9 favorites]

Echoing distraction: getting fresh air, turning on music, just breaking the moment somehow.

What has also helped me out in times like this was having a deal with an understanding friend I could call at a moment's notice, code words "Talk me down." And that's exactly how the conversations would go: call Jay, Jay says "Hey majorita, what's up?" and I say "Talk me down." Jay now knows I'm in panic mode or spiraling or whatever the case may be. It's been invaluable, especially in scenarios where I was at work, something negative triggered me, and I couldn't afford to lose it or get out of control in my own thoughts.

It didn't always work, but it worked more often than not. Having a calm, understanding voice take mini-control for a minute and offer support is invaluable. Sometimes it took the form of co-miserating ("y'know, they're idiots where you work, you're not crazy"), but usually the best was the recognition/tough love combo ("well, that sounds pretty bad but you know, you tend to react - this way - and you've mentioned it's out of proportion. You're getting help, but it takes time. Stop trying to figure anything out right now. Just get through your work/the next hour/4 days/week").

Caveat: it only worked with friends who really understood depression/spiraling and only if that friend also needed a talking down from time to time. Otherwise, IME, it has the potential of turning the friendship into a one-sided therapy/mentor thing which for me isn't healthy.

Good luck ocherdraco. It's good that you're getting therapy and meds. You can get through this.
posted by Majorita at 10:33 AM on November 10, 2010

Lots of good advice up thread. It's a really good sign that you're actively trying to get better.

I started to improve only after I gave myself permission to be sick. My therapist and psychiatrist kept trying to drill into my head the depression was a disease just like diabetes, but it was so hard for me to accept.

I didn't just lie about and do nothing, but it really was like the old cliche of the Chinese finger puzzle. I had to try and escape, but the first thing I had to do before applying effort was to relax.
posted by sockpup at 10:45 AM on November 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I went and picked up the meds at lunchtime, and got myself a cookie.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:46 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was very much helped by the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. If something bad happens, like let's say you embarrass yourself in public and become self-conscious, it's easy to think "I look like an idiot, I am an idiot, everyone hates me," et al. But you should stop yourself when you hear those negative thoughts--as soon as you realize you're having one. The things that happen in your mind aren't always the truth. Realize that you have just had a negative thought, and think about that instead, and the meaning of that fact, because that's the truth of what happened.

Also life has taught me that happiness is sort of a choice. I know, it sounds like garbage. I come from a family of worriers and they never stop; many of them can't kick back and enjoy themselves because they cling to bad feelings. So it's not easy for me. But happiness is just another state of mind, and if you pay attention to your mind-states and become more aware of what they feel like, you can learn to adjust your a degree. That may not sound vital, but as someone predisposed to negativity, I find that the worst feelings don't often appear out of the clear blue sky. It starts with a low baseline mood, and if I realize that's where I am and make that adjustment consciously and willingly in a pre-emptive way, it can make the difference between a day of annoyance, ennui, rage, and self-pity and an actual happy day.
posted by heatvision at 10:52 AM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's likely to have taken you YEARS to get to the state you're in now. It's unlikely that any instantaneous cure is going to reverse all of that. But you've crossed a major hurdle of accepting that you WANT to change. Work openly and with full honesty to you therapist. Start getting it ALL out. Your therapist is not your friend, co-worker or family. They're a professional being paid to help you solve your problems. Do not waste their time and your money diddling around. Be prepared to pry open the many deep layers of what's been bothering you. The sooner you get to the heart of the issues the sooner you can work with your therapist on an effective plan to move forward.

Meanwhile, accept that you're making progress and that it'll be difficult. Use that as a light to guide you forward.
posted by wkearney99 at 11:11 AM on November 10, 2010

Best answer: Here's one thing I've done recently that really helps me stop the spiral: When I'm in a particularly difficult situation, I ask myself "What choice would I make here if I were not depressed?" It just helps me make a brief mental shift long enough to think clear(er). It's a simple thing but it's helped a lot.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 1:00 PM on November 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

I have the same problem, and there is lots of good advice here already. I just wanted to say that you have already made a HUGE step by recognizing that you do this and knowing that you want to stop doing it. It means you are past the point where every bit of you believes it is normal to beat yourself up like this.

For me, the meds helped to interrupt the loop and get me to the point where I knew what it felt like to NOT beat myself up internally so that I could better recognize when I start to do it.

And as everyone else says, distraction is really good. The activities listed above are good, but for absolute instant distraction I mentally burst into song -- usually a very loud and earnest showtune (think "Tomorrow" from Annie or "Oklahoma!" from Oklahoma!) -- and if I am alone I will sing out loud. I often only need a few lines to get the negative thoughts interrupted so I can move on to some other distracting thing (brisk walk, cup of hot chocolate, whatever).
posted by scarnato at 7:28 PM on November 10, 2010

I have found that getting enough sleep and eating brain-healthy foods helps immensely. These foods include saturated fats, fish oil, and vitamin D (lots - at least 5000IU/day). Try and get some sun exposure, or failing that some bright light for significant portions of your day. Cut out processed oils (corn, soy, sunflower, etc); they have been linked to depression. The mind and body are very much connected, a healthy diet brings the mind up with it.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 8:11 PM on November 10, 2010

For me when I was going through depression (while in college), it helped me to try to write down or summarize my thoughts into their essence. Then I'd read them back to myself.

Like, oh god, I can't believe I'm not doing well in school. Again. If I fail this next test I'll have to leave all my friends. My parents will be angry at me for raising a failure. I should just drop out now and save my professors the trouble of having to fail me.

Send that through the 'But what do I really think?' x12 filter

And it becomes:
I worry I'm not good enough or have what it takes. I want my parents to be happy. I don't want to infringe on other people. I'm so, so afraid of the future, and of failure.

You start to see patterns in your own thoughts after a while. Somehow knowing that it was just the same things repeating in my head all the time made me feel like I could deal with it. And if those thought spirals came up, it's not like I didn't know where they were going, and that I didn't really think those things as much as fear them.

Also this is more for when you get on your feet more, but try your best at thinking kind thoughts rather than critical or judgmental thoughts about yourself and others. Negativity, I find, doesn't come from a lack of optimism as it does relentless criticism. Let things and people/yourself be imperfect.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 9:19 PM on November 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Do not waste their time and your money diddling around. Be prepared to pry open the many deep layers of what's been bothering you. The sooner you get to the heart of the issues the sooner you can work with your therapist on an effective plan to move forward.

I'll add that this is much easier said than done. I haven't been diagnosed as a depressive, but I certainly have some of the symptoms, mostly the "not wanting or caring about doing things that will improve my surroundings" bit which I hear happens to people who have depression. I'm both proud of and ashamed of the fact that it's taken me three years to get to this particular point in my therapeutic process and knowing that there may be many more years of work ahead of me makes me feel more depressed.

The thing that does keep me moving forward is that I know that what I'm doing is a positive thing in my life and that even by attempting to do so, I am light years ahead of people who refuse to or choose not to.
posted by TrishaLynn at 9:30 PM on November 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of these, everyone. I feel a little like a tweenbot whose intended direction is back to happiness, and each of you have given me a nudge in the right direction.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:29 AM on November 11, 2010

You might find some relevant ideas and books if you Google Martin Seligman. He focuses a lot on the kinds of strategies described in this (fantastic) thread.
posted by huron at 9:09 PM on November 11, 2010

Some other random things that helped when I was in your situation:

- Free resources. For me, that meant spending lunch breaks or other free time in libraries and bookstores reading self-help books. A lot are junk, but I found great books specific to my particular background: Trauma and Recovery and Harriet Lerner's books come to mind. A good general book is The Portable Therapist. Also, if you have an idea of the issues underlying your depression, meetings and support groups might be good. For example, my family is riddled with alcoholics. I attended (non-religious) ACOA and Al-Anon meetings. While I ultimately stopped going, the meetings and related literature helped when I was in "crisis mode;"

- Daylight and exercise. Often depression overcomes the will to exercise (I don't know how else to put it). It was better for me to move away from the pressure of a MUST EXERCISE mandate and look at it as something smaller and more simple, along the lines of "getting fresh air and sunlight makes me feel better, so I'll just go for a walk around the block at some point during the day." Often, one block would turn into a nice long walk. And if I rewarded myself with coffee and a chocolate croissant along the way, that was ok too.

- Water. Drinking more water, splashing cool water on my face, taking baths, swimming. For reasons I don't fully understand, focusing on water helped.

- Friends. It used to be really difficult for me to ask for help. (It's gotten easier as I get older.) I can think of two specific times where friends really came to my aid. One was when two friends helped me organize my apt (sort through clutter, pack up stuff for storage, etc.). The other was when other friends came over and helped me paint my living room a bright, sunny yellow. It sounds so simple, but both times made a huge difference during times in my life when I couldn't take the initiative to improve my living situation.

- Keeping a journal. Even if I wrote the same things over and over again, putting it down on paper helped me work through a lot of stuff.
posted by Majorita at 8:56 AM on November 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: God bless Prozac. I just had my first happy day in about a month and a half. HOORAY!

Thank you for all of your suggestions. They were a lifeline.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:30 PM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: (FYI, I found something helpful in each and every one of these responses, but marked as best the ones that seemed to help the most.)
posted by ocherdraco at 7:32 PM on November 16, 2010

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