When we're feeling low, Rachel Kelly advises us to call upon the power of breathing, of action, and of words to thrust us out of the darkness.
Ten ways you can help yourself beat depression:
- You can’t breathe in the future, or in the past. You can only breathe now. By concentrating on your breath, you will still your panic and the anxiety, which tends to make your breathing shallow and fast. Slow breathing helps you stay in the present, another word for a gift. Place one finger over your nostril: this will half the speed at which you breathe. By forcing you to breathe more slowly, in turn your body is forced to calm down, and with it your anxious racing mind. Treat the breath as your anchor. Your mind will wander, that’s what minds do. But gently keep bringing your attention back to the breath.
- Learn two or three healing sayings which you can repeat like mantras. My favourites are: “This too will pass”, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” and “Westward, look, the land is bright” – Churchill’s favourite line in the war. Healing words can help a hurting mind. Apollo was the God of poetry as well as medicine. Keep reciting these phrases when you feel all hope is spent and you will never recover. You will get better.
- Don’t do nothing just because you can do little. Any tiny gesture or action you feel able to do, just do it. When feeling low, I try to manage to sharpen my pencils. Even if I don’t feel well enough to garden, I water one pot indoors, or, if I feel a bit better, I try and plant one bulb outside. Doing never makes me feel bad; thinking often does.
- Talk. Talk to anyone who will listen. Desperate feelings are made all the worse for dignified concealment. Share, share, and share again. Something positive can come out of feeling so terribly ill: you will make friends who suffer equally low spirits and who understand what it is like. There’s nothing more frightening that feeling utterly alone. I promise you. You are not. There are millions of us. We must stick together.
- Everyone I know who suffers from depression suffers from insomnia. The best thing my psychiatrist ever said, and you should repeat often, is that “It doesn’t matter if you don’t sleep, just as long as you don’t worry about it”. Next time you are up at four in the morning, I’m probably up too. Don’t panic about being awake. Your body is cleverer than you. You will get the sleep you need, just not necessarily when you are supposed to.
- Learn a poem. Stay with me on this, please. Don’t think of it as poetry – least of all the poetry you did at school. Think of it as one poet speaking to you. Now, think of it not as one poet, but one person who has spent ages trying to talk to you, often across the centuries. They’ve battled to express what despair and hope can feel like. They’ve done the work for you. They’ve given you words when you can’t find them, not to mention solace, companionship and beauty. Let yourself be touched to the marrow of your bones. Let the hairs on your arm stand up in wonder. You will feel less alone. You will have words to repeat in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. If this feels too daunting and you can’t manage a poem, try a verse. If not a verse, a line. Poetry is free, has no side-effects and can replace the destructive narrative in your head with a gentler story. Here are some poems to get you started but once you’ve begun, you will find verse that answer your own needs, not mine. Try “Love” by George Herbert, with the opening lines: “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back/ Guilty of dust and sin”. That’s what depression feels like to me: I’m guilty of “dust and sin”. But in the poem Herbert says, allow “Love” to talk to you instead, develop a more compassionate voice. It’s what CBT tries to do, but far better expressed. Next up “Invictus”, supposedly recited by Nelson Mandela to fellow inmates when he was incarcerated on Robben Island. It has a very good opening description of the darkness of depression “Out of the night that covers me/ Black as the Pit from pole to pole…”. The last two lines are helpful for trying to regain your own sense of self, so often crushed by depression. “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul”. Finally, try “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. Here’s the first verse:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
There is hope. And I hope these poems help you as much as they’ve helped me.
7, 8,9 and 10…
For you to fill in. The worst thing about being depressed is people like me telling me you what to do. It’s bit like being a first-time mother and everyone tells you how to burp the baby. You know best. You know what to do to help yourself. Do whatever it is, be it anti-depressants, therapy, exercise, or eating some Omega 3s. Make a list of your own action plan. Print it out, laminate it, make a few copies, and place at strategic points in your life – the bathroom mirror, your bag, discreetly hidden inside your desk – whatever it takes to make it more likely you will do what you need to do. Act your way into thinking, don’t think your way into acting.