How To Survive A Depressive Episode

Advice for how to survive a depressive episode: "You need to know strategies that give you quick, short-term relief from your depression when your symptoms are at their most severe". Advice for how to survive a depressive episode: "You need to know strategies that give you quick, short-term relief from your depression when your symptoms are at their most severe".

At The Depression Project, a common question we hear from members of our 3,000,000+ person social media community is:

"What can help you survive a depressive episode?"

And, if this is a question you'd also like an answer to, then right now, we'd like to share with you a free excerpt from our book This Is How You Overcome Depression that answers it in detail :)

This Is How You Overcome Depression

Free excerpt

You can be said to be in the "Storm Zone" of The Depression Project's "Storm To Sun Framework" when the symptoms of your depression are severe – i.e., when it feels like there’s a storm that’s raging in your mind. When you’re in this Zone:

  • You’re usually being bombarded with negative thoughts; those negative thoughts are at their most distorted / negative / catastrophic; and you’re at your most attached to those negative thoughts (i.e. more so than at any other time, you believe them to be true).
  • Emotions like misery, shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, etcetera, are felt more intensely than ever.
  • Your ability to function is significantly compromised – to such an extent that fulfilling your day-to-day responsibilities can feel unmanageable (and often are); and even simple tasks like getting out of bed or having a shower may feel like climbing a mountain.
  • Faking a smile and pretending to be “OK” may be impossible.
  • In the “Storm Zone”, it’s common to feel so miserable, broken, and hopeless that you’re unable to envision the storm ever passing.

As you know, the Storm Zone will be the focus of this chapter of the book – so let’s dive right into things.

The Relevance Of The Storm Zone To You Surviving & Overcoming Depression

The key takeaway of this chapter of the book is that it’s very, very important that you learn and implement strategies which help you to “survive the storm”, so to speak. And by that, we mean strategies that give you quick, short-term relief from your depression when your symptoms are at their most severe – in order to prevent those symptoms from completely consuming you.

For example:

  • If you’re so stressed out and overwhelmed that you feel like your head’s about to explode, then it’s important that you have some simple, go-to strategies you can turn to that will help you calm down.
  • If you find yourself feeling so miserable and exhausted that you can’t get out of bed, then it’s important that you have some simple, go-to strategies you can turn to that will give your mood a boost.
  • If you find yourself being bombarded with so many negative thoughts that you can hardly concentrate on anything else, then it’s important that you have some simple, go-to strategies you can turn to that will help give you some distance from those negative thoughts so that you can think more clearly.
  • If you find yourself feeling really scared and vulnerable, then it’s important that you have some simple, go-to strategies you can turn to that will make you feel safer.
  • If you’re feeling so depressed that you’re contemplating suicide, then it’s really important that you have some simple, go-to strategies you can turn to that will prevent you from doing so.

Collectively, we call these “simple, go-to strategies” “survival strategies”, because their aim is to help you “survive the storm”. And, in order for them to help you achieve this objective, it’s important that your survival strategies have two key characteristics:

  1. They Must Provide You With Quick (And Ideally Instantaneous), Short-Term Relief From Your Crippling Symptoms – since when you’re in the Storm Zone and your symptoms are at their most intense, this is what you need more than anything else in order to prevent your depression from completely consuming you.
  2. Your Survival Strategies Must Be Simple And Easy To Implement – this is because like we’ve said, when you’re in the Storm Zone, your ability to function is at its lowest. For this reason, your survival strategies to help get you out of the Storm Zone need to be simple and easy to implement, so that you can turn to them even when your ability to function is low.

Having Survival Strategies To Help You Address Each Aspect Of Your Depression

Like we said in Chapter 1 of this book, in order to overcome depression, it’s essential that you address each of the “thoughts”-, “emotions”-, “behaviours”-, “environmental”- and the “physiological” aspects of your depression; and as we’ve been saying in this chapter of the book, it’s also essential that you know strategies which help you to “survive the storm” when you’re in the Storm Zone – in order to prevent depression from completely consuming you. And, when you bring these two principles together, the result is that in order to survive a depressive episode, it really helps to know survival strategies that address each of these five aspects of your depression.

With that thought in mind, let’s now dive into what these survival strategies look like for the “thoughts”-, “emotions”-, “behaviours”-, “environmental”- and the “physiological” aspects of your depression!

1. Your Thoughts

As we mentioned in Chapter 1, negative thoughts can play a big role in fuelling the depression cycle. And, like we touched upon at the beginning of this chapter, when you’re in the Storm Zone:

  • Your negative thoughts are going to be at their most uncontrollable, intrusive and constant.
  • You’re much more likely than you otherwise would be to catastrophise small problems and think of them as enormous problems. In this way, when you’re in the Storm Zone, your negative thoughts are likely to be at their most distorted / “negative”.
  • When you’re in the Storm Zone, your negative thoughts are often much closer to negative beliefs – in the sense that you’ll tend to be highly attached to them, and strongly believe them to be true.

As a result of your negative thoughts being at their most uncontrollable, intrusive, constant, catastrophic and believable when you’re in the Storm Zone, they’re fuelling depression's vicious cycle more so than at any other time as well. For this reason, in order to “survive the storm” and help reverse depression's vicious cycle, it’s critical that you learn and implement some survival strategies to distance yourself from your negative thoughts and to mitigate their intensity. In practice, this could take the form of, for example:

  • Telling yourself positive affirmations1 – which is where you repeat a positive statement to yourself over, and over, and over again like a mantra. For example, “depression is strong, but I am stronger” … “depression is strong, but I am stronger” … “depression is strong, but I am stronger …” Positive affirmations such as these can be really helpful, since they work to offset the negative affirmations that you’re telling yourself (such as “I’ll never get through this … I’ll never get through this … I’ll never get through this …” etcetera). For a long list of positive affirmations that you may find helpful to tell yourself when you're in the Storm Zone, please see Appendix A of this book.
  • Reading hopeful, uplifting statements – this is another simple way of giving yourself some distance from your negative thoughts in the Storm Zone. For a long list of hopeful, uplifting statements that we think you’ll find helpful, please have a look at Appendix B.
  • Asking Yourself: If My Loved Ones Were In My Position, Would I Be Telling Them The Same Negative Things That I’m Currently Telling Myself? The reason this simple cognitive behavioural therapy strategy2 can be so powerful is because asking yourself this question has the effect of distancing you from your negative thoughts and looking at them from a different, more objective angle. And, when you do this, you’ll often realise that you’re being much, much too hard on yourself.

2. Your Emotions

In the Storm Zone, the difficult, painful emotions that you feel when you’re depressed are at their most intense – i.e. you’re feeling at your most miserable, worthless, unmotivated, numb, irritable, angry, ashamed, lonely, misunderstood, isolated, regretful, hopeless, filled with grief, etcetera. For this reason, in order to “survive the storm” and prevent your depression from completely consuming you, it’s important that you learn and implement survival strategies to give yourself some quick, short-term relief from these difficult and painful emotions. Some examples of survival strategies which help you do this include:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing3 – also at times referred to as “belly breathing” or “abdominal breathing”, this is a breathing technique which can help you to, among other things, feel more calm and centred. To learn a couple of different diaphragmatic breathing techniques, please see Appendix C of this book.
  • The 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness exercise3  this can help you to get in touch with your immediate surroundings, which can result in you gaining some separation between you and your emotions and feeling calmer as a result. To learn more about the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness exercise, please see Appendix D.
  • Soothing your senses – this can also help you ease your distress3, and feel more calm, comfortable and at peace as a result. To learn some different ways that you can soothe your senses, please see Appendix E.
  • Engaging with a cold sensation – this can involve, for example, dunking your face in icy-cold water, having a cold shower, placing an ice pack between your shoulder blades or on your forehead, holding an ice cube, or wrapping your hands around an icy-cold drink. Strategies such as these can be very effective at helping you manage distress, because they can turn on your nervous system’s relaxation response and slow your heart rate4. In saying that, though, depending on how you choose to implement this technique, it may be sensible to consult with a medical professional (particularly if you’re pregnant or dealing with a health issue, for example).
  • Practicing visualisation – this is a technique that uses mental imagery to help bring you into a state of calm. To learn a visualisation exercise that you may find helpful to implement when you’re in the Storm Zone, please see Appendix F.
  • Journalling – this is a great way to get a cathartic release, help you let go of your emotions instead of keeping them trapped inside of you, and improve your psychological outlook5. To learn more about journalling in the Storm Zone, please see Appendix G.
  • Practicing gratitude – this has been proven to, among other things, reduce stress6, improve self-esteem7, increase feelings of optimism8, reduce rumination9, improve quality of sleep10 and reduce depression's symptoms11. In saying that, though, when you're in the Storm Zone and experiencing severe symptoms of depression, practicing gratitude can be much more challenging than it would otherwise be – which is why in Appendix H, we’ll teach you a variety of strategies to help you cultivate gratitude when you’re in the Storm Zone.
  • Reminding yourself of all the difficult things you’ve overcome in the past – in the midst of a challenging time, it’s common for people to project their pain forwards, and conclude that “life will always be this bad”12. And, if you can relate, then it can be really helpful to remind yourself of all the difficult times you’ve gotten through in the past. This strategy can help you combat feelings of hopelessness in particular, and make it easier to see that even though it may not feel possible to survive the challenging times you’re facing right now, that in the end, you will indeed make it through them.

3. Your Behaviours

Like we’ve said, depression can significantly impact you behaviourally – and this occurs more so than ever when you’re in the Storm Zone. Most notably, your ability to function tends to be significantly compromised – sometimes to such an extent that simple tasks like getting out of bed or having a shower can seem impossible. Furthermore, when you’re in the Storm Zone, it’s also common to:

  • Be very socially withdrawn – to such an extent that you may not interact with anyone (particularly face-to-face, and also through non-face-to-face means like text messaging, for instance).
  • If you do happen to be interacting with someone, it’s common to at times shut down and become non-communicative.
  • It’s common to have difficulty concentrating and/or remembering things.
  • You’re more likely to engage in destructive behaviours to try to deal with your intense depressive symptoms (such as binge eating, over-spending on "retail therapy", substance abuse and/or self-harm, for example).
  • You’re more likely to engage in reckless behaviours due to feeling ambivalent about whether or not you live or die (and in some cases, because you’d prefer to die). An example of this could be crossing the street without looking.

Consequently, in order to “survive the storm” and also reverse the depression cycle instead of continuously fuelling it, we recommend that you:

  • Implement healthy, non-destructive behaviours that give you quick, short-term relief from your severe depressive symptoms – such as, for example, watching your favourite television show, reading a book, listening to music, having a soothing bubble bath, taking a walk in nature, talking to a loved one, etcetera.
  • Additionally, we also encourage you to try to find alternatives to unhealthy behaviours – such as binge eating, overspending on “retail therapy”, substance abuse and/or self-harm for example – that over the long-term, can hurt you / increase the time you spend in the Storm Zone. We talk more about healthy alternatives to unhealthy behaviours such as these in Appendix I.
  • Furthermore, it’s also extremely important that you have a “suicide prevention plan” that will keep you safe in the Storm Zone if you’re feeling suicidal – particularly when you think you might act on those feelings. If you don't have one already, then in Appendix J, we will help you create one (you can also find a list of crisis support services that you may be able to contact in your area at this link).

4. Your Environment

Your depression can have a significant impact on your environment – and by the same token, your environment can also have a significant impact on your depression. So, to help you “survive the storm” and reverse the depression cycle, it’s important that you learn and implement some simple, go-to survival strategies that you can utilise to:

  1. Make your surroundings a bit more comfortable;
  2. Do your best to give yourself a break from any environmental factors that are presently contributing to you being in the Storm Zone (such as toxic people, your job, etcetera).

On that note, let's now look at a few examples of each.

Firstly, when it comes to making your surroundings a bit more comfortable, you could:

  • Retreat to a “safe space” where you feel at your most calm, soothed and relaxed – such as a couch where you can curl up with your favourite cup of tea, a relaxing bathtub that you can close your eyes and soak in, or a warm bed with a cherished stuff animal.
  • You could make your surroundings a little bit tidier. After all, when you’re in the Storm Zone and battling severe symptoms of depression, it’s common to neglect mundane tasks like cleaning the dishes, vacuuming, laundry, and/or just general tidying up around your home. Of course, neglecting such tasks is completely understandable when you’re in the Storm Zone – however, for many people, living in a messy environment can further trigger their depression. For this reason, if you can muster the energy to clean up a bit and make your surroundings a little more ambient, then there’s a good chance that it will give your mood a boost – as well as help you feel more in control of your depression.

Secondly, when it comes to giving yourself a break from the environmental factors that are contributing to you being in the Storm Zone, some examples could include:

  • If one or more people are contributing to you being in the Storm Zone, then you could try your best to limit your interaction with them (or even better if possible, you could stop interacting with them until you feel able to do so in a way that isn’t so triggering).
  • If your work is contributing to you being in the Storm Zone, then you could take a “mental health day / hour / period of time” in order to recharge your batteries and put yourself back together again.

5. Your Physiology

Last but not least, like we've said, physical factors such as a chemical imbalance in the brain can also contribute to you being in the Storm Zone as well. Additionally, depression can also affect you in a number of physical ways like we’ve mentioned which can further fuel the depression cycle – and, if you’re someone who is physically affected by depression, then the Storm Zone is when these physical symptoms are at their most severe. Most commonly:

  • If you have difficulty sleeping as a result of your depression, then the Storm Zone is when you’ll find it the hardest to fall asleep.
  • If your depression makes you feel exhausted, then in the Storm Zone, you’ll feel at your most exhausted – to such an extent that like we’ve mentioned, simple tasks like having a shower, doing your chores or getting out of bed can feel like climbing a mountain.

Consequently, when you’re in the Storm Zone, we encourage you to implement survival strategies which will:

  1. Give you some relief from the physical symptoms of your depression;
  2. Directly influence your brain chemicals in a positive way.

Let's now look at examples of each.

Firstly, when it comes to getting relief from the physical symptoms of your depression:

  • We encourage you to take steps to try to make it as easy as possible for you to fall asleep. In particular, we share some strategies you can implement to help you do this in Appendix K.
  • Additionally, you may also find it helpful to practice progressive muscle relaxation – which is a stress-relieving technique that involves tensing and relaxing individual muscle groups. In addition to helping you feel more relaxed and better able to tolerate distress3, progressive muscle relaxation also has physical health benefits13, and has proven effective at relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety14, as well as improving quality of sleep15. To learn a simple yet effective progressive muscle relaxation technique that you can implement when you're in the Storm Zone, please see Appendix L.

Secondly, when it comes to directly influencing your brain chemicals in a positive way, you could, for example, engage in some form of physical activity. Now, when you’re in the Storm Zone, doing strenuous exercise like going for a run or lifting weights at the gym can often be beyond your current energy levels. However, we still encourage you to do whatever you feel capable of. This could include, for example, stretching in bed if you’re feeling really exhausted – or if you can manage it, going for a walk up and down your street. We know it may not sound like much, but even small amounts of physical exercise like this can still help engage your senses, give you a little bit more distance from negative thoughts, and also help you to release painful emotions as well. Additionally, the more physical activity you’re able to do, the more your brain is releasing endorphins16which, due to positively influencing the “physiology” aspect of your depression, can help reverse the depression cycle as well.

The Consequences Of Not Implementing Survival Strategies When You’re In The Storm Zone

If you don’t address the thoughts-, emotions-, behaviours-, environmental- and the physiological aspects of your depression by implementing survival strategies when you’re in the Storm Zone, then like we’ve said, you run the risk of depression “completely consuming you”. This is a phrase we’ve been using throughout this chapter of the book, but one that we haven’t yet gone into detail defining. So, let us now do this for you – with reference to the five aspects of depression that we’ve been talking about.

When It Comes To Your Thoughts

When depression completely consumes you, due to telling yourself the same negative thoughts over, and over, and over, and over again for a prolonged period of time, it’s highly likely that you’ll become convinced that they’re true (i.e. it’s highly likely that your negative thoughts will complete the transformation from negative thoughts to negative beliefs). In the worst cases, due to being so consumed by depression, there’s also a serious risk of becoming convinced that it isn’t possible to ever recover, and that you’re destined to struggle with this illness for the rest of your life.

When It Comes To Your Physiology

When depression completely consumes you, it’s common to feel so exhausted that you can’t get out of bed, nor do basic tasks (such as showering) for days or even weeks on end.

When It Comes To Your Behaviours

When depression completely consumes you, it’s common to feel so exhausted, unmotivated, miserable and broken that you can’t bring yourself to take the actions that you need to take in order to overcome depression – which as a result, keeps you trapped in depression. It’s also common to shut yourself off from human contact for prolonged periods of time – which can lead to the gradual erosion of your interpersonal relationships. Additionally, the more time you spend completely consumed by depression, the more likely you are to try to deal with your all-consuming symptoms through unhealthy, destructive behaviours that can become highly addictive and extremely difficult to break out of (such as alcohol abuse).

When It Comes To Your Environment

When depression completely consumes you, your symptoms are often too intense to be able to concentrate, communicate or work effectively for extended periods of time – which can make it hard to keep a job. For this reason, unemployment and financial difficulties can become a legitimate risk. Like we also mentioned before, due to being extremely socially withdrawn, it’s also common for friendships to erode over time, and to feel extremely isolated as a result. All of the aforementioned consequences of depression consuming you as well as heightened irritability, anger, and other symptoms can also push marriages to breaking point, and in the worst and most prolonged cases, they can result in divorce.

When It Comes To Your Emotions

When your depression completely consumes you, your feelings of misery, shame, worthlessness, hopelessness, grief, regret, etcetera, are extremely suffocating and are present without relief. Because depression is so enveloping at this time, it’s also common to feel completely powerless against this illness, and to feel as if life is no longer worth living.

In saying all of that, however, we really want to emphasise that life is indeed worth living, and that you are NOT powerless against this illness!

After all, if you learn and implement survival strategies at each of the five “battlegrounds” where depression attacks you in the ways we've explained, then like we've said, you can stop depression from completely consuming you. Not only that, but you can also help to reverse depression's vicious cycle – to such an extent that you can significantly decrease the amount of time you spend in the Storm Zone, and instead spend a lot more time in the Rain Zone (where the symptoms of your depression are "moderately severe").

On that note, in the next chapter of this book, how to address your depression when you're in the Rain Zone is exactly what we're going to focus on!

End of free excerpt

From the bottom of our hearts, we really hope that you found this free excerpt from This Is How You Overcome Depression informative.

All our love,

The Depression Project Team.

References

Hill, Z., Spiegel, M. & Gennetian, L.A. (2020). Pride-Based Self-Affirmations and Parenting Programs. Frontiers in Psychology, 11:910.

Wilding, C. (2015). Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Techniques To Improve Your Life. Teach Yourself.

McKay, M., Wood, J. C., & Brantley, J. (2019). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance. New Harbinger Publications.

Kinoshita, T., Nagata, S., Baba, R., Kohmoto, T., & Iwagaki, S. (2006). Cold-Water Face Immersion Per Se Elicits Cardiac Parasympathetic Activity. Circulation Journal, 70(6), 773-776.

Stockdale, B. (2011). Writing In Physical And Concomitant Mental Illnesses: Biological Underpinnings And Applications For Practice. In Research On Writing Approaches In Mental Health. Studies In Writing. Edited by L’Abate, L. & Sweeney, L. G. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing.

Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The Role Of Gratitude In The Development Of Social Support, Stress, And Depression: Two Longitudinal Studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854-871.

Chen L.H. & Wu C-H. (2014). Gratitude Enhances Change In Athletes’ Self-Esteem: The Moderating Role Of Trust In Coach. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 26(3), 349-362.

Huffman, J.C., DuBois, C.M., Healy, B.C., Boehm, J.K., Kashdan, T.B., Celano, C.M., Denninger, J.W. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Feasibility And Utility Of Positive Psychology Exercises For Suicidal Inpatients. General Hospital Psychiatry, 36(1), 88-94.

Liang, H., Chen, C., Li, F., Wu, S., Wang, L., Zheng, X., & Zeng, B. (2018). Mediating Effects Of Peace Of Mind And Rumination On The Relationship Between Gratitude And Depression Among Chinese University Students. Current Psychology, p. 1-8.

The Greater Good Science Center. (2018). The Science Of Gratitude. Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Cregg, D.R. & Cheavens, J.S. (2021). Gratitude Interventions: Effective Self-help? A Meta-analysis of the Impact on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 22, 413–445.

Reutter, K. (2019). The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for PTSD: Practical Exercises for Overcoming Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. New Harbinger Publications.

Mateu, M., Alda, O., Inda, M. D., Margarit, C., Ajo, R., Morales, D., Van-Der Hofstadt, C. J., & Peiró, A. M. (2018). Randomized, Controlled, Crossover Study of Self-administered Jacobson Relaxation in Chronic, Nonspecific, Low-back Pain. Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine, 24(6), 22–30.

Merakou, K., Tsoukas, K., Stavrinos, G., Amanaki, E., Daleziou, A., Kourmousi, N., Stamatelopoulou, G., Spourdalaki, E., & Barbouni, A. (2019). The Effect of Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Emotional Competence: Depression–Anxiety–Stress, Sense of Coherence, Health-Related Quality of Life, and Well-Being of Unemployed People in Greece: An Intervention Study. EXPLORE, 15(1), 38–46.

Harorani, M., Davodabady, F., Masmouei, B., & Barati, N. (2020). The Effect Of Progressive Muscle Relaxation On Anxiety And Sleep Quality In Burn Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Burns, 46(5), 1107–1113.

Budde, H., Machado, S., Ribeiro, P. & Wegner, M. (2015). The Cortisol Response To Exercise In Young Adults. Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience. 2015;9:13.

P.S. If you found the above free book excerpt helpful, then click the button below to learn more about This Is How You Overcome Depression, in which you'll learn:

  • A wide variety of strategies you can implement to help you survive depression;
  • The other steps you need to take in order to actually overcome this illness - so that rather than continuously relapsing, you can live the depression-free life you want.