Train your Black Dog
As depression is something that a lot of people suffer with, this guide will offer a new way to approach managing your depression. There will be tips and tricks that will hopefully help you learn to live with your depression by helping you put things in place to let you bounce back from depressive episodes quicker and quicker each time. Having such strategies in place can help you feel like you’re in control a little bit more, that your depression doesn’t define you, and that it doesn’t control you.
Winston Churchill used to call his depression his Black Dog. This might seem like a strange name to give depression, especially if you really like dogs, and you see depression as something horrible. However, if you look at some artists’ drawings of black dogs they do seem to be a really good representation of how depression feels. Going on the theme of depression being a black dog, some of the techniques used to train dogs can also be used to help manage depression as well. So in the following steps you will find a mixture of both the classical ways that can help manage depression, and some transferable techniques inspired by dog training, and the idea that depression is a big black dog.
1) Bigger picture and deciding to make a change
- Look at the bigger picture
You might actually already do this sometimes, for example at New Year’s eve when you think about the year that’s just gone and make your resolutions. Though it can be a difficult thing to learn to do often, so maybe spend some time every week or so just practising at zooming out of your life and looking at the bigger picture.
Looking at the bigger picture is important as it can really help to motivate you and make you zone in on what’s really important.
From looking at the bigger picture you can work out what your priorities are.
- Make yourself a priority
This does take time to get your head around because with depression comes the feelings of not being worthy and other’s being better off without you. However this isn’t actually the case.
Because of this seeing yourself as a priority in your life can take a long time, but it is an important thing to do, and an important step to being able to manage your depression better.
- Decide what your other priorities are and make a choice
Like most of the steps, this is easier said than done.
You need to choose to overcome depression, and need to choose to not let it define you, as otherwise it can really hold you back.
- Talk about your depression
This can be one of the trickiest steps on the road to being able to manage your depression, as it is a massive thing to do. However, if you talk to someone you trust, and generally start to be more open about your struggles and your journey, you may also find that it becomes easier to ask for help when you need it.
In talking about it, you’re breaking down the barriers and stopping your depression from being an invisible illness. This is important, as when you hide it and let it take over, it wins. But if you talk about it with people that you trust, then others can also notice when it’s about to take over, and help you push it away.
Talking about it doesn’t mean that it won’t ever take over again, but it can make it easier to ride the wave of the depressive episode.
- Make the decision to really face and fight the depression
Our lives are often so busy that we don’t really stop to properly fix things, tending to prefer a quick fix, such as medication. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with taking medication, and in some cases medication is actually needed to allow people to approach this step, it is only treating one element of the bigger picture of depression.
So you need to decide to make a change and really put in the effort (and it will be a lot of effort) to face your depression. This will be scary, but it is important that you’re prepared to make the decision to face and fight your depression, as unfortunately there isn’t really a cure for it, it is just getting better at managing it.
- Practice self-compassion
This is one of the most important tools you can have in your tool kit when managing depression.
So what is self-compassion? It’s treating yourself with tender loving care, it’s talking to yourself in the same way that you would talk to a friend, or anyone else that you love.
We very rarely treat ourselves in the same way that we treat those we care about. We’re far too hard on ourselves, we set unachievable expectations for ourselves, and if we don’t meet them, we beat ourselves up.
This needs to change, as you need to be on your own side, you need to be able to pick yourself up when you’re down.
It’s that voice of self-compassion that whispers “just hold on for another minute”, that voice that’s there for you when you’re at your most desperate. Even if it’s just a tiny whisper in your mind, it helps you to hold on.
- Go at your own pace
It does take a long time to get the hang of self-compassion, especially when your depression will be telling you to do the opposite. However, remember that you are learning, so don’t beat yourself up if it does take time to perfect.
There is no right way to do this, so there’s no way of getting it wrong. You don’t have to do everything that’s suggested to you, you can take it or leave it.
Take your time, go at your own pace.
- Accept yourself fully
Part of self-compassion and self-care is accepting yourself fully. This includes the bad bits, and the bits that you don’t like, for example your depression.
So treat your depression a bit like anything else you don’t really like in your life; acknowledge that you don’t like it, but ask yourself how you can learn to live with it.
- Don’t challenge yourself when you’re tired
It’s not fair or healthy to challenge yourself when you’re tired. This process of learning to manage your depression needs to be on your terms, at your pace, and in your way. So forcing yourself to do something new, something challenging when you’re really tired and just want to curl up in bed and cry, isn’t going to help you.
Part of being self-compassionate is letting yourself rest when you’re tired, cry when you need to cry, and slow down when it’s all a bit much.
- Think about how you talk to yourself and what your needs are
Are you being unnecessarily harsh on yourself? Are you drinking enough? Are you eating ok?
These things can play a major part in your mood, and can make any negative mood spiral.
If you’re not meeting your needs, work out what needs to be done to meet them.
If you find you’re talking to yourself too harshly, start letting yourself say what you need to hear.
3) Observe and gain awareness of signs
- Slow down and observe what’s happening in your life
As there are a lot of potential causes and triggers of depression, taking time out, slowing down, and observing what’s going on will help you start noticing your triggers, and will help build your awareness of what’s happening around you. This will help you see any patterns in your life, or patterns that lead up to a depressive episode, so that you can identify more easily what it is that you need to change to manage your depression.
- Get in tune with your body
Often, your depression will manifest itself in physical feelings before it fully takes over, for example headaches. If you’re in tune with your body, and constantly check in with yourself, not just when you’re in the depths of an episode, then you will be more able to tell when the signs are starting to set in.
This, paired with the previous step, can then help you more easily identify what it is that caused those feelings for you, and therefore what needs to be changed.
- Identify your triggers
What are the first signs that you’re going into a depressive episode?
Maybe you get more forgetful, clumsy, start to get really anxious.
Identifying these let you know your warning signs, and you can also then start acting on the plans to help you through, or prevent, the depressive episode that’s about to happen.
4) Setting expectations
- Don’t assume that it will be completely awful
When you start noticing that your depression is coming back, you might start to get scared and panic, as you’ve been there before and don’t want to go back. However, different episodes might be of different intensities.
- Work out what it’s telling you
Things hurt you for a reason. If you get a thorn in your foot the pain’s telling you that you need to stop and take it out before you continue walking. If you start viewing depressive episodes like this then you can start to look out for what’s happening in your life before they start. Even if all it’s telling you is that you have a hormone imbalance, it’s still important to allow yourself to stop and figure out what’s wrong.
- Work out what strategies and tools you need
If you always assume that it’s going to be horrible and there’s nothing you can do about it, then you’re stopping yourself from being critical and figuring out what strategies and things you might be able to put in place to reduce the negative effects of an episode, or prevent an episode from taking hold.
Think about what tools you need, and what strategies you need to put in place. For example, if there’s a growling dog you don’t automatically assume that it’s going to bite you and let it happen, you take in the information that it’s growling and adjust your behaviour to prevent yourself from being bitten, and the next time you encounter a dog you make sure not to repeat the behaviour that caused the dog to growl. So if you treat your depression like this then you will be more able to have some control over it and stop it from taking over completely.
5) Claim the couch, standing your ground
- Stand your ground
When training dogs, you need to be firm and stand your ground so that they don’t think it’s a game and will actually listen- in order for the training to be effective you need to stop the dog from being the one in charge.
This is another way to think about taking control of your depression. When depression comes along it’s taking hold of you, so you need to stand your ground against it, and tell it that you’re not going to let it claim your life from you. This is a lot easier said than done, but it is important as it’s important to get in your mind that you won’t let depression take over, to put the depression in its place.
- Appreciate the moments of happiness
One way that you might be able to put depression in its place is to appreciate the happy moments you experience when you’re in a depressive episode.
You might not be able to experience the full level of happiness that you would if you were in a good place and not depressed, but that doesn’t mean you’re not able to appreciate or experience it at all. There are many ways that you could appreciate the moment; you could take time out to really appreciate it, you could capture it in your mind, or you could physically capture it with a photograph. This will allow you to look back at these moments when you’re in a happier place, and you can then gain new appreciation for it- this thing made you happy when you were in a dark place.
It reminds you that even though you’re depressed you can still enjoy things. Again, it’s you not letting depression take over, you’re not letting depression claim you.
6) Evidence, emotions, and self-care
- Gather evidence
This is a good way to build your self-esteem and confidence.
Your depression might make you feel like you can’t do anything, so one way to dispute this claim, to prove to yourself that your depression is lying to you, is to gather evidence that you can do things, even when you’re depressed.
So start writing down times that you achieved things, or times when you’ve felt proud of yourself, no matter how small these things are. They could be as small as “I got out of bed” or “I had a shower”. You can then look back at these lists and see that you can still do things despite having depression, so are more able to fight back those negative thoughts that your depression is giving to you.
- Remove the emotion
Removing the emotion from a situation is like putting a boundary in place that allows you to then carry on with what you need to do.
Without the emotion clouding the situation you are more able to face it and work out what exactly is happening and how to deal with it. This isn’t to say that you should ignore the emotions completely, because they do have their place- they’re telling you something. But when the emotions get too overwhelming they just complicate things, so it’s often better to try and remove them from the situation.
Boundaries are important, as they help you feel safe, so allow you to relax. They help you feel like you can let go, and feel safe within yourself.
- Set boundaries with people
Have a safe space where other people can’t invade. This will allow you to have a space where you can completely let go and be with your emotions. It will also help you reflect on things without other people getting in the way.
You might already have set up boundaries with people without realising. For example, showing a ‘happy mask’ when out with people that you don’t want to tell you’re suffering, but letting those people close to you that you need support. These boundaries with people aren’t to serve them, they’re to serve you by only letting people that will properly support you into your business. This will protect you, as it will stop you feeling ashamed from telling people who don’t support you, and make you feel worse.
- Set boundaries with your emotions
Boundaries with our emotions are also important, otherwise they might start taking over and you lose control, and when you’re depressed you are likely less able to manage your emotions.
Having boundaries with your emotions means that you are setting aside time to deal with the emotion when you’re ready, and dealing with it so that it doesn’t take over when you’re not ready for it. So try setting time aside to really feel your emotion, for example if you know you’ve got a night to yourself set it aside to just cry your eyes out and release some of the energy and tiredness that comes with sadness.
These boundaries might also come in the form of taking breaks, as it could be that your emotions and everything else are too overwhelming. So by taking a break you’re setting a boundary, by not letting your emotions take over.
- Break everything into small steps
It can be hard to make changes when you’re depressed. However, if you’ve identified what needs to change and break that into the smallest steps possible, then it will be a lot more manageable to take action.
Making a list may help with this, as you then have a clear plan of what to do and will get a good sense of achievement when you can cross something off. This will also show you that you can, and are, getting things done even though you’re depressed. Seeing this will help increase your self-esteem, and show you that you can do it. However, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t complete all the tasks you wrote down for the day – remember self-compassion; you’re doing your best and that’s what matters.
- Take time out to focus on your needs
Action doesn’t always mean doing something when you’re working towards a goal, and finding what needs to change. Taking the time out to focus on what you need to do, having that reflection time is also helping you manage your depression.
Another way that action can help you to manage your depression is through using it as a distraction. In this sense it’s doing something completely unrelated to dealing with your depression – making yourself pay attention to another task and forget about the feelings that come with depression for a while. This could be something like exercise, which also has physical benefits, or it could be something like photography which requires all of your attention so you can’t dwell on the depression too much.
Using distractions can be a great way to give yourself a bit of a break from the feelings that come with depression, and stop you from spiralling. However, do make sure that you’re not constantly distracting yourself, and you are still making the time to check in on your emotions and what needs to change.
9) Scores to know where you stand
- Figure out a scale
If you’re good at hiding your depression from the world, it can be easy to not realise how you’re actually feeling. It’s good to know where you are so that you can adjust what you need to do to manage your depression.
One way to always know where you are is to have a 0-10 scale, with 0 being bad and 10 being the best you can be.
- Communicate this scale with people and yourself
Having this scale is a great way to make sure you’re being honest with yourself, which is important to know so that you’re able to help yourself.
Knowing where you are gives you permission to do what you need, and also builds awareness in yourself of when you need to implement the tools you have to manage your depression.
Letting those close to you know your scale, and communicating where you are is also a good way to let them know how they can help you. This may be especially helpful if you find it hard to communicate when you’re in the depths of depression- if the person already knows what you being at a 1 means, and what to do when you’re at a 1, then you can just say ‘I’m at a 1 today’ rather than having to go into detail when you might not want to. This communication through scale will also help you with your boundaries with other people.
You may find that when communicating where you are with people, different groups need different scales. For example, the 0-10 scale may work really well with your partner, but not with your children. So you may need to spend some time figuring out what scale best suits you, and which bests lets you communicate.
- Track your scores
If you keep a note of your score/position on your scale each day it may help you identify any patterns. For example, does your depression tie in with your menstrual cycle? Or maybe with the people you spend time with?
This can help you identify where you need to most make changes, or when you need the most support in managing your depression.
10) No need for negative emotions
- Face the negative feelings
Maybe when you’re in a good place you look back at times when you’ve been low and feelings of guilt and shame start to appear. These are feelings that you need to face, and where compassion comes in. If you had broken your leg you wouldn’t look back after it’s healed and think that you should’ve walked the dogs, so why do you think that you should’ve done more when you were in the depths of your depression? Use the evidence to show yourself that these feelings aren’t needed.
Don’t beat yourself up if you find you’re in a bad place again, because there are so many reasons why you’re there again. So look into the reasons why you’re back there and use these to figure out new strategies to put into place, and use these reasons to figure out what you need to do to get out of the bad place.
- Practice forgiveness
You need to forgive yourself for what you feel you’ve failed at – you can’t beat yourself up for being in a bad place once you’re out of it. There’s no need to feel guilt or shame; it was a bad moment and you got through it. You need to forgive yourself for what you didn’t do, as you were doing what you could to get yourself through to the other side.
Managing your depression involves constant learning, and tweaking to get your strategies in a place that works for you. This takes time, and there will be slip ups, but don’t let those define your journey – practise forgiveness, and carry on moving forward.
11) Support network
- Figure out who is in your support network
Who have you got around to help you?
This can be very difficult to find out, but it is important to know, as it’s no good turning to someone for support and they make you feel ashamed, or worse about yourself. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut contact with any people you may know like this, just maybe don’t turn to them for support.
These people in your support network will be on different levels- there may be only a select few you turn to for emotional support, but there are plenty to support you if you need a distraction. The people in your support network will range from close friends, family, personal contacts to online groups where you feel safe and supported, to your GP and counsellor, and even to your pets.
It won’t be an easy process finding out who is in your support network, and you might find out the hard way that someone who you thought was in your network isn’t, but it is important to find out so that when you’re in a bad place you know who you can turn to for support.
- Work out what support you need to put in place
If you’ve been observing what your needs are you can start thinking about what support you need to put into place. For example, if you’ve found that the housework overwhelms you, and seeing the house in a mess makes everything worse, then maybe look into getting someone to come and help you out with that.
The first step is to figure out what you need to do to support yourself, for example hobbies, eating well, a bit of exercise.
Then you can figure out how to do these things, and who you can turn to that can help you out with what you need. For example, maybe you need some more emotional support, so after identifying this look into your support network to see who can help give this to you.
Not everyone in your support network will be able to help you with each of the things you need support with, and it may take you time to realise who can help you with what. But you’re not alone, and it is worth figuring out who can help you with what, as it will help you feel safe and help you in managing your depression.
The tips in this guide have tried to simplify something that is so complex, so it could be that none of these tips work for you, or you think that there’s a really important tip missing, but hopefully at least one of these tips has got you thinking about your depression in a different way, and hopefully this will help you start your journey on managing it better.
Learning to manage your depression is not an easy thing to do, and it is a constant struggle, but if you figure out what works best for you then hopefully living with depression will be a little easier than it was before. But the only way for things to start to change is if you start to change them from within.
Well done you, you’re doing the best you can, and that’s all anyone can ask for.