Depression can make you feel like you are stuck in a black hole while the rest of the world goes about its day in a spray of sunshine, as usual—joyfully alive. In your mind, you may want to be happy, but the weight of darkness can feel insurmountable. For others, anxiety puts up roadblocks in the way of happiness. It appears out of nowhere, jittery and malignant, darkening a perfectly ordinary situation with a veneer of fear and dread.
The World Health Organization reports that as many as 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. Around 15 million Americans suffer from depression, and nearly half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Even those who have never struggled with clinical depression or anxiety will have the occasional emotional crisis, blue mood or situational depression. While negative emotions can be helpful—by letting you know something isn’t right in your life—finding happiness isn’t possible unless you are equipped with emotional tools to overcome the weight of dark days.
We turned to the experts to find out what emotional power tools they recommend to chip away at depression, reduce anxiety and become more mentally resilient so you can welcome happiness back into your life.
Challenge your thoughts
Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., psychologist, author and daughter of cognitive therapy founder Dr. Aaron Beck, says, “When you have depression you tend to understand your experience through black glasses instead of clear lenses. With depression, it’s important to stay active and be skeptical of any negative thoughts you might have. “Just because you think something doesn’t necessarily mean it is true,” says Judith. She suggests doing things that make you feel productive and in control, even when your mood is low and you don’t feel like it.
“Cognitive distortions are things like all-or-nothing thinking,” says David. “For example, if your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total loser. Or fortune telling, where you anticipate things will turn out badly and you treat your prediction as fact. Another cognitive distortion is mental filter, where you hone in on one negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of reality becomes darkened. Or, disqualifying the positive by rejecting positive experiences—as if they don’t count for some reason.”
Each of the 10 cognitive distortions that David has identified can be challenged with more positive and realistic thinking, talking back to your negative thoughts.
David recommends what he calls a triple column technique to identify distortions in your thinking. Take a piece of paper and make three columns. In the first column, write down your negative thoughts. In the second column, identify the cognitive distortion, and in the third column challenge your negative thought. Examine the evidence and question whether your negative thought is really valid. When you change the way you think, you change the way you feel.
Accept that you are imperfect
The experts agree, perfectionism is a happiness killer. If you want to welcome a giant wave of calm into your life, accept that you don’t have to be perfect. There are so many stressful moments you could easily diffuse by whispering to yourself: “I don’t have to be perfect. I can just be me.” Self-acceptance is tied to mental resilience, says Judith. “Having unreasonable or rigid standards that continually outstrip reality is a recipe for a negative self-image and a lack of resilience.”
Positive psychology expert Caroline Miller has drawn similar conclusions from her research. “People who are exposed to stories of other people’s hardships and how those people successfully overcame those hardships are more persevering and less likely to be self-critical,” Caroline says. “Carol Dweck’s (Stanford psychologist) work on fixed mindsets has also found that when you don’t see yourself as someone who is capable of change, you can’t deal with the prospect of failure, but people with a growth mindset are more forgiving of their mistakes because they see themselves as works of progress who are capable of making tremendous change.”
“Aim for success and not perfection,” says David. “Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself to be human can make you a happier and more productive person.”
Learn how to comfort yourself
You probably know instinctively how to provide comfort to a child, a best friend or a beloved pet. But do you know how to comfort yourself? You can become better at self-compassion with practice. Judith suggests “being sensitive to the suffering of others as it will help you be compassionate toward yourself. Accept and acknowledge your own suffering. Work to relieve and prevent it by non-judgmentally caring for your own wellbeing.”
Positive psychology expert and author Michelle McQuaid says, “Self-compassion is hugely important for mental resilience. Too often we turn to our inner critic as a means of motivating ourselves and fail to recognize that while this may get us moving in the short term, neurologically, over time, it actually undermines our motivation, confidence and willingness to pursue our goals.” Self-compassion, she says, allows us to recognize that like everybody else, we’re human and still learning.
Say kind things to yourself in a compassionate way you talk to others. “When you show yourself self-compassion, it’s like having a good friend with you all the time,” writes Kristin Neff, Ph.D., in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
When you feel a dark mood approaching or are having trouble getting through a rough time, here are 20 more tested, effective tools to fill out the rest of your kit:
- Embrace anxiety
Don’t try to fight or eliminate anxiety, suggests Judith Beck. “Instead, watch it from a distance, evaluate your anxious thinking and correct it if it’s distorted. If it’s not, go to problem-solving. Act in accordance with your values. Avoid action or inaction that’s tied to fear.”
- Connect with people
According to Michelle McQuaid, reaching out for social support can boost resilience. By courageously reaching out, you no longer feel alone, your vulnerability connects you with others, and you often realize everyone shares similar struggles.
- Sleep on it
Some days may be dark if you didn’t sleep well, if there’s a hormonal shift, or you are simply just having a bad day. A good night’s sleep can sometimes be enough to turn your entire outlook from negative to positive.
- Sit in silence
Sometimes out of fear of feeling depressed or anxious, we can fill up our lives with being busy or fill up the silence with TV, but getting quiet with your thoughts can be a remedy for depression and anxiety. Silence can foster a state of calm and often give you enough mental space to have insights about your own life.
- Disconnect from the external
Realize you always have a choice when it comes to your thoughts and outlook. Don’t lock your mood into something you can’t control such as how your work day is going or how much you get accomplished in a day. Make a choice to stay positive despite what may be going on around you.
- Schedule a favorite activity into your calendar
When you are busy, you might postpone favorite activities like taking walks outside, having lunch with a friend or even something easy like listening to beautiful music. Your favorite activity is more than a luxury, it’s a powerful way to recharge. Schedule your favorite activities into your calendar like weekly appointments.
- Set boundaries
Boundaries are our protective borders of what’s acceptable to us and what isn’t. By setting boundaries you are declaring that you will not let people exploit you, and that you are in charge of your own emotions. A boundary can be as simple as saying “No.”
- Don’t take things personally
It’s hard not to take things personally. But we have the capacity to take a step back and realize that what others do and say—even if it is negative and aimed at us—usually has more to do with their own situations than ours.
- Change the channel
“Gritty people have the talent of ‘changing the channel’ in their heads when they are heading toward depression or a desire to quit,” says Caroline Miller. For a quick lift, try posting positive messages and meaningful images in your home or office that you can turn to anytime. Make a happy, uplifting playlist on your phone that you can access when your mood is dragging—or you are stuck in traffic!
- Choose whom you spend your time with regularly
Your closest associations affect you more than you might realize, so choose to spend time with people who are kind and uplifting. Studies show that many of our emotions and character traits—positive and negative—are contagious. Those who have more grit are less likely to fall into a depression spiral, according to Caroline. “And you can increase your grit,” she says, “by being around those who model better ways of dealing with impatience, challenges and pessimistic thinking.”
- Rewrite the story of you
In his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., writes that we can change our relationships to our thoughts and feelings by paying attention to the dialogues that stream through our minds. “The stories we tell ourselves give us implicit limits and possibilities,” he says. If your story is holding you back, consider a rewrite with what’s possible.
- Be aware of your body
Michelle McQuaid suggests being “more aware of what our bodies are telling us. And tuning in to the moments when we are feeling overwhelmed or stressed to recognize that our body is trying to tell us that something isn’t unfolding in the way we hoped. We need to understand what is causing our unease and make informed and conscious choices about how we can lean into the situation and learn what is happening.”
- Journal your thoughts
Journaling can be a highly cathartic process as it heightens your awareness of both your thoughts and feelings. When you journal, you connect with yourself and express emotions—two emotionally healthy practices for getting you out of a dark or anxious place.
- Reach out
Whether you reach out to a good friend, your network or a licensed psychologist, give yourself permission to seek help. It’s brave to face darkness head on and be self-aware enough to know when you need help.
- Take care of your own needs
Many of us are great at meeting everyone’s needs except our own. Moms, for example, rule at this. The only problem is, if your needs are always coming last, they are probably not being met at all. No one can operate positively—including taking care of others—when his or her own physical and emotional needs are taking a backseat. Activate your own needs. For example, if you start taking time to exercise, you invest in your own physical and mental health and you increase your energy. Or, if you carve out space to read a good book or do an activity you love, your outlook is more positive because you are taking time to recharge with your own interests.
- Recognize your strengths
To build your resilience, recognize your strengths by making a list and give yourself credit for everything that you do, Judith Beck suggests. Consider making a list of wins.
- Don’t seek escape
Many of us try to ignore negative feelings or distract ourselves with alcohol, food or other self-destructive tendencies. Instead, Michelle McQuaid recommends, lean into your unease. “This may mean gently challenging the stories you’re telling yourself about what is happening or what might happen … and choose the story that serves you best. Engage your strengths to take constructive action,” she says. Avoidance of pain or discomfort leaves no room for learning or growth.
- Shake up the status quo
Take time to deeply reflect on your life. Sometimes a major life event can cause this kind of introspection, other times all it takes is a question. Increased self-awareness can lead to a happier and more fulfilling path. Use these questions to start.
Hello, endorphins, there you are. Make sure your workout is sweat-inducing because that’s when you really experience the physiological and mental benefits.
- Make positive choices
Every choice you make from dawn to dusk impacts how you feel about yourself. Even tiny decisions matter. Become conscious of how each decision you make has the ability to uplift or the ability to detract from how you feel. Catch yourself speaking nicely about someone when that person isn’t even in the room. Follow through on a commitment you made to someone. Smile at a stranger walking by. Share dessert.
- Stop comparing yourself to others
Ah, the comparison game. Facebook and Instagram make the comparisons of life’s highlight reels easy to do. Instead of making yourself feel badly because you think others have it better than you, realize you are idealizing people. Everyone has something they are struggling with but the challenges and personal struggles often don’t often make it into your newsfeeds. Choose to be happy for people and their good news while keeping a foot in reality. Everyone has something they are shouldering. As Judith says, “Work to see the best in yourself, others and in your future.”
- Give up the disease to please
If you set your outlook or self-worth on whether others like you, your mood will go up and down like a rollercoaster ride. Instead, accept that not everyone is going to like you and it isn’t your job to see that they do. Listen to your gut and give your own opinions more value.
- Count blessings rather than dwell on the negative
You always have a choice. The next time a negative thought tries to settle in, start listing all the things in your life you feel thankful for and happy about instead.
The best way to feel mentally strong and ready to fight for your own happiness is to see yourself as a work in progress and build up your emotional toolkit with what you’ve learned from your experiences. David Burns says there’s only one person who can ever make you happy, and that person is you.
Sandra Bienkowski is a regular contributor to Live Happy and the founder and CEO of TheMediaConcierge.net.