Putting the GO in GOALS
An internal battery that's hard to boost is part of living with depression, but our 5-step program gives you strategies for overcoming inertia.
Ninety percent of respondents in the 2009 National Survey on Depression in Canada reported lack of motivation as a symptom of their illness. That overwhelming sense of inertia also feeds depression, making us feel useless and hopeless because we can't seem to get anything done.
Luckily, the cycle works the other way around, too. The more we can accomplish, the better we feel and the easier it is to fend off low mood.
Focusing on small goals and pushing yourself to meet them builds up the charge in that depleted battery. As hard as it is, taking action works as an antidote to depression.
The key is coming up with "meaningful, measurable, and attainable goals," says psychologist William J. Knaus, EdD, author of The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression (New Harbinger, 2006). "This puts change into focus." Here are five steps to get you started.
1. Keep it simple
The more specific the goal, the better your chances of success, says Dan Bilsker, PhD.
"If you want to go for a walk, write down that you will walk four blocks after lunch on Thursday," suggests Bilsker, adjunct professor in the Health Sciences Department at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Tina, 58, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was first diagnosed with depression at age 12, breaks cleaning the bathroom into four smaller jobs: toilet, sink and mirror, tub, floor. Not only does each concrete task seem more manageable, but she ends up with four accomplishments to celebrate.
If you can check something off your to-do list, however small it seems, that success makes other things seem more doable. The particular goal you establish is less important than simply having one to work towards, Bilsker says.
"It's not even necessary that you enjoy it," he adds, "as long as it is something helpful to your recovery."
2. Be realistic
It's tempting to go over-board in your ambitions to make up for a period of sloth, warns Bilsker, but creating unreachable goals only sets you up for failure and feeling worse in the end. If you haven't been exercising, for example, don't imagine you'll start working out seven days a week.
Holland has learned to set just a few goals for herself each day.
"If I write down five but do only two, that's okay," explains Holland, who is director of education at the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba. "But if I write down 20 and do only two, I'm setting myself up for defeat."
You'll also succeed better if you accommodate the ups and downs of your illness. After living with depression for the past decade, Anne Clarke has learned to accept that some days she moves more slowly. Knowing that keeps the 47-year-old from grinding to a complete halt.
"There is no sense pretending things are normal, and that I can be my usually energetic self, when I'm feeling that way," says Clarke, who lives in the San Francisco area.
"Instead, I … give myself permission to move more slowly, lean a little bit more, and do a little bit less."
3. Strive for five
Another way to make actions easier to contemplate is to set yourself a time limit. Knaus recommends this system: Pick an activity you've been putting off, but that you know is in your best interest to complete. When your five minutes is up, decide whether to stop for now or continue for five more minutes.
Do the same thing every five minutes until you complete the project or decide to take a break. Knowing you have the power to choose gives you a sense of control, Knaus says, which is an important step on the path to positive change.
Holland has found that approach useful when she needs to motivate herself—"I'll do something for five minutes and stop, or decide to do the task for five minutes more," she says—and the strategy keeps her from feeling overwhelmed.
4. Ditch the downers
Depressive thinking—for example, feeling that you're no good, that what happens to you is beyond your control and that nothing you do will make a difference—zaps the motivation you need to set and reach goals.
Holland has learned to run a reality check on negative thoughts to keep them under control. She admits that moving beyond such will-sapping beliefs does take some willpower.
"Own the illness. Understand it and don't use it as an excuse," she says. "Take responsibility for yourself because nobody else is going to do it."
That doesn't mean you can't benefit from a cheering section. Bilsker recommends engaging friends and family members to coach and support you. "Give them a sense of the goals you're working on and ask them to encourage you," he says.
Sometimes that encouragement can simply be helping you feel less low. Holly Rodriguez, 36, of Richmond, Virginia, has a reliable way to boost her mood enough to get moving: "I reach out to a friend whom I know will make me laugh," says Rodriguez, who was diagnosed with major depression in 1999.
5. Praise—don't punish
Berating yourself when you don't reach your goals won't help you move forward. Positive reinforcement will, so be sure to recognize each success, however small.
"Don't shame yourself, ask what's wrong with yourself, or tell yourself that you are overweight or horrible," says Bilsker.
To get out of the downward spiral of self-punishment, he advises, consider whether you would ever say something that harsh or demeaning to a friend in the same situation.
By the same token, give yourself the kind of encouragement and praise you would offer a friend who has
done something worthwhile.
Stan Tolpen of Las Vegas, 56, has a goal to walk at least a mile each day, but he's kind to himself when he doesn't make it.
"Some days I can't do it, but every day I try. I don't let it get me down when I can't do it," says Tolpen, who has lived with severe depression for 30 years.
When Tolpen feels he can't make the whole trip, he'll at least walk up to his front gate and back, then go inside and read a magazine or do something else that he enjoys as a reward for trying. He reminds himself that tomorrow will be a new day and another opportunity to complete the whole walk.
Reminding himself that there is a chance to meet his goal tomorrow is enough to keep him going, he says. His favorite mantra sums it up perfectly: "With hope one can think, one can work, one can dream. If you have hope, you have everything."
Sharon Anne Waldrop lives in rural Georgia. Her work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Health and many other national consumer magazines.
SIDEBAR: Turn off the TV
That tempting TV screen is another motivation zapper. Kathryn J. Fraser, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque, says studies suggest that planting yourself in front of the TV can actually worsen depression.
One study of adolescents, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in February 2009, found that the risk of developing depression as an adult rose significantly with each additional hour of television watching—a correlation that did not hold true for computer games or listening to the radio.
Fraser points to the inertia cycle as one possible factor: You sit around and watch too much television because you're depressed, but you end up feeling more depressed because all you've done is watch television.
"Besides, people aren't meant to just sit," she says.
Given the well-documented physical and mental benefits of exercise, Fraser suggests that if you are going to watch television, do it while working out on a stationary bike, treadmill, or rowing machine.