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Depression Workarounds: 8 Hacks That Help Me

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Halley Cornell - Blogs
By Halley CornellMental health advocate and writerOctober 01, 2019

Depression is exhausting. There’s the physical fatigue, of course (made worse by depression-related insomnia), but there’s also the exhaustion from constantly expending the energy it takes to get going when you start so many days below a normal baseline.

Because depression can seriously impair decision-making ability, concentration, memory, and motivation, it can become an uphill battle to get to results that would normally come more easily. Some days I feel as though I’m moving and thinking inside a giant bowl of Jello-O.

On those days I can spend a lot of effort just talking myself into getting going. I also tend to try to keep up an external façade of ok-ness, which costs even more energy. As the amount of time and effort to accomplish things increases, I end up in a vicious cycle of expenditure and exhaustion that wreaks havoc on my self-esteem. “WHY CAN’T I JUST DO THIS ONE THING!” I may possibly have yelled aloud more than once.

After a few such meltdowns, I decided that I needed a way to boost myself over that “getting going” hump when I’m in the Jello-O of depression. That’s where the idea of scaffolding comes in. Scaffolding is a simple and reliable structure of habits, built over time, that will stay up mostly of its own accord while you work on everything else. Scaffolding gives you easier access to basic necessities (physical and emotional) so you can start your day and your work where you left off, instead of exhausting yourself repeatedly trying to get  into position.

Your best scaffolding will speak to your particular needs. It might be planning ahead logistically on food or sleep, or building a bank of self-kindnesses that you can tap into. Mine includes those things, and also lots of writing things down. Since we don’t have easy access to our rational thoughts when depression sets in, I’ve found keeping a record of how my life and mind operate outside of depression is one of the best types of scaffolding I can build.

Here are some of the main planks in my scaffolding:

1. Stocking food

I keep healthy frozen and shelf-stable stuff around so I don’t have to try to think through shopping, menu decisions, and cooking all the time. Some days it’s worth it to make a fresh, healthy meal, some days that energy is better spent elsewhere.

How is it scaffolding?

It means I can conserve energy for other tasks. It also keeps a task off the dreaded task pile. Task piles can quickly become overwhelming, so I avoid adding to them whenever I can.

2. Adhering to a sleep schedule

Sleep is a huge influence on my mood and energy levels, and sleep hygiene is one of the first things to go when I’m sick. So I have a hard handshake deal with myself that midnight is lights out, no matter what. I don’t always manage it, but I’d say I hit the mark 80% of the time.

How is it scaffolding?

When you’re depressed, doing something I always do is much easier than changing or establishing a new habit. So any decisions I can make and habits I can build when healthy put me a step ahead for their maintenance when I’m not.

3. Banking praise

Yes, I keep a list of kudos that I can look back on when I’m feeling like dirt. While I may not be able to convince myself of my own self-worth, I can usually believe that the people who said these nice things meant them, and didn’t suddenly transform into liars when my mood changed.

How is it scaffolding?

Some days, if I wait until I feel worthy, I will never begin. This provides proof that I can do good things, and do them well. I don’t have to be bathing in healthy self-esteem that particular instant to try to tackle another thing.

4. Banking gratitude

A daily habit of writing down a few things I’m thankful for is a healing practice in and of itself, but it’s also a repository I can look back on to know I truly love and appreciate so much. It also provides a quick reference for ideas that made me feel good once and might lift a funk now.

How is it scaffolding?

“What do I even like?” is a question that comes up with surprising frequency, considering the amount of things – my cats, making music, coffee, my friends, a perfect nectarine, sitting in the back row at the movie theater – that I really, truly like. If I’ve already acknowledged these things and provided myself a list, I can remind myself that things aren’t pointless, and I can avoid the tiring search for a way to help myself enjoy something and feel better. I can just repeat one of those things.

5. Recording daily progress

Most people have a to-do list. I have an “I did” list. When I get up in the morning, I try to sit down with my coffee and take a quick inventory of things I did the day before: things I read, creative projects I worked on, volunteer time I committed, ways I treated myself healthfully, or any small effort I made toward a larger goal.

How is it scaffolding?

Over time, recording a bunch of small things amounts to a list of bigger things, and sometimes even finished things. This is proof that I am capable of accomplishing what I set out to do. This kind of collected evidence against believing we never do anything useful (a common depression feeling) helps us keep from exhausting ourselves in that particular quicksand.

6. Tracking moods

There are apps for this these days, or if you’re old-school like me, you can make a note in your journal or notepad using whatever scale works for you.

How is it scaffolding?

It’s a way to familiarize yourself with what your better moods feel like, and give you a sense of how hard you can push yourself on those days. This, in turn, helps prevent overtaxing on worse days. And it’s another visual reminder that things aren’t always bad, and therefore, working through wherever you are now isn’t pointless.

7. Creating expectation-level charts

I make charts that correspond with my mood numbers. On a 7 – 10 day, I can generally work at my highest expectations, prioritizing work that requires focus and spark, fulfilling social commitments, or completing anxiety-provoking tasks. If I’m having a 4 – 6 day, I’m going to be more gentle with my self-expectations, and focus on things that are more basic or that require less risk. And if it’s a 3 or less day, I need to just help myself get through important self-care things like eating, walking, talking with someone, and sleeping.

How is it scaffolding?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen?” I can’t afford to set myself up for self-resentment, since depression already has a helping ready for me on the regular. By familiarizing ourselves with mood levels, and understanding what we can accomplish within those levels, we can avoid the extra exhaustion and self-punishment that comes from setting ourselves up to fail.

8. Creating a support network

Mine has two people: one I am comfortable contacting when I just need some help, and one I will text if I’m in danger of harming myself. There is even a code word for when I know I need help right now. This is all written down in my notebook, where I also keep the Lifeline crisis line number, (800) 273-TALK (8255).

How is it scaffolding?

I’m prepared for the difficulty of asking for help because I’ve already had the conversations and put the rules in place. Now I have a simple plan for times when nothing feels simple.

You might be asking, but isn’t all of this a lot of work anyway? The truthful answer is yes. But it’s like all those frontier reality shows: stock up now, prep now, build your scaffolds now, and when the winter comes, you’ll have food, light, and warmth. It’s worth it. Be well.

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About the Author
Halley Cornell

Halley Cornell is a content strategist at WebMD who has worked in multiple healthcare settings advocating for holistic mental and physical health. She writes from a perspective of her personal experiences working to outsmart and overcome treatment-resistant depression and clinical anxiety.

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