Mood swings, ups & downs, bad days: they happen for all of us. It’s not uncommon to be knocked off kilter due to life’s stressors and find yourself needing to recalibrate; in fact, it’s an essential part of effectively engaging and being successful in your life.
But what happens if you have a mental illness? What do bad days mean, how can we cope with them, and how can we get back on track? Specifically with depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, bad days, mood swings and ups & downs can send alarms and fear skyrocketing in a way it wouldn’t for neurotypical people.
First, let’s talk about depression. Major Depressive Disorder, or MDD, is categorized by persistence in the following symptoms:
- Depressed Mood (feeling sad, numb, hopeless, tearful, etc.)
- Loss of interest / pleasure in activities
- Weight loss or gain
- Insomnia or Hypersomnia
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation (moving so slowly / restlessly that others notice)
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive/inappropriate guilt
- Decreased concentration
- Thoughts of death / suicide
At least five of these symptoms must be present, and the symptoms must not be caused by other disorders, such as substance use, medical conditions or bipolar disorder. Reading this list, any person can identify with having experienced these symptoms at one time or another, but for those with depression it runs deeper. Depression also has marked physical symptoms - fatigue, aches/pain, trouble critically thinking. Recent research has shown that untreated, chronic depression can lead to brain damage increasing the risk of dementia in later life.
If you or a loved one suffers from depression, there’s two things I want you to take away from this article:
- Seek treatment
- Ride the Wave
First and foremost, a combination of psychotherapy and medication typically can set the stage for depression recovery. As I tell all my clients, each step towards arresting depression is incredibly brave and worth celebrating. When in the throes of a depressive episode, the smallest steps towards regaining functioning - such as showering, eating, or moving your body - are big milestones in learning how to cope.
Secondly - and most importantly - ride the wave. Those in the beginning of their mental health journey aim towards complete symptom removal. While it’s not impossible, it’s important to recognize that mental illnesses, including depression, require lifelong maintenance. The goal is not symptom eradication, but rather symptom management. This requires an attuned effort to understand not only your symptoms, but your warning signs and coping skills.
Your symptoms will come and go throughout your lifetime, surfacing most frequently in times of acute stress. Having the awareness to pay attention to your personal warning signs, and understand what needs to change in these moments, is the difference between small adjustments to your routine and a full mental health relapse.
How do we ride the wave? We develop a personalized plan of action that works for our specific warning signs in symptoms. This can do with a therapist, or on your own. Consider the following questions:
- What signs mean I need to be aware of a possible mental health relapse?
- What coping skills help me the most when I’m feeling this way?
- Who can I reach out to for help when I feel this way?
- What are signs that mean I need to seek professional help, such as a crisis center or therapist?
- What are ways I can challenge these signs?
Allow yourself to reclaim power over your mental health disorder by understanding how to confront and cope with it when it resurfaces. As I’ve said to many clients before, while we didn’t choose our mental illness, we do bear the responsibility of managing it.
As always, rooting for you.
Alexa Cordry, LSW, LCADC
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