Depression and low mood

Self-help and coping strategies for depression and low mood

Young people we spoke with talked about the different coping strategies they had developed or discovered to help them deal with depression or their low moods. Here we describe the strategies people used in a particular situation or during a depressive episode. We also cover experiences of recovery from depression in our section on ‘Getting Better’,

Being creative
Different ways of being creative and expressing oneself were among the most helpful strategies for people. Music and writing were the main sources of comfort, excitement, “offloading” or relaxation for many. Many found that listening to music, writing and playing music, going to gigs and concerts helped them when they were feeling low, angry or just bored. One woman felt that listening to music could trigger negative feelings so she was careful about what music she listened to and when.

Several people kept a diary about their lives and noted down their feelings on a daily basis. They said this was a good way to offload their feelings and many preferred the privacy of expressing themselves through writing rather than talking to others. One woman said it was helpful to read her notes afterwards and appreciate that things perhaps weren’t as bad as she’d felt at the time of writing. A couple of people had been writing down their life story over a longer period of time and one woman had published an autobiography about her life with depression and addiction. Some wrote fiction and poetry and described writing as a way to express their feelings in a different way.

For a few people writing had been a more rational and logical way to help them organise their feelings and to try and change their thought patterns and dissolve their fears and anxieties. This was similar to the methods some had learnt in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).

In addition to writing and listening to music, people listed reading, painting, drawing and watching films as helpful when they were feeling low or trying to “distract” their minds.

A couple of men drew cartoons and animations. Being creative by writing a poem or drawing and painting was not only a way to express themselves and release pressures but could also give people a sense of achievement.

Keeping active
Another significant coping strategy for many people was keeping active through exercise and sport. Some did regular sport like swimming, football, dancing, skating, martial arts and going to the gym. Others said just getting out of the house, going for walks and just being out in the fresh air was what they needed. Getting out of the house was the main benefit people said they gained from sport and exercise. A few said they would get up middle of the night to go for a walk or go out on their bike if they felt miserable and unable to sleep. Some described how the physical release of endorphins from exercise could make a difference to their mood.

The social side of doing sport was also important for some. Especially doing team sports could give a sense of belonging and being part of a group which some people felt they were otherwise missing in life.

Similarly to being creative, people said sport made them feel like they were achieving something and it made them feel good about themselves. Other benefits gained from sport included not thinking about their problems, not having to explain their problems to others, feeling in control, losing weight and having fun.
Many said that keeping active was easier said than done and some found it annoying when people around them would tell them to get up and go out for a walk when they were feeling really down. They said even though they knew getting out was usually helpful, it was often a massive effort for them and they had to “force” themselves to do it.
Other strategies
Social life, catching up with friends, going out and partying could also help people when they were feeling low or lonely but well and energetic enough to make the effort. Generally, being “distracted” or doing something “stimulating” was the best way young people felt they could cope with bad periods. Some said they threw themselves into work, went shopping, or just cried. A couple of people said they had to just “do anything” to just occupy their mind and “try and break the cycle” of negative thoughts:
“If you feel yourself getting a bit low, just to stop it, somehow stop it, like find something to do or go out with a friend or watch a film or … go to BBC Iplayer and just watch a programme for half an hour, just to keep your mind off it”
Faith and religion were important to a few people. One woman said religion made her feel there was some higher significance to her existence and encouraged her to make most of her life. A couple of people described how faith, and “belief in a higher power” had helped them through the worst times but sometimes caused them anxiety as they questioned the fairness of life.
“I think any religion is both a blessing and a curse really. Because if you can find the truth that you believe in then it’s great, but at the same time you then have to question it because of all the horrible things that go on.”
“Obviously because I am Catholic, being able to get myself into the state of prayer with the Rosary beads that’s quite a nice place to be, ‘cos it’s quite calm and quite quiet.”
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A change in diet by eating, avoiding sugars and carbohydrates or drinking soy milk and green tea had made a couple of people feel calmer and improved their physical and mental wellbeing.
Quite a few people said they found reading about other people’s experiences of depression helpful and one man said he always tried to look out for “good cases” of other people who’d pulled through difficult experiences.
Taking small steps
For many, finding ways to cope better and deal with bad periods had taken a long time. Even when they knew what might help them, to put it into practice could be hard work. One of the most important things they felt was setting “realistic goals” and doing things “step by step”, taking “teeny steps”. By setting major goals or unrealistic expectations they could easily end up not able to achieve them and “set yourself up to fail”, as one woman put it. Breaking things down, whether it was doing a piece of homework, or just getting through a bad day, or even an hour, helped it all seem more manageable. Again, setting up small goals and then achieving them, brought people a great sense of achievement and fulfilment.
Sleeping and rest were also among strategies that people felt helped them. Sometimes just taking a bit of time out from the pressures and expectations of life, was what they needed:
“Sitting outside you get to watch everything sort of float by, you don’t have to worry about anything, you just watch stuff. And it’s a really nice feeling, like just laid there, you’re completely free, nobody’s judging you, you don’t have to judge yourself, and you’re just, no worries, none at all.”
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Finding what works for you
A few of the young people said there was nothing specific they could do that helped them. Some said they just deliberately wanted to ignore or avoid thinking or talking about any problems:
“I think it’s my body’s way of protecting me, letting me deal with it slowly.”
One woman said she’d never let anyone see her cry or get upset and another one said she’d just “fake confidence” but not want to face any problems. One woman said nothing seemed to help her for very long so she kept switching between different coping strategies until they “stopped helping” her.
Some said they’d tried “everything” and had been offered a lot of help and advice but nothing seemed to work for them. Some also pointed out that self-harm or not eating had been their “coping strategy” and they were trying to find something else to “replace” the “unhealthy” ways. A couple of people said they were in the process of trying to find a helpful coping strategy as they felt it could be a way to regain some control over their lives.
A couple of people felt they had no other way to vent their feelings except “exploding” or “going on a mad one”, as one woman described it when she gets really angry and ends up “smashing up” her flat.
For young people’s experiences of other forms of help see; ‘Talking treatments’, ‘Antidepressants’, ‘Complementary approaches’.

For helplines and other resources please see our ‘Resources’ section.

Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated December 2013.


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