The natural response to depression is eating eight bags of Funyuns and spending all day in bed. It’s also the very thing everyone tells you not to do when you’re feeling down. Instead, they’ll say you should exercise, frolic in a meadow with your friends and eat a bunch of, uh, broccoli. But is spending all day experiencing the comfort of your Tempur-Pedic really that bad?
According to Stephen Ilardi, psychology professor, depression researcher and author of The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs, it depends on what kind of depression you’re suffering from.
For example, we all experience some degree of transient dysphoria, a state of generalized unhappiness that’s usually fleeting. It may shut you down for a few days. It might even convince you to order nine bags of Funyuns on Postmates and call out of work for a while. However, it doesn’t profoundly affect your ability to function in an ongoing way.
In the case of mere short-term dysphoria, Ilardi says spending a couple days under the covers “isn’t necessarily going to be helpful, but it’s understandable.” If anything, it might even make you feel better if you’re burned out and in dire need of rest.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for clinical depression, an ongoing mental-health disorder that significantly impairs your daily life. Ilardi says your brain responds to clinical depression much like it would to a virus: It compels you to crawl into a lonely, dark area to recover. This makes sense when you have an actual viral infection, but not when you have a major depressive disorder. In fact, he says spending all day in bed alone is only going to make your condition worse.
Instead, Ilardi agrees that what a person suffering from clinical depression needs most is to get outside, move around and socialize (turns out you do have to frolic in a meadow with your friends). Along these lines, he and his team have developed a “Therapeutic Lifestyle Change” treatment protocol, and one of their more effective methods involves pairing a depressed person with a physical trainer. He admits that patients often dread the moments approaching their sessions, but they inevitably feel better once they’re outside and exercising (which is supported by all sorts of research).
The big conundrum, however, is motivating yourself to get up when your brain is telling you to stay down. After all, Ilardi says clinical depression affects the left prefrontal cortex in ways that impede your sense of initiative. This can create a cycle of shame: While people with depression often have grand intentions, their neurological lack of initiative gets in the way, so they end up feeling like both a clinically depressed person and a failure.
As for the best way to break this cycle, Ilardi points to friendship. Basically, he says you need buddies to provide the initiative that your left prefrontal cortex is failing to produce. If they manage to get you outside and moving, you’ll benefit from the holy trinity of natural depression treatments — socializing, exercise and sunlight (sun exposure is believed to increase the brain’s release of serotonin). Not being alone can also stop your brain from endlessly ruminating.
Of course, Ilardi also says professional therapy is a key element when it comes to overcoming clinical depression. He says antidepressants can help in some cases as well, although he wishes they worked better.
For now, though, if you need a friend to help you out of bed, you can count on me. How about we finish our Funyuns together, then get out there?