If depression has you feeling like you just can’t get going, an action plan can help get you moving again. Here’s how to create a motivating plan — and stick to it.
Everyone feels down at some point in their lives. But if you have major depression(also called major depressive disorder), you likely feel depressed every day for most of the day, especially in the morning. You might wake up and have no energy to get out of bed. And even when you do get up, deciding what to do first can feel like a mountainous task.
At those times of inertia, it’s easy to get discouraged. But giving up the idea of getting anything done can make you feel powerless and perpetuate feeling depressed. Instead, fight back with an action plan that propels you ahead, even when you’d rather lag behind.
Creating a Depression Action Plan
A depression action plan can help take the guesswork out of where to get started each morning. It can also empower you to see just how much you can do, which is important because people with depression tend to compare their current levels of activity to past ones.
“For an action plan to be effective, you first have to understand that major depression is an illness, not a weakness,” says Stephen J. Ferrando, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical public health in the department of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Stop comparing yourself to the past. “It’s not your fault you have depression,” he says.
To get started creating an action plan, it’s best to work with your doctor or therapist. “When you’re depressed, it can be difficult to determine where to begin,” says Randy Auerbach, PhD, ABPP, a researcher, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard School of Medicine, and the director of the Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Your doctor or therapist can help you identify both short-term and long-term goals to work toward.
Consider these steps you might want to include in your daily action plan:
- Tasks you need to do. Make a list of four or five things you need to get done today, such as work and chores. To avoid getting overwhelmed, break down each goal into small parts. For example, instead of making cleaning the entire house your goal, decide to clean just one room today, says Brian Iacoviello, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
- Activities you enjoy. If depression has taken the enjoyment out of all activities for you, write down what you once found pleasurable. Working toward doing the things you once enjoyed can help you slowly regain momentum. You can also try adding new activities, such as soothing stress-coping experiences (e.g., meditation, yoga, and tai chi).
- Time with your support network. Research shows that a support network is critical for depression recovery. Make plans with friends and family and show up even when you don’t feel like it. It helps to have a friend who will hold you accountable. “Social support can be an enormous ally when you’re in dealing with depression,” Dr. Auerbach says. A local or online depression support group can also be a good resource.
- Exercise. In a review published in in 2013 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers reported that even low levels of physical activity, such as walking or gardening for 20 to 30 minutes a day, can help ward off depression. If you’ve stopped exercising, set reasonable goals to allow yourself to slowly get to the level of physical activity you want to reach. You might even combine exercise with socializing by picking a workout activity to do with a friend.
- Healthy meals. Eating a balanced diet may help alleviate depression symptoms. Include steps in your depression action plan to create healthy meals each day. To maximize benefits, aim for three meals that include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, lean meat, fish, eggs, and low-fat or fat-free diary. Never skip breakfast. Be sure to drink plenty of water because even mild dehydration can affect mood. Limit your alcohol intake.
- Medication. If you’re taking medication, include specific times to take it in your depression action plan. Sticking to your prescribed treatment plan is the best way to speed recovery.
- Journaling. Your entries can provide insight for you and your doctor or therapist to review together to determine patterns of behavior that may be holding you back from doing everything you want to do. Record behaviors such as what you’re doing, how successful you’re being at doing those things, and what you think about when you’re doing them. Once you’ve identified any negative patterns, you can work with your doctor or therapist on how to let them go.
- Rewards. Implement a system of rewards to give yourself when you’ve accomplished a goal in your depression action plan. Self-care activities — such as a massage, a new haircut, a movie, or any other activity that makes you feel good and follows your plan for recovery — make good rewards.
How to Stick to Your Depression Action Plan
When the temptation to do nothing crops up each morning, realize that you’ll have to push yourself to take the first step to get started. Once you do that, know that your level of motivation will likely increase. To stay on track, be sure to schedule activities at specific times so you don’t get overwhelmed about what to do next or how much you have to get done. Post your depression action plan in a visible place, and set up reminders by programming alerts on your phone.
Also, remember that your depression action plan may not follow a straight path. There may be setbacks, and that’s okay — just do your best to keep going. Then at your regular doctor appointments or therapy sessions, you can discuss your progress and work together with your doctor or therapist to identify what may still be getting in your way and figure out what to do to change it.
At the end of each day, focus on what you’ve accomplished instead of what you haven’t. “The greatest challenge for a person with depression is to overcome pessimistic thinking, helplessness, and hopelessness,” Auerbach says. “But with proper treatment and a good action plan, depression can be conquered.”