People get depressed for many reasons, but weakness of character isn't one of them. It's true, of course, that depressed people have "stinkin' thinkin.'" But stinkin' thinkin' isn't the cause of their depression. It's a symptom of it. Advances in brain research have revealed that the brains of people who are actively depressed do not function normally because of reduced amounts of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, key neurotransmitters responsible for mood regulation, reward-seeking, and overall sense of well-being.

Nobody chooses to be depressed. Depression is a biological illness brought on by a combination of external and internal factors. It is a unique illness in that it wreaks havoc with every system of the body. It kills sleep, appetite, energy, mood, and libido. It can also cause: aches, pains, heaviness in the limbs, poor digestion, irregular heartbeats, electrical surges in the head, crippling anxiety, and feelings of guilt, shame and unworthiness.

The best known feature of depression is anhedonia, the inability to feel joy. But the worst part of depression for most people isn't the inability to feel joy. It's the bewildering, unrelenting feeling of despair. Often this feeling comes on suddenly, especially for those whose brains have been conditioned by previous episodes of depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 15% of the adult population--or 15 million people--suffer from depression each year. Forty million suffer from anxiety disorders. In older adults--especially women--these numbers are even higher. And the numbers are rising, especially among children.

So, if you're suffering from depression or anxiety, there is no need to feel shame. You're not alone, and you won't always feel this way. I promise. There are lots of things you can do right now to start feeling better.

  • Start by seeing your doctor.  Lots of medical conditions and medications can cause or deepen depression.
  • Make sure you're getting enough sleep.  Chronic stress can cause insomnia.  And nothing will make you fragile faster than too little sleep for too many days. 
  • Get aerobic exercise as often as you can.  If you have anxiety, this is an essential component to treatment.  Running, cycling, or brisk walking will help you burn off the adrenaline that is keeping your system charged up.
  • Stick to normal routines, as much as possible, no matter how bad you feel.  If you work every day, keep working.  If you normally eat lunch with a friend, keep doing it. The more normal you act, the less you will focus on and reinforce your symptoms.
  • Fight the urge to isolate!  The misery of depression doesn't "like company."  Force yourself to be around people you trust anyway.  Humans heal better when they are loved, cared for, and in good company.  It's how we're wired. 
  • Learn, practice, and deepen mindfulness skills while you are well.  You can't learn to meditate in a hurricane.  If you're already suffering from, choose a more active practice, like yoga or tai chi.  Both are soothing to the central nervous system and require your full attention in the moment. Practices that engage the body, especially those that require balance, will give you a break from your chattering brain.  And practicing on a daily basis once you're well again can prevent a future relapse.
  • Assemble Your Team.  Your Team should include those people who know what you're going through and support you in your recovery: a doctor, sister, parents, friends, therapist, bodyworker, etc.  Seek wise counsel from others, so your own brain can rest.
  • If you are on medications, keep a record of what you're taking and how it's making you feel.  This is especially important if you're on more than one medication and are trying to figure out what's working and what isn't.
  • When despair strikes, acknowledge it without overreacting: "Yes, yes. I see you.  But I'm not interested in being friends."  Then shift your focus, change your position, and find a positive or neutral activity to do.  Distraction is a perfectly acceptable way to get a break from the pain.
  • Postpone "Family of Origin therapy" or "Trauma Work" until you are better.  Pain is amplified when we are depressed or anxious.  Stay away from therapists who want to go looking for problems in your past.  This is not the time for that.
  • Eat, even when you're not hungry.  Remember: Your body needs to heal.  Feed it with nutritious food.  It can only help.
  • Stay away from negative people, and people who mean well but in whose presence you feel worse.
  • Read "Hope and Help for Your Nerves," by Claire Weekes.  Keep it by your bed. Nobody understands the experience like she does.  (I keep a photo of her on my bookshelf.)
  • Focus on what you can do, right now, with what you've got. Then do it.  Don't allow your mind to spin webs of fear or repetitive loops of despair.

The main thing to remember is that you will get better.  Hang in there.

Note: Betsy is an expert in the treatment of depression and anxiety. In 2011, she completed the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Training (MBCT) for Professionals, and is qualified to deliver the MBCT Program, an 8-week program that cuts the rate of relapse of depression in half for people who have suffered three or more depressive episodes.  This beats medication by a mile.