Do-It-Yourself Tips to Boost Your Recovery from Depression

September 14, 2016

By, Lynn Johnson, PhD

Depression is an epidemic and costs our society around $210 billion each year.[1] We have more counselors than ever, and primary care physicians have become skilled at medicating these depressed, suffering individuals.

Yet, the majority of depressed persons are not being effectively treated.[2] There are lots of possible reasons.  Younger people are more likely to get some kind of treatment than older people, who may feel that asking for help with depression is somehow shameful.  Some people have high-deductible insurance plans and would have to pay for treatment or drugs out of pocket, and the financial stress intimidates them.  And sometimes, people don’t recognize that they are depressed.

No matter what the reason, there are three things that anyone can do to reduce or even eliminate depression, things that don’t require a doctor’s visit or paying a therapist like me.

1. Step Up Activity

I discovered many years ago that some patients who didn’t improve with any other treatment, either drugs or therapy or both, did actually do much better when they included twenty to forty minutes of physical activity every day. Walking is simple, requires no equipment and can be done practically anywhere.   Of course, the problem with exercise and activity is that when we are depressed, the depression itself will try to keep us from exercising. It is almost as if the depression knows that exercise might drive it out of our lives, and it doesn’t want to leave.

So there is a simple tool to help us escape depression’s efforts to keep us inactive. Imagine you are in my office. I ask you, “Can you rate your depression right now, on a 0-10 scale, where zero is horribly and totally depressed and ten means you feel wonderful?” The typical patient rates herself at three.

Now I ask, “If you and I were to walk for fifteen minutes, while we keep talking, how would you predict you will feel after that walk?” Usually my patients say, “Oh, I feel terrible. I’d likely be down to a two or so.”

“Great,” says Dr. Johnson, “you just made a prediction. What’s the only way you can figure out if a prediction is true or not?” You have to reply, of course, that only by trying something can we determine if the prediction is accurate.

When we walk, at the end of the time the typical rating is “four and a half.” That is, on this 0-10 scale, you came up 15% with a ten or fifteen minute walk. If you can boost your mood fifteen percent every day, that puts you on to a solid path to recovery!

2. Change Your Diet

There are a number of fascinating studies that show the benefit of a “rainbow” diet on mood. We generally see about a third better mood rating if people shift to eating lots of colors in every meal – reds, greens, oranges, all the possible colors. I suggest you aim for a 2-5 pattern: 2 helpings of fruits per day (and there I mean berries), and 5 helpings of colorful vegetables each day.

Keep track before changing your diet. Rate your average mood, using my 0 – 10 scale, and then shift to a week of rainbow eating, emphasizing lots of fruits and vegetables. Then rate your mood again.

Now, I do have to mention bad news here. Cheetos, colorful cereals, and colored candies do not count as colorful parts of your diet. If it grew on a plant, that counts and you can eat it. If it was made in a plant, then spit it out and get rid of it.

3. Socialize More

Depression convinces us that we should stay away from others. But that is just depression trying to boss us around. We can’t trust depression thinking. Rather, reach out to old friends and make new ones. Force yourself to go to social events. Talk to people. Listen as best you can.  Again, use the 0 – 10 scale and see how much your mood improves.

Finally, many people need formal treatment for depression.  But you can easily include more activity, better and healthier eating, and more social connection as part of your recovery strategy.

Life is to be enjoyed, and depression tangles you up and keeps you from enjoying it. I have seen people use these three tools to fully recover from depression without additional help, and many of my patients use them to speed up their recovery. Don’t take my word for it. Test these three lifestyle changes and see what effect they have on you.


[1] Retrieved 1 Sept. 2016.