Most people think finding the right combination of medicine is the most important requirement to recover from depression. But it’s not. Nor is working with a therapist and employing cognitive behavioral strategies, although they both can be very helpful. Using mindfulness techniques, eating the right diet, getting regular sleep, and reaching out to a support network? They’re key, but aren’t first on the list.
What’s most important is hope—the belief that you will get better.
Hope alone has the power to keep us alive during those despairing moments and is more effective than anything else in propelling us forward in our recovery. All the things listed above can generate hope. However, I like to get creative and employ a number of other ways, as well, to build a sense of optimism. Here are a few of them.
Visit Places of Hope
Return to a place where you first breathed a sigh of relief that your tomorrow might not be as painful as your today. It may be some special woods or a secluded park bench by the water. Some people experience the seeds of hope in a church chapel or another sanctuary of sorts.
For me, it’s the Jesus statue in the domed Billings Administration Building on the campus of Johns Hopkins. In March of 2006, I walked by that statue on my way to a consultation with the Mood Disorder Center. I had been severely depressed for 18 months—after working with six doctors and trying over 20 different medication combinations.
I stood in front of the 10-foot “Christus Consolator” or “The Divine Healer” statue much like the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospels who was bleeding to death. She believed if she just touched the robe of Jesus that she would be healed. And she was. When I read the engraved words at the base of the statue — “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) — I burst into tears. Then I looked into the eyes of Jesus and said, “I believe. Please heal me.”
That moment clearly marked the beginning of my miracle, even if my healing wasn’t as immediate or complete as the hemorrhaging woman. Whenever I return to Hopkins for any reason, I visit the statue to thank Jesus and to, once again, access that feeling of hope.
Re-Experience Happy Memories
Our bodies remember everything: smells, tastes, sounds, touch. Some research says the memories reside somewhere in our cells, where we can recall it. This cellular storage explains why trauma is so difficult to recover from, but it also means that we can tap into our happy memories in order to generate feelings of optimism and hope.
Some of my best memories as a young girl were swimming with my friends and then riding our bikes to the ice-cream shop. I would always order mint-chocolate chip on a sugar cone covered in chocolate sprinkles. I purposely try to recreate that memory today by swimming with friends and walking downtown to enjoy my childhood treat.
My attempts at jogging my memory are not totally unlike what some scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles did to some marine snails. They administered serotonin to the snails’ neurons, which created more synapses and better long-term memory. Recreating happy memories by using all of our senses essentially does the same thing — aids memory and allows you to see beyond the limited perspective of depression.
Make a List of Triumphs
I love the quote by an anonymous writer that says, “Note to self: every time you were convinced you couldn’t go on, you did.” Even better, make a list of all those times when you persevered through hopelessness and despair and made it through to the other side.
I have experienced three severe depressive episodes in my life. Each time the ground beneath me disappeared, I was certain that I would never ever return to my former self. But I did. And even stronger. Whenever my mood starts to slide and I fret about returning to the abyss, I remind myself of that, as well as things that I am most proud of: giving birth to two beautiful babies, debating religion with Bill Maher on national television, delivering a commencement address, and starting two online depression communities.
Visualize a Serene You
In the spring of 2006, I sat on my daughter’s bed and read aloud to her Wayne Dyer’s book, Incredible You! 10 Ways to Let Your Greatness Shine Through. It was only a month after I had been hospitalized for suicidal depression, so I was still sitting on the sidelines of life, afraid to participate. Number eight said, “Pretend you are what you’d like to be. Make a picture in your mind so you can see … that what you want can come true. If you believe in your heart, it will come to you.”
I closed my eyes and envisioned me in a pink dress, holding a rose by the water. I was calm and serene. My bipolar disorder and depression were still there, but I was completely detached from their symptoms, able to rise above the fluctuations of mood. The woman I envisioned was brave, confident, and resilient.
Creative visualizations are a powerful way of reprogramming our thoughts and accessing hope. We learn through pictures. In fact, 65 percent of people are visual learners according to the Social Science Research Network, as compared to auditory or other learning styles. Abigail Brenner, M.D. writes in her Psychology Today blog that this old technique is a great way “to use your imagination to help you create whatever you want to happen in your life.”
Work Your Recovery, Build Hope
Continue to work with your doctor on finding the right medication combination, do your cognitive behavioral exercises, and incorporate all the other key ingredients — like adequate sleep and good diet — into your recovery. But get creative in building your hope supply.
Because it’s the one thing you can’t live without.