Depression is a condition that causes feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of motivation, as well as other symptoms. While finding motivation cannot cure depression, it can help a person reconnect with the world and improve their recovery.

Depression can be long-lasting and all-encompassing. It may affect a person's ability to perform daily activities, and it can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

A persistent lack of motivation is a characteristic symptom of depression. Also, depression can worsen when a person experiences a reduced desire to complete certain tasks or engage in regular activities.

Interventions, including medication and psychological therapy, are the vital first steps toward treating depression. Lifestyle and wellness measures can improve the symptom of low motivation and help a person progress toward recovery.

In this article, we look at ways to boost motivation when a person is experiencing hopelessness, low mood, and other symptoms of depression.

Getting exercise

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Doing small exercises throughout the day may help increase mood boosting chemicals.

Exercise is a natural way to increase mood-boosting chemicals, such as dopamine, and this may reduce some effects of depression.

Physical activity may help improve motivation and the capacity to cope in young people with depression, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Psychology.

The researchers examined the effects of an exercise program on children and adolescents receiving mental health treatments. They found that exercise reduced self-reported levels of depression and improved the motivation to exercise and the overall ability to cope.

However, the thought of intense physical activity can seem daunting, particularly to a person who is currently having difficulties completing everyday tasks, due to their depression.

Instead of aiming for a long, intensive exercise session, it may be better to exercise in small bursts throughout the day.

For example, it may help to:

  • take a 10-minute walk around the block
  • stretch during television commercials
  • listen to music and move with it for 10 minutes at a time
  • create fitness "stations" around the house where you can exercise for 2 minutes at a time

Exercising may feel more manageable if a person sets realistic goals for physical activity and focuses on short bursts of simple exercises.

Meeting small, manageable targets every day can also boost a person's self-esteem. This may help relieve some feelings of low mood that characterize depression.

Once a person has started to take part in physical activity, they may wish to branch out and try new options. Taking a class or starting a new exercise routine could help enhance physical health and overall wellness.

Socializing

Receiving support from others can help a person with depression feel less alone, and it can have a profound impact on their motivation.

However — though they may feel pressure to attend larger events — going to a large social gathering may be overwhelming for a person with depression.

Instead, seeing close friends in smaller groups for more laid-back activities, such as going to a movie, having coffee, or visiting a museum, can help a person feel less anxious and isolated.

A person does not have to be part of a large social group to receive the necessary support. It can help to focus on strengthening existing friendships and concentrating on sustainable relationships with a select few.

Spending time with friends and family can help a person feel a greater connection to the world. This can be a tremendous motivator.

Avoiding triggers

Just as there are ways to enhance motivation, some behaviors can decrease motivation and worsen depression. Taking steps to avoid these triggering behaviors can help.

Drugs and alcohol

Alcohol and illicit substances may offer a temporary "high." However, a deep low can follow, and some people refer to this as a hangover or comedown. These lows can reduce motivation and possibly lead to a dependence on these substances.

Drugs and alcohol can also interact with medications for depression, causing adverse effects. This can make depression harder to treat.

While some types of socializing can help a person feel better, any gatherings that increase the pressure to consume alcohol or recreational drugs are unlikely to promote recovery.

Lack of sleep

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To improve sleep quality, go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Depression can cause extreme fatigue, even after a full night's sleep. Depression can also cause difficulty sleeping.

Insufficient sleep can affect energy levels. The National Sleep Foundation recommend that adults aged 26–64 years get 7–9 hours of sleep per night. However, the right amount varies from person to person.

Ways to enhance sleep include:

  • Refraining from taking naps during the day: Napping can keep a person from sleeping at night and prevent them from reaching a deep phase of sleep during which the brain recharges.
  • Going to sleep and waking up at the same times: These patterns help train the body to sleep. Maintaining a regular sleep routine can also ensure that a person gets enough sleep every night.
  • Having a relaxing bedtime routine: This may involve taking a bath or reading a book before going to sleep. Helping the brain and body unwind can enhance sleep.
  • Using light cues: Seeing natural sunlight during the day can increase alertness. At night, making the room cool and dark can signal to the brain that it is time to rest.

Stress

Stress can weigh heavily on a person with depression. People with depression may have a reduced ability to cope with high pressure situations.

A stressful event can feel overwhelming to a person who has depression. In an effort to shut out the stressful situation, a person may retreat from everyday activities that may or may not relate to the source of the stress.

Reducing stress and creating realistic expectations can help enhance motivation. Examples of ways to reduce stress include:

  • Practicing relaxation techniques: These can help soothe the mind and may involve listening to certain music, meditating, and practicing deep breathing or yoga.
  • Counting to 10 during periods of overwhelming stress and anxiety: If these feelings do not subside after reaching 10, continue counting to 20.
  • Identifying negative thoughts and looking for positive aspects: Choosing a positive mantra or saying, such as, "This, too, shall pass," can help a person with depression replace negative thoughts with a more constructive inner voice.
  • Volunteering in the community: A feeling of doing good deeds can improve mood and boost self-esteem. Volunteering can also help with meeting new people and finding enjoyable work.
  • Talk to friends and loved ones who genuinely care: It may be a good idea to avoid people who tend to be negative and create dramatic, stressful situations.

It can also help to get into a habit of reflecting on the day and taking note of good things that have happened and other things to be grateful for. A person could set a target of writing down three good or funny things that have happened each day.

These practices helped enhance happiness in people with depression, according to a 2013 investigation published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Whenever possible, being kind to yourself and taking time to look after your physical, social, and mental health can enhance motivation when symptoms of depression are present.

Seeing a doctor

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It is essential for people with depression to see a healthcare professional.

The first and most important step toward finding or improving motivation is to receive treatment for depression.

The medical community believes that depression affects the balance of neurotransmitters, or chemicals that control mood, in the brain. Medical treatments can help regulate neurotransmitters, which may improve mood and enhance motivation in people with depression.

Consult a primary care physician, who may provide treatment or recommend further care. This might involve a referral to a psychiatrist or another type of doctor who specializes in mental health.

A psychiatrist can evaluate a person's symptoms and prescribe medications that may reduce their severity. A reduction in symptoms can motivate a person to reengage with positive aspects of their life.

Other options for treatment include psychological therapy, during which a trained therapist guides an individual through the possible sources of their symptoms. This can help with improving resilience, increasing motivation, and developing effective coping mechanisms for difficult situations.

Often, treatment involves a combination of medication and psychological therapy.

If a person does not respond to medication, a doctor may recommend brain stimulation therapies, such as electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

Here, learn more about medications that can help reduce the symptoms of depression.

When to seek emergency treatment

Despite a person's best efforts to manage depression, harmful and dangerous thoughts can take over.

Seek emergency medical attention if any of the following are true:

  • A person has thoughts of hurting themselves or someone else.
  • A person hears voices or sees objects or people that are not there.
  • A person has thoughts of committing suicide.

If a person shares any of these experiences with a loved one, they should accompany the person to the nearest emergency room or call 911.

The person should not be alone until they are in a safe place, where medical professionals can provide the appropriate care.

Q:

What options are there for physical exercise if I have depression due to a physical disability?

A:

This would depend on the nature and extent of the physical disability. As with any exercise program, it is important to receive clearance from your primary care provider before beginning.

Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNPAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.