When experiencing a depressive episode, a person can try to make changes to their thoughts and behaviors to help improve their mood. Understanding triggers and tackling symptoms as soon as they begin may also help.

Symptoms of a depressive episode can persist for several weeks or months at a time. Less commonly, depressive episodes can last for over a year.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 17.3 million adults in the United States experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2017.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms of a depressive episode and 12 tips for coping.

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Symptoms of a depressive episode are more extreme than typical periods of low mood and may include:

  • feeling sad, hopeless, or helpless
  • feeling guilty or worthless
  • anxiety
  • irritability or frustration
  • fatigue or low energy
  • restlessness
  • changes in appetite or weight
  • loss of interest in things once enjoyed, including hobbies and socializing
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • moving or talking more slowly than usual
  • loss of interest in living, thoughts of death or suicide, or attempting suicide
  • aches or pains that do not have an obvious physical cause

For a diagnosis of depression, a person must experience several of these symptoms for most of the day, almost every day, for at least 2 weeks.

Tackling depression as soon as symptoms develop can help people recover more quickly. Even those who have experienced depression for a long time may find that making changes to the way they think and behave improves their mood.

The following tips may help people deal with a depressive episode:

1. Track triggers and symptoms

Keeping track of moods and symptoms may help a person understand what triggers a depressive episode. Spotting the signs of depression early on may help them avoid a full-blown depressive episode.

Individuals can use a diary to log important events, changes to daily routines, and moods. They can consider rating moods on a scale of 1–10 to help identify which events or activities cause specific responses. People should consult a doctor if symptoms persist for 14 days or more.

2. Stay calm

Identifying the onset of a depressive episode can be unnerving. Feeling panicked or anxious is an understandable reaction to the initial symptoms of depression. However, these reactions may contribute to low mood and worsen other symptoms, such as loss of appetite and disrupted sleep.

Instead, individuals can try to focus on staying calm. Remember that depression is treatable, and the feelings will not last forever.

Anyone who has experienced depressive episodes before may wish to remind themselves that they can overcome these feelings again. They should focus on their strengths and on what they have learned from previous depressive episodes.

Self-help techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises, can help a person learn to look at problems in a different way and promote a sense of calmness. Self-help books and phone and online counseling courses are also available.

3. Understand and accept depression

Learning more about depression can help people deal with the condition. Depression is a widespread and genuine mental health disorder. It is not a sign of weakness or a personal shortcoming.

Accepting that a depressive episode may occur from time to time may help people deal with it when it does. It is important to remember that it is possible to manage symptoms with treatments, such as lifestyle changes, medication, and therapy.

4. Separate yourself from the depression

A condition does not define a person — they are not their illness. When depression symptoms begin, some people find it helpful to repeat, “I am not depression, I just have depression.”

A person can also remind themselves of all their other aspects. They may also be a parent, sibling, friend, spouse, neighbor, and colleague. Each person has their own strengths, abilities, and positive qualities that make them who they are.

5. Recognize the importance of self-care

Self-care is essential for good physical and mental health. Self-care activities are any actions that help people look after their well-being.

Self-care means taking time to relax, recharge, and connect with the self and others. It also means saying no to others when overwhelmed and taking space to calm and soothe oneself.

Basic self-care activities include:

  • eating a balanced diet
  • engaging in creative activities
  • taking a soothing bath

However, any action that enhances mental, emotional, and physical health can be considered a self-care activity.

6. Breathe deeply and relax the muscles

Deep breathing techniques are an effective way to calm anxiety and soothe the body’s stress response. Slowly inhaling and exhaling has physical and psychological benefits, especially if a person does this on a daily basis.

Anyone can practice deep breathing, whether in the car, at work, or in the grocery store. Many smartphone apps offer guided deep breathing activities, and many are free to download.

Progressive muscle relaxation is another helpful tool for those experiencing depression and anxiety. It involves tensing and relaxing the muscles in the body to reduce stress. Again, many smartphone apps offer guided progressive muscle relaxation exercises.

Read our reviews on meditation apps that can help with depression and anxiety.

7. Challenge negative thoughts

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective therapy for those with depression and other mood disorders. CBT proposes that a person’s thoughts, rather than their life situations, affect their mood.

CBT involves changing negative thoughts into more balanced ones to alter feelings and behaviors. A qualified therapist can offer CBT sessions, but it is also possible to challenge negative thoughts without consulting a therapist.

Firstly, a person can notice how often negative thoughts arise and what these thoughts say. These may include, “I am not good enough,” or “I am a failure.” Then, they can challenge those thoughts and replace them with more positive statements, such as, “I did my best,” and, “I am enough.”

8. Practice mindfulness

A person can take some time every day to be mindful and appreciate the present moment. This may mean noticing the warmth of sunlight on the skin when walking to work or the taste and texture of a crisp, sweet apple at lunchtime.

Mindfulness allows people to fully experience the moment they are in, not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

A 2017 study suggests that regular periods of mindfulness can reduce symptoms of depression and improve the negative responses that some people with chronic or recurrent depression have to low mood.

9. Make a bedtime routine

Sleep can have a significant effect on mood and mental health. A lack of sleep can contribute to symptoms of depression, and depression can interfere with sleep. To help minimize these effects, people living with depression may wish to try going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, even during weekends.

Establishing a nightly routine can also help. For example, a person can start winding down their day at 8 p.m. For example, they may consider:

  • sipping chamomile tea
  • reading a book
  • taking a warm bath
  • avoiding screen time and caffeine

It may also be helpful for some people to write in a journal before bed, especially for those who experience racing thoughts that prevent them from sleeping.

10. Exercise

Exercise is extremely beneficial for people with depression. It releases chemicals called endorphins that help improve mood. A 2016 meta-analysis reports that exercise has a large and significant effect on symptoms of depression.

11. Avoid alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant and can trigger episodes of depression or worsen existing episodes. Alcohol can also interact with some medications for depression and anxiety.

12. Record the positives

Depressive episodes can often leave people focusing on the negatives and discounting the positives. To counteract this, people with depression can keep a positivity journal or gratitude journal. This type of journal helps to build self-esteem.

Before bed, a person can write down three good things from the day. Positives can include regular meditation, going for a walk, and eating a healthy, balanced meal.

Learn more about how journaling may help with depression.

Managing depression can be overwhelming, but no one has to do it alone. One of the most important steps in dealing with a depressive episode is asking for help.

A person can seek help from:

  • Family and friends: People experiencing depression can consider talking with family and friends about how they are feeling and asking for support where they need it.
  • A doctor: It is essential for someone experiencing a depressive episode to consult a doctor who can make a diagnosis and recommend treatments. A 2018 article suggests that tailoring early treatment to the individual offers the best possible outcomes.
  • A therapist: Talking with a counselor or psychotherapist can be beneficial. Talk therapy can help address low moods and negative thoughts. A therapist can also teach coping skills to help people deal with future depressive episodes.
  • Support groups: Online or in-person local support groups for depression can be beneficial for people to talk with others who have similar experiences.

Support lines and crisis hotlines are another way that people with depression can reach out to others. A person can save important numbers to a cell phone, so they are easily accessible in times of need.

Helpful numbers in the United States include:

Support groups and helplines similar to these are also available in other countries.

Major depressive disorder is the most common form of depression. Other types of depression have similar symptoms and can also cause depressive episodes. These include:

  • Persistent depressive disorder: This lasts for a minimum of 2 years. During this period, symptoms may vary in severity but are always present. Approximately 1.5% of adults in the United States may experience persistent depressive disorder in any one year.
  • Psychotic depression: This causes symptoms of psychosis as well as severe depression. A person may experience delusions and hallucinations. Approximately 4 in every 1,000 people may develop psychotic depression.
  • Bipolar disorder: This is a mood disorder similar to major depressive disorder. Someone with bipolar disorder may also experience periods of extreme highs, known as mania or hypomania. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 2.8% of adults in the United States may develop bipolar disorder each year.
  • Perinatal depression: This refers to mild to severe symptoms of depression during pregnancy or after delivery and typically requires treatment. The Office on Women’s Health notes that 1 in 8 people experience postpartum depression within 12 months of giving birth.
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD): This causes symptoms of depression during the winter months. The American Psychiatry Association estimates about 5% of people have SAD.

A note about diagnosing depression

Psychotic depression, postpartum depression, and SAD are all diagnosed as “major depressive disorder” with either psychotic features, peripartum onset, or seasonal pattern.

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Depression is a complex condition with many possible causes.

Even though a person may be more susceptible to depression than someone else, they usually only experience a depressive episode when a stressful event triggers the condition.

Possible triggers include:

However, it is important to note that not every depressive episode will have an obvious or identifiable trigger.

A person who is experiencing a depressive episode may have symptoms that include feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or hopelessness. They may also have low energy or fatigue, a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, and more.

To be diagnosed with depression, a person must experience several of these symptoms for most of the day, almost every day, for at least 2 weeks.

Addressing depression symptoms as soon as they develop can help people recover more quickly. Certain behavioral changes may improve a person’s mood, even if they have experienced depression for a long time. Staying calm, tracking depression triggers, and challenging negative thoughts are examples of how a person can manage a depressive episode.

People experiencing a depressive episode should not hesitate to ask for help. It is important to remember that depression is not a sign of weakness or a personal shortcoming.