By Alissa Bagan, M.S.
With the onset of short days, less sunlight, and the anticipation of a long time until summer, many people find themselves feeling apathetic, sluggish, and unmotivated. This is especially true for people who already have a tendency toward depressive symptoms. Consider this scenario: “I should get off the couch and do something. I feel exhausted. I feel lethargic and I don’t feel like doing anything. Forget it!” If this sounds like you, no need to worry. You’re not alone! It’s a common struggle even if not much talked about.
There are things you can do to help yourself. The good news is that we can use our minds to change our brains, and therefore, our feelings. In other words, we can direct our attention (mind) which changes our physiology (brain and body) which changes our subjective experience (feelings of motivation). For people who are depressed, waiting until you feel motivated is not a useful strategy. Indeed, it’s almost always after a person has gotten up and moving that they then feel motivation. This makes sense from a neuroscientific standpoint, as we know that physical movement in and of itself increases the brain chemicals responsible for feelings of well-being and motivation, serotonoin and norepinephrine. The rule of thumb, as Dr. David Burns has said, is, “motivation follows action.”
2 Suggestions to put this information into practice:
1. You find yourself thinking, “I need to get up and get some work done” but you’re acutely aware of physical feelings of heaviness and fatigue. Therefore, you conclude that you can’t get up. Instead of making this conclusion, first, set aside the goal of getting work done and instead use your mind to direct your attention to giving your body some energy. With your goal waiting for you, take the next 1 – 2 minutes to stand up and do some simple stretching exercises like stretching your arms to the sky and touching your toes. You could also take yourself for a walk down the block or around your house. After these few minutes you will likely find that you have more motivation to go about your day.
2. Enlist the help of a trusted and compassionate friend or family member. Educate them about the brain’s need for movement in order to create feelings of motivation. Then, let them know something like this: “I’m having a hard time getting up and getting going. I’d like you to help me by encouraging me, compassionately reminding me of my brain’s physical needs, and that my feelings will change after I move for a couple of minutes. Will you call me in the mornings for 2 weeks?”
These are not permanent solutions and are not substitutes for the regular exercise our bodies and brains need, but they are often the boost of motivation needed to help your brain get the chemicals it needs to get you out the door. It’s also important to remember that if you still find yourself suffering with depression to not be hard on yourself. Often times there are good reasons that our bodies present symptoms of depression. Sometimes depression is the only way a person knows how to rest, or it’s the default mode after many years of buried pain. Teasing out these issues with a therapist can be very useful and liberating if you’re like millions of other people who suffer alone with depression.