Psychotherapy Handout: Managing the Depression Pit

Depression is not easy. If you struggle with recurring depression you will want to find ways to deal with it effectively. One important place to start is to begin observing the depression and listening for the messages hidden within the symptoms. Ask questions that help bring clarity about causes and strategies for management, questions like:

  • What makes my symptoms a bit better or a bit worse?
  • What is my depression trying to tell me?
  • What does my depression need me to do?

There are many good books on the skills for managing depression. Two favorites that speak to the notion of befriending depression are Cheri Huber’s book, Depression and, an old favorite book by Judith Duerk titled, Circle of Stones. Both these books take an engaged approach to dealing with depression, one that invites you to listen and learn from its challenge and pain.

In my work with clients, I prefer to start from a belief that depression is a normal reaction to pain and loss and, for many people, it is a recurring response to the stress and struggle of life. If depression is viewed as something to engage with rather than run from, then the message inside the symptom can be understood and worked with. I begin by instructing people to view depression as a teacher, rather than something for which to be ashamed. Having a curious attitude, rather than a condemning one, allows you to see into depression’s core and learn about its underlying needs.

I designed a handout called Managing the Depression Pit. This offers a structure for getting to the core meaning, learning to care for the underlying needs, and getting back to a contented state as quickly as possible. The first step involves an examination of the antecedents to your current depressive experience by asking the question, What caused this slip into depression? This may be a straightforward question but the answer is often obscure and challenging to identify. This question is used to begin or deepen a conversation about all the factors and conditions that contributed to the current slide into depression. Knowing these contributors allows for possible alterations in these conditions in the future.

Secondly, the handout asks you to identify what keeps you stuck. When you are in the midst of the depression pit, what do you do that makes it hard to move out? Maybe you get critical of yourself and judge yourself for being down. Maybe you blame someone else and get stuck in feeling like a victim. The patterns of “stuckness” are many, usually you will have a favorite or habitual pattern that keeps you slogging through the muck. Again, understanding and awareness of your own patterns leads you to increased freedom and the possibility of trying something different.

The last part of this handout helps you identify the various steps to take to climb out of the depression pit. Maybe you call a friend or you shut off the self criticism. Maybe you go for a run or indulge ourself in a day of relaxation. Whatever it is that works should be noted so it can be repeated. Look at what has worked in the past, what makes it just a little bit better, and what you’d like to consider doing the next time you find yourself in this pit. All ideas, big and small, can be recorded here.

When you have completed this handout you will have a map what to do to get unstuck and ideas for how to climb out of the depression pit. You will also have some more clarity about what causes you to slip into the hole in the first place. This expanded awareness offers you greater choice which in turn offers you a sense of freedom.

The poem, Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, by Portia Nelson, describes this process of awareness leading to change is this clever way.

Autobiography In Five Short Chapters

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

Since depression isn’t always completely avoidable, it is helpful to have strategies to learn from it and tools to manage it as best as is possible. Taking the attitude of curiosity and compassion allows wisdom to develop. From this place, choices and alternatives are more visible and the authorship of one’s life becomes possible.