Depression Self Help Or Counseling: Should You Do Both?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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Sadness is a normal human emotion. A healthy individual experiences sadness many times throughout their lifetime: a bad grade, a fight with a significant other, or the loss of a pet or family member can trigger grief. However, some individuals can struggle with a pervasive sadness that impedes daily life experiences. This pervasive sadness is called depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the major depressive disorder affects more than 16.1 million people per year. Depression can affect happiness, socialization, and overall quality of life. However, many effective treatments help individuals fight and beat depression and allow them to regain control of their mental health and happiness.

Types of Depression

There are many types of depression, all caused by differing circumstances. According to an article published for Harvard Medical School, four main types can affect any individual: Major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder (known as SAD). Women may also develop perinatal or postpartum depression during or after pregnancy. These different types involve different symptoms, and therefore, different coping mechanisms.

Major Depressive Disorder

The major depressive disorder involves at least two weeks of an extremely “low mood,” as defined by the American Psychiatric Association. This low mood may involve diminished happiness, anxiety, low self-esteem, loss of interest in activities, or low energy. While the period must be at least two weeks, it often stretches much longer. As one is dealing with depression or depressive episodes, thoughts of self-harm or suicide can occur. This is clearly something that should be dealt with under the supervision of a professional counselor or doctor. Unfortunately, many people with depression deal with these thoughts.

Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia)

Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia) is a disorder in which an individual experiences a low mood for at least two years. While the period may be more extended than a major depressive disorder, those with persistent depression do not experience the intensity of symptoms that those afflicted with major depression do. Oftentimes, those with persistent depressive disorder experience changes in appetite, general happiness, and a lack of energy.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a unique disorder characterized by instability of emotions. Those with bipolar disorder vacillate between periods of mania and depression. The two periods are often at direct opposite ends of the spectrum, with symptoms of mania presenting as overly high self-esteem, risky behavior, unrealistic idealization, and extreme pleasure-seeking behaviors such as overspending. This is coupled with periods of shallow depression, with symptoms often seen in individuals with major depressive disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of disorder that appears with the change of seasons, specifically during the winter or fall months. It is believed to be caused by changes in light or daily rhythms brought about from the shortened days. For those who deal with seasonal affective disorder, popular depression treatment is to order a sunlight lamp. According to the Mayo Clinic, those who deal with SAD may find good results with light therapy. So, if you are dealing with depression, and you believe it is seasonal, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about light therapy.

Postpartum Depression

Women affected with perinatal and postpartum depression are affected by major or minor depressive episodes during pregnancy or within the first year after giving birth. This type of depression is caused by the extreme surge in hormones during pregnancy or birth, and it may affect every 1 in 9 women who give birth, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Treatment Options for Depression

Due to the number of individuals around the world struggling with one of these types of depressive disorders, there are a variety of treatment options available. These treatments should be specifically tailored to the type of depression that an individual is struggling with. Two main categories exist, which are personal self-help and professional counseling or therapy, which can often be coupled with medication. Many people may struggle with what treatment option to pursue. Traditional therapy and professional treatment could be inaccessible to those with financial barriers, and fear of social ostracization can prevent an individual from seeking therapy as well. However, some self-help methods could prove unhelpful for individuals struggling with more intense depression. While self-help, therapy, or a combination of the two have all proved effective, those considering these treatments should first consider their personal experience with depression and then decide what method to pursue.

Self-Help Treatments

There is a vast array of self-help treatments for depression that may increase an individual’s happiness as well as their quality of life. These treatments are connected to lifestyle changes, and they are not usually a quick fix for depressive symptoms. Self-help, however, has the unique capability of being integrated into a daily routine that can last a lifetime. Compared to counseling, self-help is a cheaper and more accessible option for a greater number of people, and it can prove to be incredibly helpful. The following options are available for virtually anyone struggling with a mood disorder.

Socialization

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Those with many types of depression may be averse to socialization and can spend days or weeks distancing themselves from friends and family. They may only interact with peers at work or school and find themselves denying opportunities for social outings. While it may seem difficult at first to socialize with others, interaction with others may improve one’s ability to speak candidly about their experience. Socialization allows for a web of peers that may serve as a “safety net” for those struggling with depression, as individuals will feel more comfortable turning to friends or family for help with depressive thoughts. Simply speaking to another person can fight off loneliness, which is a common depressive symptom. Socialization, in any form, can also create a feeling of belonging that may improve one’s mental state.

Exercise

There is a reason that exercise is so lauded by scientists and healthcare professionals alike: it has a wealth of benefits that, in addition to physical health, positively affect mental health as well. Exercising for at least 150 minutes/week is recommended for all adults, although daily activity for at least 30 minutes is the best practice for physical and mental health. Exercise releases endorphins, which is one of the chemicals that may lift the mood. Daily exercise can also help to improve self-esteem and positive self-thoughts, which many individuals with depression struggle with during depressive episodes.

Mindfulness

Many lifestyles and wellness professionals recommend practicing “mindfulness” to improve physical and mental health. Mindfulness is the practice of recognizing specific activities or habits in one’s daily life, either positive or negative, without judging oneself for those practices. The practice of staying mindful is promoted to encourage individuals to integrate healthy habits and avoiding unhealthy or harmful habits. By practicing mindfulness, those with depressive disorders may have an easier time recognizing harmful thoughts caused by their disease. When an individual can do so, they may find success in beating and preventing depression. In fact, mindfulness-based interventions halve the risk of relapse for those struggling with recurrent depression. Practicing mindfulness in daily life can prove to be helpful for all groups of people, not just those with depression. Still, it can most definitely aid those struggling with persistent or recurrent depression.

Diet

A healthy diet can be extremely effective in fighting and preventing depression. Creating a healthy balance in vitamins and nutrients can increase energy levels and improve physical health. In addition, keeping a healthy diet can improve self-image, much like exercise can. Those with depression are often advised to avoid alcohol and other depressants that are used as unhealthy coping mechanisms for mood disorders and unhappiness. These can cause mood crashes and addictions, two states of being that can exacerbate symptoms of depression and of depressive disorders.

Counseling

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While self-help practices are easily accessible for the majority of the population, at times, more intense methods are needed to deliver the best help available. Counseling is one of these options. Counseling can be given in many different forms, whether it is online, in-person, individual, couple, or group-based therapy. Psychotherapy, known as talk-based therapy, involves a conversation between an individual and a professional about thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Psychotherapy geared towards helping those with depression may take on many different forms. Some of these are discussed below. If you are interested in any of the counseling methods below, consider using BetterHelp for at-home counseling.

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy is based on the theory that thoughts can affect an individual’s emotions. Therefore, awareness of thinking patterns is promoted throughout cognitive therapy, as research shows that awareness and challenging thoughts to change them can support healing. It usually lasts between six to 18 weeks, and it is focused on identifying and changing negative thought patterns that may be affecting emotional health.

Behavioral Therapy

Behavioral therapy is similar to cognitive therapy, but it is based on the idea that behaviors impact an individual’s emotional state. Thus, behavioral therapy is centered on promoting behaviors that increase happiness and avoiding behaviors that decrease happiness. It teaches individuals how to engage in activities that promote their own mental health and how to form a healthy, long-term routine around those behaviors.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is the combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy into one practice. It centers around addressing changing the thoughts and behaviors that may affect one’s mental health. A therapist will help individuals to pinpoint and address behavioral patterns or automatic thought responses to life experiences that can enhance or detract from an individual’s emotional health.

Combination of Treatments

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While self-help and traditional counseling may both lead to positive outcomes for those struggling with depressive episodes, at times, a combination of the two may prove to be effective at combating the different types of depressive disorders. Those attending traditional therapy can benefit from utilizing self-help methods to enhance their experience in counseling. For example, a study of individuals struggling with differing depressive disorders found that a combination of exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy reduced depression symptoms at a higher rate than using simple exercise or CBT to address depression symptoms. Lifestyle changes like these may positively affect counseling methods by giving individuals healthy habits or behaviors to continue or replace harmful behaviors that may have been negatively affecting the individual in the past. Counseling can help those struggling with depression to find the best combination of these activities. Likewise, if an individual has been participating in self-help activities with no respite from depression symptoms, it may be time to turn to counsel methods to improve their mental state.

Depressive disorders may be inhibitors to a happy, healthy lifestyle, but there are many varieties of treatment to combat symptoms of depression. There is no one-size-fits-all method, so individuals should study their own experience with depression and decide which method works best for them. Those with mild symptoms may benefit from eating healthier, practicing mindfulness, and exercising more. Those struggling with more severe symptoms could find that the help of a professional is needed. Overall, those with depression should know that they are not alone. There is a whole community of people and professionals designing practices focused on making others the happiest and healthiest they can be!


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