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Self-Management Techniques

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

The main methods of treating major depressive disorder (MDD) are antidepressant drugs and talk therapy. But many people with MDD find that other methods help, too. Self-management techniques are lifestyle changes that center around exercise, healthy eating, good sleep, and more. Often, these techniques can help with MDD symptoms as well as reduce the risk of other health conditions.1-3

In some people with mild depression, lifestyle changes like regular exercise may be enough to improve symptoms. But people with more severe MDD typically need to use self-management techniques along with traditional treatment options.1

Exercising regularly

Exercise has many benefits. It can help people manage weight, reduce stress, strengthen bones, and reduce their risk of certain health issues like heart disease or diabetes.1-4

Exercise also may help improve thinking and memory. MDD commonly affects these brain functions. Exercise may help the brain form new connections between cells. And some researchers think it may help activate areas of the brain impacted by depression.1-4

Many experts recommend 45 to 60 minutes per exercise session, roughly 3 to 5 times a week but any amount of activity can be beneficial. The type of exercise can vary. The best exercise plans are ones that include activities you enjoy and can safely do. Exercising with a friend can help keep you accountable and motivated as well.1,3,4

Examples of exercise activities that may have benefits include:1,3,4

  • Walking or jogging
  • Dancing
  • Cleaning
  • Gardening
  • Swimming

Practicing stress management techniques

Stress and mood are linked. Having high levels of stress increases your risk of developing depression and other mood issues. Reducing stress can improve your general well-being and lower your risk of developing other chronic medical issues. It can help manage some of the symptoms of MDD, like trouble sleeping, too.5-7

There are many ways to reduce stress. Some of them, like mindfulness, have been shown to have direct, positive benefits for people with MDD. But finding what brings you the most joy and peace will be an individual journey. Each person’s practice will be unique.5

Common stress relief methods include:5,6

  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Guided imagery
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Massage
  • Aromatherapy
  • Art, music, or dance therapy
  • Journaling
  • Practicing a hobby like reading, crafting, or playing board games

Eating a well-balanced diet

Eating well helps give you energy. This can be especially helpful when you are dealing with the fatigue and low motivation that comes with MDD. In fact, eating a healthy diet has been found to reduce the length of a person’s depressed mood. It also helps reduce the risk of developing chronic health conditions that can worsen depression, like diabetes.2,8

Knowing where to start when it comes to healthy eating can be overwhelming. Try these tips for eating well:8,9

  • Increase vitamin D and calcium intake in your diet by eating leafy green vegetables and fortified drinks or foods (like oatmeal with added calcium and vitamin D).
  • Limit salt and added sugar as much as possible.
  • Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water per day.
  • Eat complex carbs (like quinoa or whole grains) instead of simple carbs (like white bread or crackers).
  • Add more fiber to your diet with raw vegetables, beans, seeds, or whole grains.
  • Swap out foods with saturated fats (like butter or red meat) for leaner foods or those with unsaturated fats (like olive oil, chicken, or turkey).
  • Eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible, especially those that are fresh or frozen.

The best way to get the vitamins and nutrients you need is by eating healthy foods. Unfortunately, many people with MDD may not have access to healthy foods or they may live in what is called a “food desert.” Ask your doctor about local food resources that can help.

Some people may use over-the-counter supplements or vitamins as part of their diet plan. These options can be helpful in some cases. But they also carry risks.10

Supplements are not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way other drugs are. This means that no outside agency confirms the ingredients or suggested dose. They can contain unexpected ingredients or different amounts than you expect.10

Also, some supplements can have dangerous reactions with medications. Talk with your doctor before starting any new vitamin or supplement to find out if it is safe for you.10

Getting good sleep

Sleep and mood are also tightly linked. Poor sleep quality or too little sleep can have negative effects on mental, emotional, and physical health. Poor sleep can also increase your risk of developing other health issues.11

Research into sleep and depression has found that getting better sleep may help improve the symptoms of depression. This can be challenging, though, because a common symptom of depression is trouble sleeping (insomnia).1,2,11

Practicing good sleep-related habits (sleep hygiene) can help you fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Here are some tips for good sleep hygiene:12

  • Reduce screen time, especially later in the evening.
  • Avoid physical activity close to bedtime.
  • Drink caffeinated drinks only in the morning.
  • Remove televisions and other electronics from your bedroom.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
  • Try to go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
  • Avoid big meals before bed.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Reduce alcohol.

If you are on an antidepressant drug that affects your sleep, talk with your doctor. They may be able to make recommendations that can help. Do not stop taking or change the dose of your antidepressant on your own. This can carry risks such as nausea, vomiting, or return of symptoms.1

Reducing tobacco, drug, and alcohol use

Using recreational drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can all impact mood. Substance use issues are common in people with MDD. But it is not clear whether substance use leads to MDD or the other way around. It is likely that the issues work together in a cycle. Cutting back on substance use can help improve your mood and reduce your risk of developing other health conditions.2,13

If you are interested in reducing your substance use, your doctor may be able to recommend medicines or resources that can help. They can also monitor you for any complications like withdrawal and make sure you are stopping safely.13

Shifting your mindset

Many people feel ashamed about their depression symptoms. In fact, 1 of the main features of depression is feeling guilty or worthless. This can lower self-esteem and worsen MDD.14

If you are living with MDD, remember that you are not alone. Also, your symptoms are not your fault. MDD is a medical condition that affects many people. If you need to ask for help or take a break from certain activities or tasks, that is not a sign of failure. It is important to put your personal health first and seek the support you need.13,14

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