Taming the Black Dog: How to Hack Depression

I’ll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Still does.” ― Henry Rollins


(Photo: Nesster)

The Grey Dog

When depression comes it should come bearing a fruit basket, so while you are contemplating the insignificance of your existence you can at least enjoy an apricot or two. But depression comes bearing neither produce nor an instruction manual to help us make sense of the suffering or even a way out.

I was depressed most of my childhood and through my early 20s. As I built a better life for myself, the depression slowly lifted but has not disappeared completely. It still shows up in my life every once in a while but over the years I learned to deal with it. It’s much like an annoying uncle who comes to visit uninvited and whose presence you disdain but yet have learned to tolerate.

I want to share some of ways I have learned to deal with depression and the things that have really helped me. Over the years I have found numerous tricks and shortcuts to minimize and even prosper from depression. Most of these ideas are from trial and error, self experimentation and paying attention – trying to observe my own depression as an outsider.

 The “Blah’s”


This depression comes every few months, it’s not really a depression but more of a “blah” feeling, where you just feel down and don’t have a lot of motivation to do things. You want to close the curtains and veg out. It’s not an overall depression but more of a semi numb feeling where you just have diminished enthusiasm. If it takes hold, it usually lasts a few days but most of the time I found that it can be avoided with the following.


  1. Exercise.
    This is one of those things that works almost without fail. Any type of workout I have found will improve my mood, but I have had better results after weight lifting than running. The workout does not have to be long at all 15 to 20 minutes of HIIT workout will usually do the trick. The positive feelings after a workout I have found to last usually the whole day and into the following day.

  2. Staying Busy or do the one thing you have been putting off.
    Staying busy and distracting yourself will most of the time improve your mood. But I found one of the best ways to feel better if you are depressed is to do the one thing which you have been putting off and have been dreading doing. Could be a phone call, could be taking care of a project you have been putting off or it could be taking your car to get an oil change. Whatever task that takes less than 2 hours to complete which you know you have to do at some point but been avoiding is the thing that you should do if you are down. I found that doing my dreaded task first thing in the morning really helps.

  3. Cleaning your place.
    I came across this trick by reverse engineering and seeing what I do once I come out of a depression. Cleaning my place was almost always one of the first things I do. I started experimenting and seeing if I can “trick” myself and feel better if I clean my place as soon as I start feeling depressed. This usually works, plus it’s much easier to feel down if your place is messy and dirty.

  4. Compliment people.
    I have found that if I say kind things to strangers when I am down I tend to feel better. Usually a kind word to a checkout clerk or someone who is not expecting a compliment improves my overall mood. You should always do kind things for strangers but I definitely noticed a lot bigger return when it is done when I am down.

  5. Being around people, no matter how painful it may be.
    The problem with doing any of the things I mentioned is that when you are down you really don’t feel like exercising, cleaning, doing hated tasks or being overly social. This is one of those things I found that you have to force yourself to do even if you hate it, especially first thing in the morning. Getting up and starting a routine as soon as you wake up I found to be key. Unfortunately, if you are feeling really, really down none of the things I mention will help, but more on that in a minute.


Here are the things that I have tried but had limited success with:

  1. Writing all the things you are grateful for and things that went right.
    Robert A. Emmons, of the University of California and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami conducted a study where they instructed people to keep a journal listing five things for which they felt grateful for, like a great meal, great friends, something they’d learned or a sunset they’d enjoyed. The gratitude journal was brief and done only once a week, but after two months there were significant effects. Compared with a control group, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier.
    Unfortunately, after trying this for a while I have not had the same results as the study group. (Still a good exercise to do even if you are not feeling down)

  2. Taking a Cold Shower.
    A 2008 study at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that depressed patients who were treated with cold showers showed a significant improvement in mood. The treatments consisted of cold showers that were 20°C for 2 to 3 minutes, performed once or twice daily over several months. I have tried this and it does work to some extent but if you are already down do you really want to step into a cold shower and be hosed off like some Alabama Freedom Walker? This is helpful but to me it was just not worth the sacrifice, especially when things like working out had more positive effect.

  3. Sleep.
    Sleep is really interesting. At times I found that if I am down and take an hour or two nap, I will feel better when I wake up, but other times I found that I actually feel worse and irritated. I have not been able to find a way to get constant positive results from napping.

  4. Happy Light.
    Chris Kresser had a very good article on using light therapy to fight Seasonal Affective Disorder. (SAD) I have tried this but have not been able to detect a clear positive pattern.

  5. Being outdoors and vitamin D.
    Studies indicate that there is a correlation between D levels and depression. I have found no difference over the years with my D levels being in the mid 20’s Ng/mL to close to 50 Ng/mL. I did find that being outdoors does increase my mood ever so slightly although usually the following day. Being outdoors for even an hour is equivalent to roughly 10,000 to 20,000 IU of vitamin D. I have found that taking a dose of 10,000 IU to 20,000 IU of Vitamin D, did not produce the same effect. So I think there is something besides Vitamin D which might attribute to the positive effect of being outdoors, or the body processes Vitamin D from sunshine in a different way compared to pill form.

Even though I had limited success with the things mentioned above your millage might vary so feel free to give them a try.

 The Black Dog


That is all I want in life: for this pain to seem purposeful.” – Elizabeth Wurtzel


(Photo: Zebra Pares)

Winston Churchill, who battled with mental illness for most of his life, referred to his depression as the “Black Dog”. He was fearful of ending his life during his depressive episodes, saying “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”

It’s so easy for someone to question how can one of the greatest world leaders beloved by millions possibly be so depressed? Unfortunately, depression does not make a lot of sense, especially to people who have never experienced it.

I have been truly deeply depressed only about a half dozen times in my life, all the times came unexpectedly (although they tended to show up either around my birthday or around the holidays). The depression usually lasts about a week… but it’s a week of pure hell.

One of the most important things I learned when trying to figure out depression is that fighting it does not help. No amount of affirmations, “turning that frown upside down”, gratitude exercises and other self help crap works. The people who recommend those things clearly have never been truly depressed. When you are truly in the depth of depression even interacting with a checkout clerk at the supermarket is a painful ordeal. When you are truly depressed, depression is not something that happens to you, it is who you are and who you become. Everything is different, the sun does not shine as bright, and the world seems distant and unattached. You are not living but existing, going through the motions of life like a zombie, simply because you have done it before. But you are not really there. That is what real depression is.

My depression also comes with anxiety which is really the hardest part. Depression + Anxiety is a little like New Kids on the Block going on tour with The Backstreet Boys. They are horrible by themselves, but when combined, it makes for a really insufferable experience.

I can’t say that I was ever able to lift myself out of deep depression once it has set in, but I have found a few tricks to minimize its pain. Here is what helped me and what might help you.

  1. Reward yourself for being depressed.
    Stop thinking that there is anything I need to do or that there is very much that I could do. I accept that this is how I will be for the next week or so and don’t feel bad for feeling bad. I then give myself permission to do things that I deny myself when I am feeling good. In other words, I reward myself for being depressed. I watch dumb, brain numbing stuff on TV that I would never watch while being happy and productive (Hello Miami Vice reruns). I completely go off my healthy diet and eat whatever the hell I want. (I am looking at you Kit Kats and Nutella). I waste time extensively (Did someone say girl on girl porn?).
    I know that I am going on a trip to hell for about a week how can I make my voyage less painful? I do it by giving myself permission to be imperfect, lazy and unproductive and completely free.

  2. Know that you are in good company.
    Whenever I feel truly down, I look at my bookshelf and at my music collection and realized that pretty much everyone whom I respect has been where I am now. There are very few great artists, writers or people of any importance who have not suffered as much or more than I have. Depression gives me sensitivity and insight into the world that I would not have otherwise. I learned to never be ashamed of how I feel but wear my depression as a badge of honor during the time I am going through it, I am in good company.

  3. Pile on.
    When you are feeling truly down – everything sucks. You feel like a failure, you underrate your successes and concentrate only on your flaws and failures. This is natural part of depression along with the horrible feeling of helplessness. I have found that I get some relief if I feel that I have some ability to influence how I feel. Unfortunately, attempting to make me feel better never works but I found that I can get a little bit of power and control by having the ability to make myself feel worse. I will pile on and try to think of as much negative stuff as I can while being depressed. If depression makes me feel like a failure at one part of my life I like to find other parts of my life in which I am successful in and try to come up with reasons why I am a failure in those areas as well. This makes me feel worse which in effect makes me feel better because it gives me the power to see that I actually do have power in a powerless situation to influence how I feel (even if it’s for the negative). But my mind, just like a dog to which you fake throw a tennis ball, it figures out that I am messing with it. At which point, my brain catches on and says, “Yes, I know that you suck at this part of your life, but the other part you claim you suck at, I think you are trying to pull a fast one on me because you are not as bad as you claim, let me show you why….” This in turn generates positive thoughts which are a warm relief.

  4. Be anxious about something else.
    To me the depression is not the hard part it’s the anxiety which seems to fixate on something, build it up and make it real. What I found interesting is that each time I have had one of my depressive episodes it’s always ONE thing that I am anxious about never TWO or THREE. I have found that I can minimize the anxiety if I pick another thing to obsess about. Here is a simple example of how this would work in reference to something that probably everyone has experienced. Let’s say you are driving and you have this anxiety because you feel you left the oven on. No matter what, you do you keep obsessing about the oven. In this situation pick another thing which might be even more real and try obsessing on that. Here what the inner dialogue might sound like: “Yes, I know I probably left the oven on and it will burn down the whole house, but I also forgot to lock the front door which means that I will probably be robbed first and then the house will burn down.” Try to fixate and come up with all the reasons why you left your door unlocked and why you will most likely be robbed. For some strange reason in my case, anxiety only latches onto one thing and is not capable of handling two separate items. This seems to have power to short circuit the anxiety and minimizes it’s powers.

  5. Do the Math.
    Let’s go back to the made up anxiety example where you start obsessing about leaving the oven on. One thing that helps is to do the math on the problem. If you are away from home and you are obsessing about leaving the oven on and you think your place will burn down, do a simple calculation. What are the odds that there will be a house fire? Well, if there were roughly 500,000 house fires last year and there are roughly 150,000,000 homes in the US that means that my odds of me having a house fire is roughly 1 in 300 this year. I then compare it to something for which I do not have any anxiety over such as driving. There were 6 million car accidents last year and there are roughly 250,000,000 cars in the US. So the odds of me getting into a car accident this year are roughly 1 in 41. The odds are much greater that I will get into a car accident than have a fire in my place and if I am not anxious about something which has a much greater odds of happening then why should I be anxious about something which is much less likely to happen? Breaking things up mathematically really helps put things in perspective. As one enlightened person once said to me “The thing that ultimately gets you is never the thing you fear or obsess about, it’s usually completely unexpected”. So stop worrying.

  6. Finally from Eckhart Tolle’s advice about living in the moment and being the observer of your life.
    I found that to some extent depression and anxiety can be relived if you try to separate yourself from your depression and try to focus on being the observer who watches and views himself going through depression from the outside. Like Jane Goodall studying the chimps, become the person who watches and studies and takes notes as an outsider, observing what is happening to you. This has been very helpful and it’s also the root of all spiritual enlightenment.

If you are depressed, seek help and know that you are going through what hundreds of millions of people have gone through before you over the centuries. You are no different and you are not a special and unique snow flake. Your suffering is ordinary.

Whatever it is you want to accomplish in life, it is hard to do without having enthusiasm for it. If you lack enthusiasm because you are depressed, I would devote a lot of time to trying to fix that first. See what others have done and do a lot of self experimentation. Approach depression like you would a puzzle which has a solution that is unique to you and remember that the answers are out there.

Michael Page

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