Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/20/2021
Depression is a common mental illness. In fact, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, more than seven percent of all American adults experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2017.
As a serious mental illness, depression can affect the way you think and behave, causing you to withdraw from life and lose hope, energy and ambition.
When you’re feeling depressed, it may seem as if there’s no possibility of turning things around and making your life better.
However, the reality is that there are many things that you can do — some of which are relatively simple — to improve the way you feel and make progress toward recovering from depression.
Below, we’ve listed 11 ways to help depression, so you can improve your mood and make real progress toward recovery. Read on to learn more about helpful medical treatments such as antidepressants and therapy, as well as simple lifestyle and habit changes you can make to relieve your symptoms and start making progress right away.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: one of the most effective ways to treat depression is to use medication.
Antidepressants, particularly modern SSRIs and SNRIs, are very effective at treating depression and related mental health conditions.
These medications work by increasing levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, which are neurotransmitters in your brain. This can improve your mood and make it easier to overcome the negative feelings and thought processes that often occur when you’re depressed.
Research shows that around 40 to 60 percent of people who use antidepressants find that their symptoms improve within six to eight weeks.
Modern antidepressants have also been shown to reduce the risk of relapse — a common issue for people suffering from a depressive disorder.
While taking medication to treat depression might not seem natural, the reality is that it’s a safe, effective way to gain control over your moods and feelings.
Read this list of antidepressants to learn more about how these medications work, as well as the most effective options currently available.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves speaking with a mental health professional to identify and change certain negative aspects of how you think, feel and behave.
Several types of therapy are commonly used to treat depression, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy and problem solving therapy.
Working with a therapist can help you to get to the root of what’s causing you to feel depressed and give you a mental toolkit for making progress.
Your therapist may suggest steps you can take to improve the way you feel. In some cases, and especially with moderate or severe depression, you may receive antidepressants or other medication to use along with therapy to improve your results.
This guide to the types of therapy explores the different forms of therapy and the ways they can help depression.
Research shows that exercising is one of the most effective ways to treat depression — and for some people, it’s as effective as using antidepressants.
In a review published in 2004, researchers looked at a variety of studies related to exercise and depression, concluding that frequent exercise — even if short in duration or low in intensity — helps decrease the symptoms of depression.
In short, regular exercise helps, even if it’s just a short walk, a bike ride around your neighborhood or a quick workout in the gym.
Experts believe this may be due to the effects of exercise on certain brain growth factors, which promote the development of your nerve cells.
For optimal results, aim to move for at least 15 to 30 minutes at a time, ideally working up to the CDC’s recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (such as cycling, swimming or brisk walking) five days a week.
It’s also helpful to engage in some form of strength training at least twice a week, whether it’s working out with weights or doing exercises at home. Muscle not only helps you burn more calories, but staying toned and strong can help prevent joint pain so you can keep yourself moving.
Over time, even a small increase in your activity level can have a noticeable effect on how you think and feel.
While spending too much time outside in direct sunlight can cause sunburn and age your skin, enjoying the outdoors in moderation may have a positive impact on your mood.
Depressive symptoms can include a lack of energy, and exercising outdoors can help relieve that with a sunny bonus.
What’s more, research has found a link between the amount of sunlight an area might have, and the concentration of serotonin in local residents’ blood.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that’s involved in regulating your mood, happiness and level of anxiety. Low serotonin levels are associated with depression, and many antidepressants are designed to boost serotonin levels in the brain.
While enjoying sunny weather may not increase your serotonin levels as much as using SSRIs, it does appear to have some impact.
To get your daily dose of sun, try to:
Get 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure per day. You can do this by taking a short walk during your lunch break, going for a jog in the morning or simply enjoying your morning coffee outdoors instead of inside.
When at home, open the curtains. While this won’t provide direct sun exposure, it will increase the amount of natural light in your space.
Use sunscreen to protect your skin. To prevent sunburn, apply an SPF 30+ sunscreen before you spend long periods of time outdoors, especially during peak sunlight hours.
If you live in a cold region that gets little sunlight during winter, you may want to consider using a phototherapy (light therapy) device to prevent the weather from affecting your mood.
Although the idea that certain types of food can improve or worsen your mood might seem strange, the reality is that maintaining a balanced diet is one of the best ways to help depression.
In fact, some research suggests that eating a healthful diet may reduce your risk of experiencing depression symptoms. In a 2017 meta-analysis published in Psychiatry Research, researchers found that a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, fish and low-fat dairy was associated with a reduced risk of developing depression.
The same report also revealed that diets high in red and/or processed meats, sugary foods and high-fat dairy were associated with an increased risk of developing depression.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to completely give up favorites like ribeye steak, pizza and candy to treat depression.
However, maintaining a healthy diet that’s built around nutrient-rich foods may help improve the way you feel and make managing your symptoms easier.
When you’re depressed, it’s easy to isolate yourself and avoid spending time maintaining your most important relationships.
If you haven’t spent time with your family recently, try reaching out to let them know you’re not feeling your best.
Research shows that people who receive family support tend to recover from depression faster than those who don’t.
If you live near your family, try to increase the amount of time you spend together in person, whether this means living together or simply visiting for dinner every few days.
If you live far away from your family and can’t see them in person, regular phone calls or video chats can help you touch base and maintain your relationships.
In addition to spending time with your family, make sure to carve time for your close friends and other people in your life. Simple things like enjoying activities together often have a positive effect on your mood and wellbeing.
One of the most common symptoms of depression is a reduced level of interest in hobbies and activities.
When you’re depressed, you might feel bored or as if you don’t experience much pleasure from things that used to excite you. This could lead you to withdraw further from your hobbies, habits and other aspects of your life.
Try to make time for your favorite hobbies and pastimes, even if they don’t give you the same level of satisfaction as before.
This could mean practicing an old sport, playing a musical instrument, going for a hike or simply trying something new.
Over time, your sense of enjoyment and satisfaction might return as you spend more time on your hobbies, especially if you take part in activities with other people.
Depression is closely linked to sleep issues. In fact, research shows that about 75 percent of those suffering from depression experience insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep), while 40 percent of young people with depression experience hypersomnia (excessive sleeping).
If you’re depressed, you may find yourself staying up later than usual at nighttime, or drifting off to sleep during the daytime.
Over time, this can affect your life and make it harder to maintain relationships by changing your sleep patterns.
Try to maintain normal, healthy sleep habits. Aim to reach the CDC’s recommendation of seven or more hours of sleep per night.
Simple habits such as setting an alarm and sticking to it, avoiding stimulants like caffeine after midday and getting regular exercise can help you fall asleep more easily and stay asleep for the whole night.
You can read more about these habits and techniques in this full guide to getting better sleep, backed by science.
Stress is associated with several psychiatric issues, including depression. In a review published in 2005, experts noted a “robust and causal” association between stressful life events and major depression.
If you’re feeling stressed and depressed, gaining control over your stress may improve the way you feel and alleviate your depressive symptoms.
Effective ways to reduce stress include being physically active, planning ahead about how you’ll use your time, limiting your alcohol intake and participating in stress-reducing activities, such as meditation.
Some of these habits and activities are not just linked to improvements in depression, but to reduced anxiety and other mental health issues, as well.
Depression often involves negative thought patterns — which are ways of thinking that always lead you to unpleasant or unhelpful conclusions.
These thought patterns are referred to as cognitive distortions. They’re biases in the way you think that can cause you to feel unhappy or incapable of doing certain things.
Common cognitive distortions include assuming that other people have negative thoughts about you, mental filtering (ignoring positive information) catastrophizing (assuming a negative outcome without any evidence) and black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking.
When you’re depressed, it’s easy to let these negative, distorted patterns take over the way you think and affect your perception of reality.
Try to identify these thought patterns when they occur, and then interrupt yourself to change the way you think about things.
When you assume the worst, for example, force yourself to present evidence for your position. You might find things aren’t as bad as you initially thought.
Another tactic to help stop negative thinking is to ask yourself if you might view everyday situations (such as conversation with friends) differently if you weren’t affected by depression.
By challenging your negative thoughts, you’ll be able to spot cognitive distortions and stop them from changing the way you perceive the world.
Depression is a serious form of mental illness. While recovery is very possible, few people with depression go directly from feeling depressed to feeling better overnight.
Instead, recovering from depression is often a series of small steps that add up to produce real, noticeable improvements in your mood and thought processes.
While things like going for a five-minute walk might seem too small to have any impact, they’re often the first step toward a greater recovery.s
Similarly, simple changes like choosing more healthful foods or spending time with a friend can create momentum that inspires you to make bigger changes to your life.
Instead of focusing on a complete recovery, aim to take small steps toward a depression-free life. Over the long term, these small changes have a compounding effect on your outlook that’s essential for recovery.
Depression can affect everyone. If you’re feeling depressed and don’t seem to be getting better, it’s important to seek help — and consulting with a mental health professional is one of the best ways to start.
A licensed psychiatry provider can provide a personalized treatment plan and, if appropriate, science-backed medication to help you treat your depression symptoms and make real progress toward recovery.
You can also use these free mental health resources to learn more about depression, anxiety and other common mental health issues at your own pace.