Your Five-Step Action Plan for Moving Forward
In the long history of treating depression, one strategy has a particularly good track record: “activity scheduling.” According to John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan, practicing psychotherapists, “behavior therapists…found that changing behavior — all by itself — can produce positive treatment outcomes among clients with depression.” (1) Over time, this correlation has proven to be effective, even after several years of follow-up.
As a registered nurse who has worked with depressed patients, a student of counseling, and an individual who has faced depression, I’ve devised a simple plan for helping myself and others get ‘unstuck’ and step back into the stream of life. This five-step action plan effectively provides structure and helps to increase feelings of self-worth. Taking these positive steps also reduces the intense, unwavering focus on “self” that is common in depressed individuals — and those who simply feel ‘stuck.’
You can tackle each step, one at a time, based on your energy level. Regularly moving through all five steps helps you, on a practical level, to fill your day with productive activities that help you to move forward. Each step, in itself, can encompass a continuum of complexity, allowing you to modify your level of engagement as you begin to heal. Ready to take a look?
- Do something you want to do. Make a list of activities you enjoy or have enjoyed in the past. They can be anything — preferably anything that can be done without a partner. These activities do not have to be actions designed to help you move forward, although they often are. Why? Because following our passions have the power to transform our lives. Commit to doing your chosen activity for one hour every day — one hour that might just transform your life! There are two enjoyable activities that inspire me: writing and painting. What activities come to mind for you?
- Do something you know is good for you: Exercise! Study after study has proven that exercise helps alleviate and prevent depression. In a 2012 meta-study, researchers concluded that “exercise appears to be an effective treatment for depression,” comparable to the use of pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy combined. They also observed that active people are less likely to experience depression — and even modest levels of exercise were associated with reduced symptoms of depression. (2) Commit to aerobic or resistance and weight-training exercise of almost any type, for one hour every day. You may not want to begin with a full hour — take as much time as you need to build up your stamina. Exercise might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re feeling depressed and sluggish, or, stuck and unmotivated. But I promise you will feel better if you get your body up and moving, and the endorphins (our body’s “feel-good chemicals”) begin to flow. Here’s the really good news: one of the very best exercises is simply walking!
- Do something that you need to do. The inability to get things done in a timely manner is a common symptom of depression, and of being stuck — but, it’s counter-productive. Procrastination and the pile-up of obligations increases feelings of stress, which we then deal with by doing even more procrastinating, which leads to feelings of low self-worth. What if, instead, you made a list of your obligations and then committed to taking care of just one of them, every day. You can do this at your own pace, without the added stress of trying to organize your daily routine to get a lot of different things done. Just do one thing, at your leisure, and then cross it off your list with a feeling of satisfaction. Do you feel lighter? Sometimes, I do the thing I need to do first, and the thing I want to do second, as a reward. But if I’m feeling very unmotivated, sometimes I find it helpful to do the thing I want to do first. Once my creativity has had a chance to shine, my energy level generally gets a boost, which makes it easier to do the thing I need to do.
- Do something for someone else. Depression and feeling stuck usually come with an intense focus on self. While we sometimes do need to set aside time and space for life review, healing from past trauma, and goal setting for the future — this ongoing intense focus on self can have the effect of keeping us stuck. We can become overwhelmed by our life situation, our failure to make progress, and our unhappiness. What if, instead, you committed to doing just one thing for someone else, every day. This is one hour of your time when you won’t need to be thinking about your own problems and struggles. You could help a neighbor, call an elderly relative, offer to drive a friend to the doctor, or call a friend who needs support. It could be something as simple as lending a stranger at the cash register some spare change, or, it could be an action that leads to an ongoing volunteer commitment. Volunteering is a great way to step back into life, try new activities, and meet new people. During a rough week, volunteering can be the one thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. And, best of all, it is that first step in sharing your unique self with the world, again. However, if you’re struggling with one-on-one interactions, you can choose a less direct approach that also helps move society forward: Do something for the common good. You could register new voters, volunteer for a progressive political campaign, or support a worthy cause you believe in. Volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, or an organization that welcomes and helps settle new immigrants, can help enlarge your world view and help you connect with others!
- Do something for yourself. Last, but not least, commit to one hour of self-care every day. It can be as simple as taking a shower and blowing out your hair, putting on some makeup, shaving your legs; or, it can be an hour of yoga, meditation, or a professional massage. Ideally, it should not be a mind-numbing activity that acts as an analgesic (like binge-watching Netflix), but something that helps your mind, body, and soul in a very real way.
Congratulations! You’ve now made it through five productive hours, plus a few more of getting yourself mentally and physically prepared and getting yourself where you need to be. How do you feel? Keeping a log of your activities, and your associated feelings is a great way to track your progress.
Taking your “five-step plan” a bit further: Stick to this plan for as long as it takes to move beyond feeling stuck. Hopefully, you will begin to feel your energy returning, rising like tree sap in the spring. Continue to follow the plan, but gradually, allow yourself to tweak your activities in the direction you’d like to go. For example, you might begin to transform your creative and pleasurable activities into something more serious. If you enjoy painting or drawing, take a class. If you enjoy writing, join a writing critique group. Eventually, you might send out a few pieces to publishing sources, such as online magazines or websites. If you enjoy cooking, invite friends over to test your recipes, or start a weekly supper club. Or, if you can feel your energy returning, seize the moment and investigate whether there might be a possibility to cook professionally in your area, or perhaps even start your own business. But, don’t be in a hurry. Make sure your plan continues to offer you both stability and balance.
Similarly, if you enjoy the work you’re doing as a volunteer, see if there is a way to do this work at a higher level. Perhaps the organization could use some help with coordinating and scheduling volunteers. Many organizations provide internship opportunities and advice on how to take on a greater commitment to the cause.
Most of all, pay attention to where exactly your passion lies. Passion has led to many a new career, business, or lifestyle, even at mid-life. (Older adults still have plenty to give, and an added asset: life experience.)
Dealing with setbacks: It’s common to have temporary setbacks when recovering from trauma, depression, or an adjustment to new life circumstances. The road is seldom straight or without a few bumps and potholes. If you feel yourself falling back into a slump, keep sticking to your five-step plan to provide you with stability, social interaction, and structure.
By following this five-step plan, you’ll be learning skills of many types, but especially, time management and organization — two areas that tend to fall by the wayside when a person begins feeling depressed, stuck, or unable to move forward in a positive direction. Each step also changes one aspect of your energy dynamic, helping you to get ‘unstuck.’ But the best thing about the five-step plan is that it works!
Please seek professional mental help when you don’t feel “like yourself,” when you are burdened by sadness or grief or recovering from trauma. Please share this article with your counselor or therapist, who can help you implement and manage a new plan to move forward. I’m very hopeful for you!
1. Sommers-Flanagan, J. and Sommers-Flanagan R. Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills Strategies, and Techniques, Second Edition. Wiley: New Jersey. P. 239–240.
2. James A. Blumenthal, Ph.D., Patrick J. Smith, Ph.D., and Benson M. Hoffman, Ph.D.; Is Exercise a Viable Treatment for Depression? ACSMs Health Fit J. 2012 July/August; 16(4): 14–21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674785/ doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb