Focusing outward

Any moment that you can spend focusing on something or someone else is a moment in which depression can’t get your attention. Use the ideas on this page to reduce opportunities for getting caught up in negative thinking and rumination

Purposeful distraction

The depression habit spiral narrows your perspective and works to keep you looking inward. The more negatively introspective you become, the firmer depression takes hold and the more you get sucked into depressed thinking and tunnel vision.

Using purposeful distraction is a powerful way to resist this depressed ‘rumination’ habit. This works on various levels, from very simple distraction techniques right up to much more meaningful ways to engage your time, energy and hope.

Start small and choose the appropriate level for how depression is affecting you personally at the moment. Ultimately, beating depression is about being able to invest energy in your life again, but when you are very low all you need to do is distract yourself.

The key to this strategy is to get on and do the things you have planned without waiting to feel motivated, and without expecting to actively enjoy yourself. It is sufficient at first simply to occupy your mind with something other than depression.

When you notice your mind wandering try to gently bring it back to the present moment and the task at hand. Here are some ideas for strategies:

Start with simple distractions

When you are feeling very low, you need to build very simple distractions into your daily life: watching something entertaining on TV, meeting up with someone for a coffee, going to a movie, reading a book, going shopping, cooking a meal with friends, doing an exercise class. Do whatever you can think of that will keep your mind sufficiently engaged on something outside of yourself, while remaining reasonably constructive.

Choose distractions carefully

Culturally, ‘having a drink’ can often be seen as a way to forget your problems. But alcohol and drugs can be very useful accomplices for depression, with their physiologically depressant effects giving a boost to the depression spiral. See ‘Checking alchol and drugs’ for more on this.

Get outdoors, especially into natural surroundings

The inward focus brought by depression is often mirrored by a habit of staying indoors. Start the habit of getting outdoors every day. Taking in natural light can be important in setting your body clock and improving sleep patterns as well as helping with seasonal depression. Spending time in natural surroundings, in particular, can be subtly rejuvenating and energising. A garden, park, or riverside tow-path may offer an urban alternative to a country walk. Even keeping a plant in your room can make a difference.

Spend time with other people

Depression can make you withdraw from social contact and isolate yourself. It is therefore very useful to choose distractions which involve contact with other people. Even sitting in the park and ‘people-watching’, imagining stories about the people you see, gives more social contact than sitting alone in your room. See ‘Breaking isolation’ and ‘Connecting with others’ for more ideas.

Build up to choosing useful distractions

The most effective barrier to depression is one which most thoroughly engages your mind outside yourself, even briefly. Doing something which is useful in some way is especially effective: keeping up your part-time job, doing something for a friend, volunteering to help those in need (most student unions will have info about student volunteering schemes).

Find a creative outlet

Channel some of your feelings into a creative outlet, like writing, painting or making music. It doesn’t have to be for others to see. Focus on the therapeutic freedom of creation, rather than on whether it is ‘good’ or not. See ‘More ideas and resources’ for more on this.

Look at your university or college work in a new light

Your studies often suffer when depression takes over. But university or college work can serve as a very useful ‘distraction’ if managed in the right way.

Check whether depressed thinking is affecting your attitude to your work. Perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking can mean that your thoughts are focused on the doing of the work (how well you’re doing it etc) rather than on the work itself. Try to get truly immersed in the subject itself, for its own sake. Forget about what’s expected of you for a moment. See what it feels like to do some work for its own sake, and see how well it might engage your brain!

Living well

Depression works to drain away the assumed meaning of our lives. Building on the focusing outward strategy in the longer-term involves taking stock of some of bigger life issues and reassessing your life values.

Getting going

Taking care of yourself and focusing outward are examples of a very effective overarching strategy against depression. Increasing how often you engage in any kind of pleasurable or purposeful activity – without waiting to feel like it – has been shown to make a significant difference to low mood and depression. The next page shows you how to use this powerful tool.

Next: Getting going

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