Depression: How Structure Builds Freedom

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A friend came to me this month to talk about his recent realization that things weren’t operating as they should with him. He had low energy, difficulty focusing, and several other classic symptoms of depression. He has since seen his family doctor and a therapist and is starting down a treatment path. He came to me because he knew how, for me, adding structure to my days and weeks helped me to start feeling better. This is what we talked about.

Charts and routines can help.

There are certain things that we do every day that a healthy person can do without much trouble. When you’re unwell, though, the decisions and variables around healthy habits can get us caught in thought and inaction loops. Structure has helped me, and here’s how it can work when you are working your way out of depression.

When you are having an energetic moment, or when you can ask a kind friend to help, make the following lists.

  1. What good-for-you things do you want to do in a day? For me, it has been to walk, play music, write, meditate, communicate with a friend, play with my dog, and sit and talk with my partner.  Other ideas might be to read or watch something light and entertaining, sit on the porch and enjoy the sun, or have play time with your children.
  2. What good-for-you things do you want to do at some point in a week? For me, it has been to swim, see a friend, go to yoga, go to acupuncture. Other ideas might be to go to a spiritual gathering of your faith, therapy, massage, go to a movie, or other social or solo activity. Choose things that would make you feel good — and you only have to do it once a week, if that’s all that works. And be sure that at least one is somewhat social in nature.

Now get out your daybook and write or type each of your daily activities into it, every day for a week.

The idea is that these can be tick-boxes, so, for example, once you have gone for your walk, you can cross off “walk” on your list for that day.

Consider your week and slot in the weekly activities in spots where you know there is a strong likelihood that you can complete that activity. Set yourself up to succeed! And as you navigate your week, know that there might be down-times, but that you can also look forward to the activities that you have scheduled. Regardless of how you’re feeling, if you know that you have yoga at 5pm on Mondays, and you generally like going to yoga, you go, because it is in your schedule. And you might just feel better by the time you have finished the class.

This structure creates freedom from repeated decision-making.

When choosing gets tricky, let your mind have a rest and follow the schedule. Report back and let us know how it’s going for you.

I am writing this because I had an experience. I am in no way a medical professional. I had an experience, and I have learned a lot from it, and that’s the foundation of all of this.

Have you used calendar structure to help you in your down-times? How has it worked for you? Did you find any relief in knowing what to expect later in your day or week?

8 thoughts on “Depression: How Structure Builds Freedom

    1. I agree with sticking to your promises, even small things like going for a walk, even 5 minutes once a day. Calendars and structure have also helped; consistent routine can make a world of difference.

      One thing I found helpful in depression recovery when creating a routine and calendar is to create “My 3 Things” for each week. So yes, structure, planning, setting aside time to relax were all helpful. But each week if I said: I only have to focus on these three things, it helped me make decisions. For example, my three things one week might be: Be focused on my marriage relationship, finish the big work project, & be creative. Then anything that fell outside of those three things that week (or sometimes I’d keep them for a month)… I didn’t have to feel so bad about saying “no” to them, or canceling them or not scheduling extra things that didn’t help me accomplish those three things. It simplified my daily life, which was also a great help.

  1. What an insightful post, thank you. I’d never thought of structure as a coping tool.

    Clinical depression aside (I am thankful it hasn’t visited in a while!), I suspect gentle structure might help navigate milder, regular lulls too. Hmmm, you’ve given me food for thought. : )


  2. CJ–I love the concept of “keeping promises to yourself.” Many of us wouldn’t think about breaking a promise to a good friend. . . but when it comes to ourselves, can be a little more lax. How about treating ourselves like a good friend? Promises. I like it.
    Megan–“My 3 things” sounds so manageable and helpful. Thanks for sharing your good idea!
    Stepp–I’m happy to hear about your lack of “visits,” and that I could give you something to chew on! Structure has helped me to feel grounded even when I’m generally well. It’s important to also know when to break out–but finding structure again is really helpful.

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