Concrete strategies that helped me work through my teen depression

Desmond Herzfelder is a freshman at Harvard University majoring in applied math and visual art.

Note from Anne Moss: Kim O’Brien and I interviewed Desmond for our book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk. We asked several young adults who struggled as teens how they survived a dark period in their lives and the coping strategies they used to find their way out. This is Desmond’s thoughtful response.

by Desmond Herzfelder

1) Prioritizing my happiness!

This, above all else, made the difference for me.

2) Reaching out for help.

I cannot say this with enough seriousness or emphasis–I was depressed for three years, and, seven years later, my greatest regret is not reaching out. I would have saved myself so much time and suffering.

3) Confront yourself, not the problems around you.

I used to blame transitioning schools, my academic intensity, my family, and more for my depression. Eventually, I realized that it was my own habits that were creating darkness in my life. By focusing on changing how I think and behave, I slowly became a person who reacted more positively to the problems around me. Over time, these new habits became my new default, and they produced a stark and beautiful change in my personality and mindset.

4) Make changes in a systematic way.

As stated above, I believe that attempting to build new habits which change your personality is the most effective way to live a brighter life. After years of trying, I found the best method is to make small but very consistent changes. For example, say you go to bed after 1am every night. Try to be in bed at 11pm once a week, or aim for 12am instead of 1am.

Or, if you feel quiet and constrained (as I often did), try to talk to a new person each day, or jump into a conversation once every lunch. Making changes that were doable and meant to be permanent helped me to build new habits and a new life. I often wrote down my different efforts, set reminders or specific time windows (such as “during lunch” in the example above) to help me practice these new habits.

Habits that I worked to change: (the habit I aimed for – how I practiced it)

  • Becoming less perfectionist and more self-compassionate. Congratulating myself and internally repeating thoughts of self-love.
  • Becoming less competitive and goal-oriented. Talking less about competitions and success, doing things that I enjoyed.
  • Becoming more confident and comfortable. I practiced speaking up, speaking my mind, embarrassing myself, and not caring what others think.
  • Spending more time with friends. I actively reached out to people and scheduled time more time with them.
  • Sharing my feelings. I practiced by scheduling moments for me to share deep thoughts, such as “at dinner tonight, I’m going to share this __________”.
  • Improving general negativity. Practicing positive reactions and the best case scenario internally, and repeating them every time I caught myself with a negative thought, starting the day by thinking about what I was excited about.
  • Spending time on the activities I enjoyed. I slowly began to schedule more activities into my days/weeks that I actually enjoyed.
  • More exercise and more outdoors. I scheduled time to exercise and do something active more and more often.
  • Thought more about other people. I practiced this by expressing gratitude and exercising acts of kindness.
  • Improved sleep. I aimed to be in bed at specific times, having a good bedtime routine (like talking with family/friends then having a positive journaling session before going to bed). I established a routine for when sleep was rocky and hard to find.
  • Acknowledging spiraling anxiety. I used meditation, a healthy bedtime routine, (better sleep), and a “when thoughts get bad” list of items that would distract me, as well as a go-to list of people to talk to.

Lastly, I’d like to mention that despite this nice looking list of strategies, there were so many days when I did not have the effort to make any of the changes I set out to do. I would watch my meals go by, my classes end, my reminders go off in one way or another, and I stare at my little notes and my “efforts,” and do nothing. Depression is hard. Unbelievably hard.

So my last piece of advice would be to forgive yourself. For falling down, for being depressed in the first place, and for not always being able to move forward. Just keep prioritizing your happiness, and doing your best. 🙂

Two important notes:

The above were the most important strategies for me in escaping and managing depression. However, when in a truly dark place, getting through the darkest and most dangerous moments is its own crucial battle. For me, it is so important to have a plan in place to get through those moments. This can be calling a person, people, or a hotline. Or it could include activities to distract oneself and help the anxiety subside, like tv shows, meditation, working out, or preparing food.

Mental techniques, like gratitude, thinking about the best-case scenarios, reminding oneself that the morning will come, thinking about good moments, and more can be very helpful as well.

Second, I am extremely pro-medication. I did not include it in this list because I have not had much experience, but I’ve seen it really improve people’s lives and I think that it is an incredible option. I also did not explicitly mention therapy/psychiatry because I think generally reaching out is more important and accessible, but I am unbelievably supportive of seeking professional help.

Professional help goes beyond reaching out, because not only does it allow one’s emotional release and safety, you also receive professional advice in the immense undertaking of changing your life, mind, and experience.

Desmond Herzfelder, a junior at Noble and Greenough, works to de-stigmatize the topic of mental health by speaking to the student body about his own experience with teenage depression.

Desmond was interviewed for the book, Emotionally Naked, A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk.

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