In the hilarious movie, What About Bob?, Richard Dreyfuss plays a self-absorbed psychiatrist who has just published his latest book, Baby Steps. Bill Murray, his patient, takes the title of the book very literally, narrating his progress as he leaves the office. “Baby steps through the office, baby steps out the door, baby steps to the elevator…” and so on. The scene is ridiculous, but contains a little pearl of wisdom. When it comes to dealing with depression, baby steps work.
When you’re struggling with depression, you often feel extremely unmotivated. Even getting out of bed in the morning can feel like an unwinnable battle. Being depressed is like being stuck in a mental rut that you can’t get out of. You want to feel better, but you just can’t seem to get there.
To add insult to injury, depression often involves strong feelings of guilt and hopelessness. So the battle to get out of bed can turn into paralyzing guilt for feeling depressed in the first place. The guilty feelings increase the hopeless feelings, which make it even more difficult to get out of bed. It’s a vicious cycle.
So how do you even begin to make a dent in depression? Baby steps. Therapists who treat depression often use a strategy called “behavioral activation” to help people begin to get out of that mental rut. Behavioral activation is just a fancy term for “doing things.” Basically, you focus on specific goals for doing things each and every day. And you start very small. An example might be to “get out of bed in the morning.”
Depressed people often load themselves up with demands. Part of the reason a depressed person might find it so difficult to get out of bed in the morning is that he or she is dreading all of the things that follow. By making specific goals that are small enough to be manageable, you create tiny victories that help counteract the guilty and hopeless feelings. You use baby steps to break the momentum of the depression.
Think of it like this: if you had a broken arm, would you expect yourself to go to the gym and lift heavy weights? No. You’d give your arm time to heal properly, and then you’d gradually work on regaining full function. You’d take baby steps. The same thing goes for depression.
If you are struggling with feelings of depression, the most important thing is to see a doctor or a therapist. Remember that depression is a recognized illness that has very real physical symptoms. Sometimes, therapy alone isn’t enough and medication is needed to really help you feel better. In the words of Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob?, “Baby steps to the doctor….”
– Dr. Leo Marvin, What About Bob?