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From Chapter 2: Not Just Another Bad Day at the Office

How can I get through the day until I start feeling better?

You may decide to use sick time or take a brief leave of absence rather than try to work in the worst of the crisis, but although your depression is undoubtedly cutting into your concentration and productivity, you may not be so incapacitated that you can't function. More importantly, you probably don't have the luxury of unlimited time off. You'll need to plan ways to cope -- to set your depression aside for a few hours a day -- until treatment takes effect and your mood starts to lift.

A depressive episode is like any other serious illness: you have to take care of yourself so you'll have the strength to cope. Would you push yourself to achieve if you were undergoing chemotherapy? Treat yourself with generosity and patience.

Avoid major changes in your daily routine. Dramatic change causes stress, and stress will only make you feel more overwhelmed and out of control. This is no time to switch to the night shift, transfer to another city, or volunteer for overtime.

Cut back on your responsibilities wherever possible. Don't do it on your own, of course; get your supervisor's cooperation and approval. You may think that if you aren't around, no one will notice anything wrong, but your absence may actually draw attention to the changes in your behavior. Don't make the same mistake Guy did when he decided to set his own hours, either working shortened days or coming in at lunchtime and staying late into the night. Since no one could be sure he'd be around when he was needed, he became a convenient scapegoat whenever anything went wrong. In fact, he nearly lost his job because it was so easy for other people to blame mistakes on him. After all, he wasn't there to defend himself.

Make a point of putting in "face time." When you're depressed, isolation is tremendously tempting. Many depressed people have trouble organizing their thoughts, feel numb or raw, or are convinced they have nothing of value to say to anyone. But the more you isolate yourself, the easier it becomes to convince yourself that you're a liability -- and the less visible you are, the more you jeopardize your job. Go out of your way to spend time with your coworkers. Look for ways to work in a group; this will give your work and work relationships structure and purpose. At the very least, have lunch with your workmates as often as possible. Interaction will remind you that you have something to contribute, and you'll stay "in the loop" at a time when your natural inclination is to hide out. Above all, don't succumb to the temptation to use up your sick time on days that you just don't feel like showing up. You may need time off for genuine medical reasons later.

Ask questions rather than trying to carry a conversation. Whether you're at lunch or in a meeting, you can't just sit there while everyone else talks. It doesn't look professional, and it only amplifies your feelings of anxiety and worthlessness. When you can't manage to participate fully in the conversation, ask questions. If you just can't think of what to ask on the spur of the moment, write out a few questions beforehand and refer to your notes. Your questions will keep other people talking while still allowing you to be, and look, involved.

Pay attention to your appearance. Neglecting your appearance -- or even your cleanliness -- will only make you look as bad as you feel. At the same time, you aren't just putting a good face on your bad day when you put on a freshly pressed uniform or a flattering, appropriate outfit. If you dress to impress, then behave as if you feel every bit as capable and qualified as you look, you may act yourself right into a productive day. A receptionist at a busy front desk explained it this way: "My job requires a lot of person-to-person contact, and I need to act upbeat no matter how lousy I feel, so when I'm at work, I think of myself as a character in a play. Putting on the smile and the behavior can be really hard, but focusing on the part I'm playing takes my focus off the depression and puts it on what I'm supposed to be doing."

Psychologists know that changing the way you act is an effective first step toward changing the way you feel. Twelve Step programs have an evocative name for this behavioral trick: "acting as if." Try it -- it works!

Make time for yourself in your schedule. When you're filling in your appointment book, make time for a mental health break every day. Some days, you may want to schedule an hour at lunch to see your therapist or visit a support group. Other days, you may just have five or ten minutes to spare; on those days, try venting behind closed doors to a close work friend or reading from a daily meditation book kept in your desk drawer. If you decorate your workspace with personal items (photographs, office toys, postcards) that remind you of good times, you can glance up for a shot of optimism any time.

Plug in to online support. If you have Internet access at work, you have an unparalleled resource at your fingertips. Use a search engine on the World Wide Web to find basic information about diagnosis and treatment, learn about medication and therapy, and check up on current research. Then visit one of the many support groups online to ask for advice and share personal experiences with other people who understand how you feel. Of course, you shouldn't devote your working hours to browsing the Internet, but a few minutes of research during your lunch break may inspire or reassure you just enough to get you through the afternoon. ...

However, be aware that by law, employers are allowed to monitor your online use to ensure you aren't spending too much work time on personal pursuits. If you're using a workplace Internet account to visit depression-related sites, to subscribe to a mailing list about mood disorders, or even to order a medication refill from your local pharmacy, be aware that someone, somewhere, might have a record. If you think you have good reason to be concerned about confidentiality, either find out the company policy before you start surfing, or save it until you get home.

Conserve your energy. Schedule your most important work for early in the day, before you use up what little reserves you have. If you can find a place where you won't be disturbed, try taking a catnap during your lunch break; you may find as little as 15 or 20 minutes of snoozing refreshes you. Unless your doctor has recommended cutting out caffeine, allow yourself a cup of coffee when you need it. If you're struggling with insomnia, talk to your doctor about what you can do to improve your sleep habits and ensure you get the rest you need.

Seek privacy at difficult times. A crying jag might make you feel better, but it can disconcert your coworkers. If you find yourself bursting into tears unexpectedly, find a private place, like the rest room or a vacant office, either to let it out or to get it under control so you can return to your work area composed. You may decide at some point to reveal to your colleagues that you're struggling with depression ... but until then, it's best not to give them the impression that you can't handle yourself professionally.

Fit exercise into your day. Take a vigorous walk at lunch, go to an exercise class at the end of the day, commute on your bike -- just do something to move your body and get your circulation going. When you work out, your body produces endorphins, chemicals that cause feelings of pleasure and well-being. What better reason to head for the gym?

You may even discover that exercise releases your pent-up feelings of anger or despair and gives you a new sense of direction. When Gina fought her lethargy by enrolling in an aerobics class, she came to love it so much that she's now working toward certification as a fitness trainer.

Eat well. In today's hectic, gotta-do-it-yesterday workplace, it's easy to slide into a diet of microwave burritos and lukewarm soda. Eating poorly can wreak havoc on anyone's waistline and overall health; some evidence even indicates that what you eat can affect your mood directly. In fact, a few years ago, a popular book suggested that fighting depression was a matter of trading Prozac for potatoes! The truth is, you probably can't eliminate your depression entirely by changing your eating habits, but eating right never hurt anyone -- and modifying your diet may well help you feel better. Your doctor may be able to suggest ways to adjust your eating habits, or you may want to work with a nutritionist. If you experience noticeable changes in your mood when you eat or don't eat certain foods, you may also want to ask your doctor to test you for food allergies.

We know it's hard to resist the quick, easy temptations of the drive-through and the vending machine, but try bringing your meals from home or, at the very least, choose the healthiest meals from the options available to you in the company cafeteria. And while we're on the topic of what you consume...

Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant. Why work against the relief you crave? Also, if you're taking anti-depressants, you'll probably find that anything more than a minimal amount of alcohol gives you a throbbing headache or intoxicates you more quickly than it ordinarily would. Over time, you may learn you can have a small drink from time to time without suffering any ill effects, but particularly at the beginning of your treatment, there's no point tossing fuel onto the depressive fire.

Ask for changes in your work situation as needed. Consider asking your employer for part-time hours, a telecommuting arrangement, a schedule change, or some other practical adjustment to help you stay productive. Present it not as something you need to make your job easier, but as a tool to increase your effectiveness. ...[T]his is called "reasonable accommodation" and, if your depression meets certain criteria, you have a legal right to it under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course, if you are requesting significant change in your job structure, you will likely need to make a decision about revealing your depression to your employer, a choice examined in detail in Chapter 5.


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