Updated on 12/8/21
Most of us take action because we believe it will bring about a concrete benefit or result in future happiness. However, these prospects are what motivate us. Clinical depression or severe depression can change your brain in a way that makes it difficult to experience a sense of pleasure or reward.
When depression makes you unbearably sad, numb, or exhausted, have low motivation, or low mood, you might not feel like there is a reason to do anything. If nothing has satisfied you lately, you might think, “What’s the point?”
So, how to get motivated when depressed? Fortunately, other than medication for depression, there are mental techniques and strategies you can employ to gradually regain the motivation needed to live a full life. You can try them on your own or by working with a therapist. The latter, however, will most likely yield better, faster results.
Below are some strategies recommended by mental health professionals who have worked with clients to restore their motivation during severe depression. These solutions focus on incremental steps combined with physical activity, so change is more manageable and easier to commit to.
Setting Up Small Goals and Rewards
When depression symptoms drain your motivation, you have to work to create new incentives to replace what existed naturally before your mental health deteriorates. This starts with setting small goals.
For example, Talkspace therapist Melissa Moreno recommends setting the simple goal of going grocery shopping. If you succeed in that, reward yourself by cooking your favorite meal or watching an episode of a favorite TV show. This process of small accomplishments and rewards will help restore your motivation.
“Another example would be to make a list every morning of three small tasks that you would like to accomplish for the day. Very similar to the grocery list, these can be simple everyday tasks like getting up and making your bed, showering, cooking yourself a meal, or doing some simple chores around the house. It is also helpful to take a walk outside or do some simple exercise. Remember: you do not have to do a huge project but doing something small can help you feel well enough to do more.”
As you begin to feel better, steadily increase the difficulty of the goals. Try going on a long run, for example, and rewarding yourself with a small dessert. Eventually, the goal can be something as challenging as learning a new skill or traveling somewhere exciting that you haven’t been. Try different options and see what works.
Remember Your Life Before Depression
Before the depressive symptoms set in, what did you enjoy doing? Write these items down as they come to mind. Then rank them in terms of what you can accomplish, from most to least difficult. Until you have a higher energy level and more motivation, it’s best to start with those you can easily complete. Then think about what steps you can take to get back into a routine that includes these everyday tasks or activities.
Therapist Erika Martinez implemented this strategy successfully by helping one of her clients get back into volunteering. During one of his psychological therapy sessions, he discussed how he used to enjoy volunteering at a homeless shelter. His next step was calling the homeless shelter, setting a start date for the volunteering, then showing up. The momentum — and motivation — built from there.
In a similar vein, think about what motivated you before the depression. What inspired you? It could be anything from childhood to the present. Try to revisit those sources of motivation and get in touch with parts of yourself that might feel distant.
Examine Any Negative Self-Talk
“Negative self-talk can be the result of harmful things that people have said to you in the past or your inner critic telling you that you’re not good enough. This can sometimes be a cause for depression. Silencing the voice of your inner critic can help reduce the depression symptoms. Here are some helpful tips to do that. Take a deep breath and recenter yourself. Sometimes just calming your nervous system can help keep you from overreacting to the situation.
Respond to your inner critic with positive words of affirmation and re-framing the negative self-talk. It’s OK to tell yourself that you are wrong about the negativity and restate something positive even if you do not believe it. Just hearing positive messages can quiet negative ones.”
Depression is often a subconscious voice that relentlessly tells you there is no point inanything. Therapist Tina B. Tessina, author of “It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction,” suggested examining and combating irrational or negative thoughts. Once they rise to your consciousness, you will have more control of them. You can then gradually replace these negative thoughts with positive, rational beliefs. Tell yourself over and over again that there is a point, even if you don’t believe it immediately.
Look at External Factors
Sometimes external factors kill motivation, trigger negative emotions, and contribute to clinical depression. Let’s say you are stuck in a dead end job. The only motivation you have to do good work is to keep your job and put food on the table. This is obviously not as stimulating as an environment where you can eventually move up and have increased responsibilities if you work hard.
Here are a few more common situations that might be hurting your motivation:
- Having romantic partners, friends, or family members who abuse you, put you down, or don’t treat you with respect
- Abuse or bullying in the workplace or school
- A debilitating health issue or chronic illness
- Being a victim of discrimination or sexism
Think about whether one or more of these factors are present in your life. Then examine their effect on your ability to feel motivated.
Fighting Depression One Step at a Time
“Dealing with depression requires taking action, but taking action when you are depressed can be difficult. Depression drains your energy and motivation, making it difficult to take the steps that will help you to feel better. Sometimes, just thinking about the things you should do to feel better, like exercising or spending time with friends can seem exhausting or impossible to put into action. The key is to start small and build from there. Feeling better takes time, but you can get there by making positive choices for yourself each day.”
Rekindling motivation is one of the most crucial steps in fighting depression. You can supplement the effort by working with a therapist and living a healthy lifestyle. For in-depth advice on coping with every aspect of depression, read this piece about which mental health treatment is right for you and how to deal with the condition.
- Zhang, F. F., Peng, W., Sweeney, J. A., Jia, Z. Y., & Gong, Q. Y. (2018). Brain structure alterations in depression: Psychoradiological evidence. CNS neuroscience & therapeutics, 24(11), 994–1003. https://doi.org/10.1111/cns.12835. Accessed November 30, 2021
- Goal-setting. Goal-setting | Depression Center | Michigan Medicine. https://www.depressioncenter.org/toolkit/i-want-stay-mentally-healthy/goal-setting. Accessed November 30, 2021.
- What is depression? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression. Accessed November 30, 2021.