New Zealanders share the strategies and habits that helped get them through depression

Stock image of woman sitting with head in her arms in dark room as illustration of depression
Three Kiwis who have navigated depression reveal the strategies and habits that took them from bleak hopelessness to enjoying the richness of life again. Photo credit: Getty Images

Warning: This article deals with mental health issues, including depression and suicidal ideation.

For those in the throes of depression, it can sometimes feel like hope is impossible to muster.

In that dark place, you're desperate for things to change, but your mental state can work against you - making you feel too exhausted and powerless to do the things that could help you get better.

With that in mind, it's good to put your energy into stuff that really does work.

In a trio of new episodes of New Zealand mental health podcast Are You Mental?, released on Sunday, three Kiwis who have navigated depression reveal the strategies and habits that took them from bleak hopelessness to enjoying the richness of life again.

Here are their stories.

Laura: 'The real you is on the other side'

Laura struggled to make sense of what was happening when she went through her first period of depression. All she remembers is that she started feeling like she was drowning.

Laura had always been social and high-functioning, but at 21 she was going through big life changes - she had just started postgraduate study, shifted into a new friend group and started a new romantic relationship. The changes took their toll.

"Almost not by choice, I was disengaging from society… there was something in my brain that just didn't let me be out there in the world and connecting with people in the way that I normally would have," she told Are You Mental? host Mick Andrews.

As an achiever by nature, Laura was beset by a sense of failure over her inability to live up to her own standards or those set by others. It took her six months to realise she needed help.

She began to proactively focus on a supportive, tight-knit group of friends. In limiting her social circle, and pursuing friendships with depth, she was able to rebuild in a way that felt purposeful, and slowly started feeling herself coming back to life.

"I saw that there was something else beyond this time, that it could be temporary. When you're in the depths, it feels like it will be this way forever, that there's no way out. So getting those little glimmers of hope as I went was hugely helpful."

Years later, Laura was living in the US when depression reared its head again. Her three-year marriage fell apart, and she felt deep shame and instability as she adapted to being single again.

This time, she sought professional help, and made the call to go on medication to manage her mental state. She says it helped her re-engage the logical side of her brain and not be overrun by emotion, and when she started feeling healthier, she was able to wean herself off it.

"It gave me the ability to put up little boundaries for myself, barriers to create my own little fence of safety and security for myself."

Her third experience with depression came during the first COVID-19 lockdown.

New Zealanders share the strategies and habits that helped get them through depression
Photo credit: Getty Images

Laura had just given birth to her daughter. She was severely sleep deprived and, due to birth injuries, was unable to exercise - her usual go-to way of lifting her mood.  The lockdown had also separated her from the people she loved most and taken away many small joys like a takeaway coffee or meeting with a friend. And all this while she was navigating becoming a mother for the first time.

This experience of depression was her most severe, and Laura started having suicidal thoughts.

"I went from a deep, dark place to really scary, intrusive thoughts that I couldn't control and that weren't me. I remember describing it to my husband as it felt like the devil was crawling up my back and into my brain and telling me to end it.

"It took every piece of my energy to not just say, okay, let's just do it."

Seeing out lockdown was the first step to health, which she did with the help of medication. Even still, it was a slow process, and Laura thinks it was only about a year later that she began to climb out of that hole.

Laura's approach to improving her mental wellbeing has been three-fold.

Firstly, she's surrounded herself with people she feels safe and supported by, and can support as well. Second, she's embraced exercise - strong, active movement to help shake pent-up emotion and anxiety. And thirdly, she's sought help from professionals who provide counselling or prescribe medication.

Laura says a good starting point for people in a similarly dark place is acknowledging that you'll need time both for recuperation and for taking action.

"Use some of your energy for rest and recovery, because that's probably what your body and your brain are telling you that you need. But balance that with reaching out for people and things that can help you.

"Engaging with someone who can start to unearth this for you will give you that glimmer of hope that this might not be forever. There are people and things out there very willing to help you feel like yourself again, and feel like the world is a place that you can enjoy and engage in."

She says what's waiting on the other side of depression is a sense of coming home to yourself again.

"When I was in periods of depression, I knew that it wasn't me. It wasn't how I was meant to function. I wasn't brought here for that purpose. And I was desperate in some way to find me again.

"I feel like with every handhold that I've taken [out of depression], I found more and more of me. And sometimes it's a new me and it's a different me. But it's me emerging and being able to live and find that joy."

Ryan: 'Don't run from the pain'

Ryan had always seen himself as the guy who got things done, so when a difficult family situation emerged, he was the one who felt best equipped to fix it. But over many months it became clear it was an "unsavable situation", and he went into 'hyper-functioning' mode.

"There was a lot of anxiety and stress and action and execution, basically to the point that my adrenals just gave way one day and I ended up collapsed in a heap," Ryan told Are You Mental?

"I couldn't rally to do anything or get my body to carry on functioning… I was finding it difficult to get out of bed and menial tasks seemed impossible to do.

"I moved from being a high performer to being a very low performer, which had a shame component because I'd always valued that side of me… I was no longer the guy who could fix things."

Around this time, Ryan started a relationship with his now-wife. While the flourishing romance brought new joys, it also opened him up to the difficult emotions that lay beneath the surface - and this plunged him further into depression.

"I was like… 'Why can't I get up? This should be easy for me. Why am I finding this so difficult? Why can't I stop the adrenaline running? Why can't I stop my gut churning?'"

The first step towards mental health came when a friend recommended Ryan see a therapist, who gave him tools to calm his mind - breathing exercises, body scans and guided imagery meditation.

Over time, those exercises became ways for Ryan to understand some of the root causes of his depression, such as the relationship with his father, which took him on a journey of forgiveness and ultimately a "huge release".

As part of that process, journaling became an indispensable tool.

New Zealanders share the strategies and habits that helped get them through depression
Photo credit: Getty Images

"I write down, 'Body, what are you trying to tell me?' and then I just have random thoughts spilling onto the page… I might write for 15, 20 or 30 minutes, and then find my anxiety has subsided, or that I'd let go of something that had been down there for who knows how many years.

"Now, I don't meet with my therapist nearly as much. Over time, I learned that I could shift big items with my journal at a much lower cost… If I can't seem to make any progress with it, that's when I'll go to my therapist."

It's not just deep, inner work that's been helpful for Ryan, though. Just as important has been the daily strategies, like prioritising exercise and reducing news-reading, email checks and phone use.

"I have almost all notifications off, so I don't get those little prompts every time an email comes, and I'll deliberately try and take some sort of action on something I've been procrastinating…

"The cardio, mixed with having achieved something, can quite often propel me to feeling good again."

Ryan's also an advocate for a strategy called the 'lightning process', which involves consciously replacing negative thoughts with positive ones that are demonstratively true and serve you better. It hasn't been a silver bullet, but is an effective way of stopping himself entering a downward spiral.

Since Ryan's therapy journey started, there's been a few setbacks, but the overall trajectory has been positive. He describes his life as "rich", and he's full of gratitude for what he's been through, despite the pain.

And he has a simple message of hope for those currently struggling: "Life can be good again."

"Walking into a dark cave to wrestle with your demons can actually bring a richer, more fulfilling life… Find yourself a great therapist. To the best of your ability, try and get some exercise, and be curious about what your body has to say.

"Don't try to run away from the pain - it's working through the pain that will bring you out the other side."

Niva: 'I've found a voice of truth'

"My father died when I was 21, and it came out of the blue. From the time he was diagnosed to the time he died was three months. Ten years later, my mother died."

Coming from a Samoan family, Niva's pain at losing her parents went beyond their sudden absence - it was a loss of her own sense of identity.

"Who am I? Where am I going? I think of that word orphan. That's what struck me, because we didn't have grandparents, we didn't have any elderly or anyone older, aunties and uncles, which is kind of bizarre because we're Samoan.

"So once my second parent died, there was an emptiness there, and I didn't do a very good job of looking after myself. To me, home is 'aiga (family). And when I lost that, I lost all sense of cultural identity."

As Niva slipped into depression, she found it increasingly difficult to look after herself. She was eating poorly, smoking, drinking and not exercising. She was partying more and more.

"I was spiralling. I was doing all the wrong things. I didn't like myself and I didn't like what was going on in my own world. I didn't care about my life. I didn't care about me."

About six months after the death of Niva's mother, a worried friend told her she should see a counsellor. This led to a major realisation that she needed to "declutter" her life.

"I started to say no to things that I didn't want to do, to people I didn't want to see. Sleep is a big part of my healing and wellness now. And I have to be out in sunlight, breathe fresh air, exercise, make sure that I go on big, long walks.

"I think the key thing for me was to get away from stress and negative energy, negative people, conversations I don't want to be part of. During my eight months seeing a counsellor, I found a voice of truth and the power was when I spoke my truth."

Alongside the deep inner work Niva was doing to process her grief in counselling, another key element of her mental health journey was learning to love her body again.

She gave up cigarettes and alcohol and took up long-distance running. Her first marathon was an emotional experience.

"I was crying right to the finish line … it was the first time [I felt] the depression was lifting. It wasn't saying goodbye to my parents, but it was acknowledging and thanking them. But it was also thinking 'Niva, you're moving on, you're healing.'"

Since then, Niva has run seven more marathons around the world and has continued growing in her mental health journey. She says she's in "a great place", and now wants to use her story to inspire others.

"My message to people struggling is that it will be okay. If you're in bed, lying there feeling useless, not enjoying life, thinking no one cares, someone does care. And you need to tell someone.

"Sometimes all we need is someone who is a really good listener… just put your trust in that one person, and don't give up."

Where to find help and support