Surprising ways to get out from under that dark cloud…

Most people know if they’re suffering from deep depression. But what’s that vaguely uncomfortable, empty feeling you may have had lately? You’re not miserable, but it’s as if the vitality has been sucked out of your life.

Though it often goes undiagnosed, so-called “almost depression” may have snuck up on you. It can prevent you from enjoying your leisure activities and leave you feeling unsatisfied with your family life, friendships and work.

Don’t pooh-pooh it: You may be tempted to ignore these often subtle, though persistent, feelings of discontent. But don’t. Almost depression can throw you into a downward spiral that deepens into serious depression—a condition that may increase your risk for chronic physical ailments such as heart disease and dementia.

The good news is that almost depression responds well to some surprising, life-affirming strategies that don’t necessarily involve the conventional treatments (such as medication and/or therapy) that are usually prescribed for depression.

What you need to know about almost depression…


If you have almost depression, life may generally seem bland and gray. You haven’t stopped eating, but nothing tastes very good. You still laugh at jokes…but just to be polite. These are red flags that the brain circuits responsible for processing your feelings of pleasure (the brain’s “reward system”) may have shifted into low gear—this is widely considered to be an underlying cause of almost depression.

Often, close friends and family members can see changes first. If you think you may be almost depressed, ask someone you trust for his/her candid opinion.


If you’re like most people, you can pull yourself out of almost depression—the trick is to take steps to rev up your brain’s sluggish reward system. The best ways to do that…*

•Get up and at ’em. Idleness due to illness or an emotional setback is a common trigger of almost ­depression. Fortunately, scientists are now finding more and more evidence that exercise improves mood, possibly by altering brain chemistry. In several studies, regular workouts were as effective as antidepressants. But of course, the longer you are inactive, the harder it is to get going—and a trip to the gym may sound impossible.

Best approach: Start by adding just a bit more activity to your day…the 10-minute walk you take is far better than the strenuous workout you avoid. Tomorrow, you may want to take a longer walk or do some gardening. Put yourself in motion…add a bit more activity week by week…and see what happens. It will be good!

•Put more meaning in your life. Do you often wonder, “What’s all this for?” Almost depression can be a sign that you lack a sense of purpose for your life. Take a good look at your values. For some people, family comes first, and for others, it’s career, spiritual growth or health. The key is, any of these can give you a sense of purpose.

Best approach: Identify your two or three top values. And be honest with yourself. You may think “helping others” should be your ultimate concern, but if, say, financial security actually takes priority, there’s nothing wrong with making that your goal.

Then start including activities to promote these two or three values every day. Also look for small actions that promote your values. To “improve the lives of others,” you don’t have to volunteer at a soup kitchen—a smile or doing a favor for a stranger counts, too. Give yourself credit for these moments.

•Let your creativity run wild. When you scratch beneath the surface, most people with almost depression have bottled-up emotions. Expressing these dark feelings through a creative outlet is liberating—and healing. Don’t worry about being talented…just allow yourself to tap into your creative side.

To express yourself: Set aside 20 minutes to write on a computer or by hand about something that’s bothering you. Don’t edit your feelings—no one will see this but you. In fact, you don’t ever need to look at your writing again…the benefit is in the process, not the product.

The next day, write down a story about your life. It’s human nature to see life as a narrative with heroes, villains and victims. Being almost depressed puts you in a story that isn’t going so well. So go ahead and rewrite your personal narrative. Create a story where the main character has problems like yours but works things out—perhaps through personal change or new insights. The character you invent may teach you some useful strategies—and you will emerge happier.

If you’re more of a visual person, you can draw or paint images that will help unleash trapped emotions. What­ever approach you choose, allow your creativity to flourish.

Almost Depressed? Take the Self-Test

Do any of the following statements apply to you?

  • I get more frustrated than usual over little things.
  • Instead of having fun with friends, I avoid them.
  • I haven’t been sleeping well lately.
  • Nothing tastes very good.
  • I would like to “stop the world” and take a break from everything.
  • Nothing seems very funny (or interesting or exciting) these days.
  • I get irritated more easily than I used to.
  • I’m less interested in sex.
  • I just want to be left alone.
  • I have trouble concentrating on books or TV.
  • I feel tired for no reason.

If you recognize yourself in two or more of these statements, you’re likely almost depressed.

*If you suspect that you’re almost depressed, and there’s no improvement after trying the strategies in this article, see your doctor for advice. Many physical conditions (such as diabetes, lung disease and cancer) can cause depressive symptoms, as can some blood pressure and cholesterol drugs, antibiotics and other medications. If none of these applies to your situation, your doctor may refer you to a mental-health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.