A Powerful Antidepressant You Might Not Be Using (Hint: It’s Not a Drug)

A black man standing on dark sand lifts a black backpack onto one shoulder. Blue flip flops are attached to the backpack by a purple carabiner.

When you’re depressed, it’s natural to experience low motivation — it’s a cardinal symptom of the condition. The things we once enjoyed are no longer engaging to us.

Maybe it’s a social activity, like going out for dinner with friends. Or a physical one, like going on a long outdoor run. No matter what it is, you just don’t feel like doing it.

When I see patients, they’re typically eager to feel better and want to know what the treatment is. They’re often surprised when I tell them they already have the ability to enact one of the most powerful antidepressants that I know. What is it? Doing one enjoyable or rewarding thing each day.

Fake it until you make it

Symptoms of depression can be a vicious cycle: When you feel worse, you do less. And when you do less, you feel even worse. That means doing less of what you enjoy can actually feed depression and reinforce low energy. We can interrupt this cycle by trying to do one activity that we used to find rewarding or enjoyable each day.

This activity doesn’t have to be anything big. In fact, I encourage my patients to start small. If you used to do dinner with friends on a regular basis, try just getting coffee with one friend for half an hour. If you used to go for a 5-mile run each weekend, start with 1 mile or just take a long walk in nature. You get the idea.

Experts call using recreation, relaxation, and socialization alongside healthy habits like diet, exercise, and sleep “lifestyle medicine.” And there are merits to the practice. For instance, a University of Minnesota study found that socializing may account for some of the mental health benefits people get from exercise.

We may not feel like doing these activities. But if we “fake it until we make it,” and do them anyway, we may be surprised by how these activities boost our mood. Doing just one small thing can help introduce a positive snowball effect, where the more you do, the more you genuinely feel like doing. It’s best to first start slowly. Test out a few activities, so you can figure out which are your most powerful antidepressants.

Plan ahead

The best way to “fake it until you make it” is to create an action plan. Instead of saying, “I’m going to go for a run this weekend,” try to be as specific as possible.

For example, add an event to your calendar to go for a 1-mile run at 9 am on Saturday, starting in the city park down the road. If a mile feels like too much, start with a more manageable goal. It might be walking around the block once on the first day, then twice the next day, three times the day after that, and so on, building up to 1 mile. This level of detail makes us less likely to blow the task off. Treat it like a medical appointment that you can’t miss.

By planning these activities, we can start to break our pattern of inaction. Then, over time, we can begin to introduce new, small mood boosters to our day. It’s vital to note that this usually isn’t a linear process. You might experience some setbacks along the way. And that’s okay.

Look at it as an experiment. There might be a few ups and downs. What’s important is to keep trying and diversifying these activities. This consistency will help to gradually unwind the cycle of depression. Soon, you’ll be back to doing things that are important to you. Remember, this isn’t something that happens overnight; you have to keep at it to see results.

Try it out

To get started, think of something you used to love doing, then scale it down appropriately. For example, if you used to love volunteering at the animal shelter, start by taking a short walk with a friend and their dog. Make a plan with that friend, specifying the date, time, and duration of the activity.

After you’ve completed the activity, take note of how you feel and write it down somewhere (in an app, notebook, etc.). Rinse, repeat, and review your notes after each activity. See which ones boosted your mood the most. Then do more of those. Start with “faking it” and you’ll be “making it” in no time.

By Patrick Raue, PhD

Patrick J. Raue, PhD is Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Stony Brook University in 1995.

Raue is Associate Director for Evidence-Based Psychosocial Interventions at the University of Washington’s AIMS Center and Director of the National Network of Problem Solving Therapy Clinicians, Trainers & Researchers. In these roles, he develops and leads implementation and training programs in a variety of behavioral health interventions.

Raue’s clinical expertise includes the identification and management of mental health conditions in medical settings, including primary care and home health care. He is a clinical advisor to AbleTo.

Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Manager of Clinical Program Development at AbleTo.

Photo by Bullrun/Adobe Stock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.