Surviving the Down Days: Volunteer!

Yes, I said the “v” word.  If your eyes were rolling after reading the title of my previous post, they were probably permanently affixed to the back of your brain after reading this one complete with cheesy photo.  Perhaps you aren’t quite ready to think about volunteering or helping others; that is understandable.  Still, I do hope you will at least keep it in mind for future reference.

In preparation for the day you are ready to consider volunteering, I thought I would share a quick list of tips that helped me take those first steps to finding a volunteer opportunity in my community.  There’s nothing particularly earth shattering here, but I hope there will be something useful you, or someone you know, can use when finally deciding to branch out beyond depression. 

Volunteer for an organization you believe in. 

I won’t sugar coat it – volunteering will seem like an impossible chore at first, at least it did to me.  This means it is vital to find an organization you believe in and support wholeheartedly. Take some time to consider what truly interests you.  Caring for animals? Working with the elderly? Helping in your local library ? Getting involved in church? What areas in your community you would like to see improve? You will obviously find more success if you believe in the work of the organization for which you are volunteering.

Do not over commit.

Before contacting potential volunteer groups, it is also crucial to decide how many days and hours per week you can confidently commit and stick to based upon where you are mentally.  I started with one and a half hours, one day a week because I wanted to ease into this volunteering lark rather than overwhelm myself from the get-go (yes, that’s basically the theme of my life).  After all, I’d have to get out of my cave and spend time around…people! (shudder) As of today, I have not increased my volunteer hours; however, I am transitioning into a more involved responsibility for the same organization beginning in September.

Most organizations are happy to work around your availability.  If they aren’t, you may want to find a different group to begin with. Needless to say, volunteering should never interfere with any medication schedules, doctors appointments, or counseling sessions. Your treatment, maintenance, and recovery should always remain a priority.

Find a consistent schedule. 

Even on good days, I DO NOT function well with an inconsistent schedule.  Don’t even get me started on how well I deal with any sudden changes to my daily habits (not well, in case that was unclear).  Finding a volunteer opportunity that offered a consistent schedule was extremely important to me. I suspect that I’m not alone in my struggle with changing or inconsistent schedules.  I think for many people fighting depression, inconsistency adds to the stress and irritability that sometimes accompany low moods.

“But I have a full-time job.” 

If you are working, depressed, and trying to maintain a treatment plan all at the same time, then volunteering may not be possible at the moment.  The good news is, helping others does not need to involve a formal volunteer commitment.  You can start by paying more attention to those around you both at home and at work.  You can try engaging with coworkers on a more positive level.  This could be something as simple as asking how they’re doing and taking the time to listen genuinely to their responses.

When I finally emerged from my major depressive episode years ago, I remember consciously deciding to get to know my coworkers instead of continually nursing my own negativity while at work.  I am not sharing this information to pat myself on the back but to assure you that I did find relief as I listened to someone else’s life updates – good, bad, or mediocre – and asked follow-up questions.  As I was listening to them, I wasn’t thinking about me which, at that time, was a good thing.

Why it’s important. 

When you are depressed, you live much of your life inside your own head. Depression does that.  It likes to keep you focused inward, ever cultivating a negative, dark perception of your own life and the world around you.  Depression is very good at what it does. But, when you focus on helping others or take an interest in how someone else is doing, depression must take a back seat for a moment.  Once you experience the warmth of that little bit of light in the darkness, you may find yourself wanting more.

Again, I understand that volunteering or taking more of an interest in those around you are not cures for depression especially when you are at the bottom of the well.  However, I do believe they are powerful weapons to add to your permanent depression-fighting arsenal.

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