6 Common Depression Traps to Avoid

Expert advice on how to sidestep pitfalls that often accompany depression.

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 03, 2024
6 min read

Before Heather Loeb started to have signs of depression, she enjoyed going out with her husband on date nights and getting together with her girlfriends for monthly movie nights. But when her symptoms worsened, she stopped making social plans and pulled away from her family and friends.

 “I found myself not wanting to be around anyone and not even wanting to leave the house,” Loeb, a writer and affiliate leader for the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Corpus Christi, TX. “Things that I loved doing like reading or sewing didn't interest me anymore – nothing really did. I craved alone time to recharge, but no matter how much time I had, all I felt was drained and overwhelmed.” 

Avoiding social contact is a common pattern in people with depression. Some people skip activities they normally enjoy and isolate themselves. Others turn to alcohol or junk food.

Depression traps vary from person to person, but what they have in common is that they can lower your mood, driving a vicious cycle. Here are six behavioral pitfalls that often come with depression – and how you can steer clear of them as you and your doctor and therapist work on getting back on track.

Depression can go hand-in-hand with social isolation.

"When we're clinically depressed, there's a very strong urge to pull away from others and to shut down," says Stephen Ilardi, PhD, author of The Depression Cure and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. “The brain’s stress response is an adaptation telling you it would be good to shut down just like when you’re sick with a viral infection. But in this case, it’s false information. It turns out to be the exact opposite of what we need.”

"In depression, social isolation typically serves to worsen the illness and how we feel," he says. "Social withdrawal amplifies the heightened stress mode, and over time, that’s really toxic to the brain and body. Social contact helps put the brakes on it."

What helps: Gradually counteract social withdrawal by reaching out to your friends and family. Make a list of the people in your life you want to reconnect with, and start by scheduling an activity.

After Loeb recovered from her depression, she resumed date nights with her husband and going to the movies with girlfriends. “As an introvert, I crave alone time to recharge, but now I have to ensure that I’m not isolating due to depression and anxiety,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a fine line, but I also enjoy going out more now.”

A major part of depression is rumination, which involves dwelling on and brooding about themes like loss and failure that cause you to feel worse about yourself.

Rumination can lead to negative self-talk such as, "Oh, I really screwed it up with that person. They hate me. I’m a bad person.”

“The act of having a particular thought over and over can have a snowball effect with a direct impact on your mood and behavior,” says psychiatrist Christine Crawford, MD, MPH, director of medical student education in psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. “During periods of depression, you can be sensitive to rejection and feel like a burden.” 

Rumination can also cause you to interpret neutral events in a negative fashion. For example, when you’re at the grocery store, you may notice that the checkout person smiles at the person in front of you but doesn’t smile at you, so you perceive it as a slight. 

"When people are clinically depressed, they will typically spend a lot of time and energy rehearsing negative thoughts, often for long stretches of time, typically when they’re isolated," Ilardi says.

What helps: Write the thought down on a piece of paper. Doing so may help you be more rational about whether there’s any evidence to support or disprove the thought. “Being engaged in activity diminishes the power of that thought,” Crawford says. “If you brought a snowball into the house and dissected it, it will melt and won’t be a big deal anymore.” 

Turning to alcohol or drugs to escape your woes is a pattern that can happen in depression, and it usually makes your depressive symptoms worse.

Alcohol may make you feel a little better in the moment and distract you, but then you’ll return to low mood and depression, Crawford says. It’s important to notice if there’s a pattern of using alcohol or cannabis when you’re feeling sad. Be curious about what motivates any ongoing substance use. 

What helps: Talk to your doctor or therapist if you notice a shift in your drinking habits. Alcohol can interfere with antidepressants and anxiety medications, and make your sleep suffer.

If you're someone who likes to go to the gym regularly, dropping a series of workouts could signal that something's amiss in your life. The same goes for ditching other activities – such as swimming, yoga, or Zumba classes – that you once enjoyed.

Exercise can be therapeutic and beneficial, Ilardi says, because it boosts the signal strength of serotonin and dopamine, two brain chemicals that impact mood. But depression can make it harder to stick with a regular exercise program, even though it might help you feel better.

"It's a paradoxical situation," Ilardi says. "Your body is capable of physical activity. The problem is [that] your brain is not capable of initiating and getting you to do it. That frontal executive function goes offline in depression."

What helps: Ilardi recommends finding someone you can trust to help spark your exercise – a personal trainer, therapist, or even a loved one. "It has to be someone who gets it, who is not going to nag you, but actually give you that prompting and encouragement and accountability," he says.

When you feel down, you may find yourself craving sweets and turning to junk foods that are high in carbs and sugar. 

Sugar does have mild mood-elevating effects, Ilardi says, but it's only temporary. Within 2 hours, blood glucose levels crash, which can bring your mood back down.

What helps: Avoid sugar highs and the inevitable post-sugar crash. It's always wise to eat healthfully, but now more than ever, your mood can't afford to take the hit. Limit processed foods and add more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to your diet.

When you're depressed, it’s easy to zone out by constantly checking social media and doomscrolling on your phone. 

Chances are, you’re not really looking for information. 

“When people are experiencing depression, they are eager to find activities to distract and numb themselves from what they are feeling,” Crawford says. “Also, reading about ongoing negative news can further reinforce a negative outlook.”

What helps: Limit your time on social media. Be curious about what’s driving this behavior, and whether you use it to connect with others or as a way to disengage. Put down your phone and take a short walk or screen break. 

Everyone has hard days, so don’t be tough on yourself. If you notice that you might be falling into any of these depression traps, you’ll want to take action to shift course and do things that boost your mood.

Remember you can reach out for support. “If you are having any thoughts about life not being worth living, that is a clear red flag to seek help from a mental health provider,” Crawford says. “Dial 988 for immediate support. Please don’t delay in getting help.”