Depression: Help yourself

Much of the counsel for overcoming depression involves practices and attitudes that are common to basic mental and physical health. Here are recommendations by the National Institutes of Mental Health and other experts:

Find someone to talk to. Long-haul truckers in particular need a friendly ear, says Rodney Lowman, a workplace psychology expert and professor at the California School of Professional Psychology. “As a male you are expected to keep your feelings to yourself,” Lowman says. “You feel like you are inadequate if you have those feelings.”

If you can’t take someone with you on the road, try to be sociable when you are around others, whether at truck stops, your carrier’s headquarters or the docks.

When you’re home, increase the quality of contact with people you care about. Don’t plead tiredness all the time; participate in activities with your family and friends. Find trustworthy people to confide in.

Exercise regularly. Even a mild workout – a long walk or a short run around the truck stop or calisthenics you can do in your cab – if done three or four times a week, does wonders. Not only does it improve your overall health, which itself counters depression, but exercise temporarily releases seratonin into your system, which boosts good feelings.

When you’re home, get the rest you need, but don’t overlook exercise. If hard-core workouts such as running or weight lifting turn you off, find something recreational that you enjoy, such as swimming, golfing or biking.

Watch what you eat. “It’s amazing how much proper diet helps, especially when fighting depression,” says Harold “Bud” Clapp, executive director of College Heights Christian Counseling in Joplin, Mo.

Eating better improves your self-esteem, says the Rev. Joseph Hunter, founder and president of Truckstop Ministries. “Truckers often eat a large meal, then feel heavy and bad about themselves,” Hunter says.

Avoid the all-you-can-eat truck stop buffet, which encourages you to overeat. Generally, stick to a diet of fruits, vegetables, fish and white meat. Avoid anything fried, meats with fatty sauces and salty snack food.

Herbal or dietary supplements can help, but check with your physician first.

Quit obsessing. Jerry Downs, Transport for Christ chaplain at Sapp Bros. Truck Stop in Denver, says long-haul truckers are in a perfect position to magnify their misery: “If you have a problem and you sit and think about it for 10 to 12 hours straight, the problem gets bigger and bigger.”

Ralph Desmarais, a lumber truck driver turned author, agrees. “This takes the familiar form of merciless self-criticism, sometimes with accompanying obsessive thoughts that can torment a driver endlessly,” Desmarais says.

The purpose of therapy is to get you out of such ruts, to solve problems rather than endlessly churn them, says Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Do things for others. Owner-operator Tony Sellars fights depression by helping his father and other family members with carpentry and home improvement. Giving yourself to those in need, whether it’s doing odd jobs as Sellars does or lending an ear to someone with emotional problems, helps you forget your own struggles.

Don’t blame others. Depressed truckers are quick to find someone to blame for their lack of joy, says G. Gerald Carter, president of Alabama-based Carter & Associates, which provides personnel development services.

“There’s a very high percentage of introverted truckers who let things build up, and the frustration level becomes enormous,” Carter says. “One who can adapt to different situations in life handles it better.”

Assert control where you can. Being assertive helps a depressed person lift himself up a bit, says Patrick Doyle, executive director of the Eagan Council Clinic in Eagan, Minn. That means being firm, for example, when returning a purchase, but not becoming angry and verbally abusive. Just because you don’t have authority over your carrier’s staff doesn’t mean you can’t communicate professionally and forcefully about your schedule, settlements and other matters of importance.

Take care of your personal appearance. When you’re on the road for days, it’s easy to ignore how you look. That’s a mistake. Knowing you look good and getting the respect that a professional appearance wins from strangers will make you feel better.

“Shave,” advises Hunter. “Take care of yourself. That 10 minutes pays off.”

Avoid negative people. If the truck stop bull session turns poisonous, it’s time to ask for your check. When voices on the CB are abusive, change channels or turn it off. Chronic complainers want to bring others down to their level, not provide the upbeat outlook that a depressed person needs.

Get enough sleep. Irregular sleep and inadequate sleep – both of which plague long-haul truckers – contribute to depression. Do all you can to arrange your schedule so you can get the sleep you need. If that’s impossible, consider another carrier that’s more considerate of its owner-operators’ needs.

Don’t wait until you are excessively fatigued to nap, advises Martin Moore-Ede, head of Circadian Technologies, a consulting firm. “A 20-minute nap is very effective,” he says. “A 45-minute nap can leave you more tired.” Other ways of improving your sleep include making your sleeper as dark as possible, eating healthier, exercising and trying to eat and sleep on a regular schedule.

Stay healthy. The rate of depression in people with some chronic illnesses, especially cancer, heart disease and diabetes, is 25 to 50 percent, according to a 1996 article in American Family Physician. Because depression is a side effect of some medications, even a minor health problem can fuel depression.

Treat yourself to things you enjoy. While in the cab, listen to your favorite music or an audiobook. When time allows, get away from the truck stop to eat at a restaurant or visit a local attraction.

Former owner-operator Don Kiefer took breaks from the trucking life while on the road. “I tried to make my life as normal as possible,” he says. “I would find some place to park and go to the movies.”

Get a pet. Studies indicate that pets boost morale. Consider taking a pet on the road if your carrier allows it. Getting a dog helped trucker Marcus Gann, says his wife Michelle. “It made a world of difference,” she says. “It’s just that bond.”

Resist alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol is a depressant; it will only add to your sorrows. Depressed people are more likely to smoke and to have a harder time quitting. A 1993 federal study found 54 percent of truckers light up, compared with 25 percent of all Americans. The health problems associated with smoking further contribute to depression.