Before you know it, giant dark clouds roll overhead as heavy raindrops pour down. You see the lightning pierce through the rain and the thunder roar right behind it. Your phone died an hour ago, and with it went the only map you had. You’re soaking wet and you don’t have any gear with you, but there you are, 8 miles from your car in the middle of the forest. You know a highway surrounds the park where you decided to hike, so you’re not helpless, but now you’ve got a long, muddy and exhausting trek ahead of you. Now you’re really wishing you didn’t ignore those tiny, scattered dark clouds you noticed 20 minutes into the trail and that you should’ve checked the forecast before you headed out. You wish you had brought rain gear, an extra battery for your phone, and you definitely wish you told someone where you were going.

Developing depression is very similar to that hike through inclement weather. It sneaks up on you slowly, just like those rain clouds, so it is important to recognize the early signs and actively combat them. I have a complicated history with depression myself, and I want to talk to you about spotting some early warning signs and give you the tools you need to turn your thinking around.

Introspection is quiet reflection and analysis of your thoughts and actions. This is your number one tool in your toolbox against depression. The way you think and the way you act are the most important things to monitor to stop depression in its tracks. First, analyze your thinking. Ask yourself questions. “Have I noticed that I’ve been more sad than usual, even at times or during events that used to bring me joy?” Feelings of hopelessness or emptiness that persist should be your grey cloud hovering above, telling you to be on the lookout for an incoming storm. “Do I find myself feeling guilty about my life? Do I feel worthless? Am I getting angry at my friends and loved ones or taking my frustrations out on them?” Anger is a common way depression presents in men and can be the first warning sign that depression is starting to creep into your life. These emotions can become troubling due to their persistence. You may notice these thoughts that just won’t go away.

Second, analyze your actions and habits. Ask yourself about changes in your routine. “How is my sleep?” Depression can cause you to lose sleep, but it can also cause you to sleep excessively. Look for changes in your normal sleep patterns. What about your appetite? Just like sleep, depression can drive your appetite up or down. Think about activities that you love or hobbies you spend time on regularly. Do you still enjoy them, or do you find yourself avoiding activities that used to be part of your identity?

Just like those early signs of a thunderstorm should tell you to turn around and head towards shelter, these emotions and changes in behavior should tell you it’s time to be progressive about your mental health and take action. But how? The most important thing you can do is reach out and ask for help. Talking to someone about how you’re feeling and what you’re concerned about is incredibly important. For some, the comfort of a family member or close friend provides the safety and security needed to be frank about your feelings. For others, the anonymity and confidentiality of a professional is more appealing. No matter who you chose, opening a line of communication is a great first step in restoring mental health. High schools and colleges all have counselors who are willing to talk and will remain confidential. Changing your routine is another tool at your disposal to help combat depression. Keeping a steady sleep schedule and incorporating daily exercise goes a long way in changing the way you think. Making sure you eat regular, healthy meals will help as well.

Always remember that you are not alone, and that many others feel the same way you feel. Take time out of your day to analyze your thoughts and actions and keep track of how you are feeling. Don’t wait until you’re soaking wet in the middle of the woods to look for a way out. Get proactive and make your moves when the first rain drops start to fall. Remember to look for the warning signs of depression, and when you find them, don’t be afraid to ask for help.