How do you practice self-care for depression?
Dealing with the symptoms of depression is always tough. I can speak to this, unfortunately, because I’ve personally had to learn over many years how to combat an illness that very often robs me of joy and makes me feel guilty about it – as if the bone-crushing weight of my symptoms is somehow my fault!
It is – succinctly – a bitch.
When I first started combating depression, I was blind to its ability to sneak up on me slowly and patiently. With no experience to bring to bear, I often found myself knee-deep in depression before I even realized it.
After years of therapy, I rarely let that happen anymore. I can see it coming down the road from miles away now and I have some methods of avoiding it altogether – most of the time.
But those few times it does catch me unawares, I have another weapon at my disposal to help shorten the length of my depression: self-care.
My self-care is a three-pronged attack on that little asshole that lives in my head rent-free. Those three prongs are physical, emotional, and spiritual in nature.
Physical self-care for depression
First, let’s talk about physical self-care.
(And for starters, let’s get the innuendo that just popped up in your head out of the way. It’s not THAT kind of self-care. You deviant.)
In all seriousness, I know that when I’m in a depressive rut I tend to let my physical hygiene go to hell. Not only that, I also tend to let my physical surroundings get a little…strewn. I have genuinely found that doing things for my physical being and doing things to improve my physical space (in the car, in my house, etc.) have a cumulative effect that begins to lessen the severity of my symptoms.
One of my favorites in the “physical” category is to take a nice, hot shower and afterward surround myself with every skincare product I can find in my house. (There’s a LOT; I’m SUPER gay.) I just take my time – there’s no shot clock here – and just pamper myself. I’ll try every moisturizing product, every toner, every mask…you name it! I guess I basically just give myself a spa day.
I might struggle with finding the motivation or any meaning in it…but I do it anyway. In my experience, my depression can talk me out of doing anything good for myself. I think that probably sounds very familiar to all of us who struggle with the disease. The most important thing is to just try when you REALLY don’t want to.
I also increase my water intake. I try to get plenty of sleep – at the appropriate time. In other words, as much as I can, I try not to sleep during the day even though I feel wiped out. Also, even if I can’t seem to sleep, I just get in bed anyway. I know it’s poor sleep hygiene but if I’m in bed and my insomnia is pretty bad, I will turn on some mind-numbingly boring show on my bedroom TV and usually doze off that way.
I also try to get outside in some way. Exercise is great if you’re actually up to that. If nothing else, just find a nice spot outside to sit and just soak in the sun. I also try to eat a little better because I’m a very emotional eater.
Regarding self-care in my physical surroundings, I try not to become overwhelmed by the state of my house. When I am depressed, my motivation or energy levels are near zero and my house attests to it. Dishes will need to be washed, the kitchen will be messy, my bathroom is abhorrent, my bedroom looks like a hurricane hit it. The thought of cleaning all that up drains me even more.
I have to be very gentle and compassionate with myself in this area. Rather than let myself be stressed out about a HUGE cleanup, I acknowledge that I’m wiped out energy-wise and just agree to do one room a day until the house is clean and the depression has eased, hopefully. This is a means to take back a little control when my mind is telling me to give up and remain mired in my sense of hopelessness.
I admit that it takes a concerted effort to do this. It’s hard! Knowing this, I handle myself with care. I wouldn’t expect any friend of mine who was battling depression to clean their entire house when they didn’t feel well; why would I expect it of myself? That’s self-care and self-love, friend.
Emotional self-care for depression
Secondly: emotional self-care.
I think one of the hardest aspects of depression – at least in my case – is the insane tempest of emotions that are constantly swirling around in my head and my heart. I can be oppressively sad. I can be irritable and sarcastic. I can be downright angry.
I used to be so absolutely terrified of those emotions that I did all I could to not feel anything…and by “all I could” I mean a multitude of substances that landed me first in the local jail and eventually in 12-step meetings.
I eventually had to learn that it was OK and 100% healthy to really FEEL and acknowledge with love of self that my feelings – though difficult – are genuine and deserve my attention in a way that is not judgmental.
Thicc Nhat Han, a well-known Buddhist monk, suggests that when we experience these negative emotions, we must attend to them as though they were an infant crying out for attention. We handle them with attention and acceptance, but we don’t judge. We wouldn’t be harsh towards a real baby who was crying. We should treat ourselves with the same amount of love for ourselves.
Here’s the rub: one may say that if I have to allow myself to unapologetically feel my emotions then I should just let myself feel sad or mad or whatever until all those feelings had run their courses. The answer is that you can and must feel but you cannot wallow. This is a HUGE distinction.
Before I had some experience in self-care, I would lie in bed for weeks or I’d be a huge asshole for a month or…whatever. I had to strike a bargain with myself: I was free to wallow in sadness or fatigue or irritability – to REALLY feel them – but for only three days. After that, the deal was I had to start doing something to fight back. That very often is to speak with my therapist as soon as possible.
Additionally, I force myself to reconnect with someone who knows my situation. Very often, that is one of my parents. I let them know where I am emotionally, and we talk and it gets me out of my head for a while. An emotional respite that brief can make a huge difference.
Spiritual self-care for depression
Thirdly, it’s important to practice spiritual self-care.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily involve anything religious unless you want it to. In that vein, I’ve heard it said before that folks who have a meaningful religious practice tend to be happier and even live longer.
But spiritual self-care can be lots of other things.
Meditation is a great option; it centers you, clears your head, and can help you see things in new ways. Oftentimes, a change of perspective that comes with a meditation practice can reframe how I think about myself and my situation. It allows me a little headspace in which I can begin to move towards love of self and away from entrenched feelings of despair and judgment that are hallmarks of depression.
It doesn’t even have to be as structured as a regimen of meditation. One of my favorite things to do when I’m depressed is to go outside and just sit in the sun – weather permitting. There’s a great old-growth oak in my backyard that I love to just sit and look at. I think of how old it must be, the things it must’ve “seen” in all those years, how amazing it is to think that it used to be an acorn that could fit in my hand.
Something as simple as an old tree can get me away from a sense of emotional isolation and gives me a sense of connection that is crucial for moving me toward overcoming so much of my depression. That, to me, is spiritual.
There are so many options for spiritual self-care. I think this is so effective because it gets me out of my head. (My head’s a bad place to hang out…there’s a LOT of scary shit in there!) Spiritual self-care can break the pattern of rumination that many of us experience.
When you’re fighting something as persistent and pernicious as depression, it’s important to have as many weapons as possible at your disposal. Self-care is such a weapon. It’s just as important as medication, in my opinion, because it teaches us to love and care for ourselves.
As such, I think the therapeutic benefit is that self-care is implemented BY ourselves FOR ourselves. It’s a big step in wresting back some joy, sanity, and purpose for our lives when otherwise we would have none.
Love yourself. Treat yourself with kindness during periods of depression because you deserve it. This intentional caring towards ourselves can make a huge difference in regaining some wholeness in our lives.
Meet the author
Jeff Couick is a frequent contributor to our blog here at Modern Era Counseling. Jeff draws on his personal experience as a Buddhist-Christian, a gay person, a military vet, and a trauma survivor in tackling topics including LGBTQ+ relationships, self-care, trauma and depression, and getting the most out of therapy.