How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression

The Depression Project

15 min read

Hi there!

My name's Mathew Baker - I'm a professional counsellor & the co-founder of The Depression Project - and when many people with depression think about self-care, they often associate it with its most "obvious" acts - such as, for example:

  • Lying in a bathtub;

  • Lighting scented candles around a room;

  • Getting a massage.

And, while practicing self-care can include these acts, it is also much, much, MUCH more than this - especially when you're fighting depression!

In particular, when you have depression, a solid, robust self-care plan involves:

  1. Practicing "Mental Self-Care": I.e. Doing activities that stimulate your mind in a positive way; and also learning and implementing strategies to help separate yourself from negative thoughts; think more positively; and become "unstuck" from something that you may be ruminating about.

  2. Practicing "Emotional Self-Care": This involves learning and implementing strategies to help you get some respite from the painful emotions you're feeling, to give your mood a boost, and to prevent yourself from getting burnt out and/or from your depression deteriorating.

  3. Practicing "Physical Self-Care": This involves taking care of your physical health; and also learning and implementing strategies to help you, among other things, feel more energetic.

  4. Practicing "Social Self-Care": This involves learning and implementing strategies to help you have positive interactions with the people around you.

  5. Practicing "Spiritual Self-Care": This involves learning and implementing strategies which contribute to you feeling as if you have a purpose in the world and that your life has meaning.

  6. Practicing "Practical Self-Care": This involves learning and implementing strategies to help you feel comfortable, safe, cared for and in control of your life.

As I really hope you're starting to see, practicing self-care when you have depression involves a lot more than just lying in a bathtub, lighting scented candles around a room or getting a massage.

And, throughout the rest of this blog post, I'm now going to share with you some specific strategies you can implement to help you practice "mental self-care", "emotional self-care", "physical self-care", "social self-care", "spiritual self-care" and "practical self-care"!

How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression, Pillar 1: Practicing "Mental Self-Care"

So, like we've touched upon, "mental self-care" is self-care when it comes to your thoughts and your mind. And, one such strategy you can implement to practice "mental self-care" is to talk more kindly to yourself.

Now of course, this is something that's really important to try your best to do, since as you no doubt know, when you have depression, it's extremely common to talk to yourself in very self-critical, abusive and uncompassionate ways. For example, by calling yourself:

  • A "loser";

  • A "failure";

  • "Worthless";

  • A "burden";

  • A "screw-up";

  • "Useless";

  • "Stupid".

For this reason, an important component of "mental self-care" when you have depression is doing your best to silence this critical and abusive voice, and instead talk to yourself much more kindly - for example by:

  • Firstly, changing any negative statements you make about yourself such as "I'm a loser", "I'm worthless", etcetera to "I feel like a loser", "I feel worthless", etcetera.

    • Even better: Change "I'm a loser", "I'm worthless", etcetera, to "I feel like a loser right now", "I feel worthless right now", etcetera.

  • Secondly, I encourage you to remind yourself of the good things you've done today - such as by telling yourself, for example, "I'm proud of myself for surviving depression today"; or "I deserve a pat on the back for getting out of bed and having a shower today when I felt so 'depression tired' that all I wanted to do was sleep".

Now, to help you implement these two simple strategies in practice, I've created a couple of little worksheets for you:

Worksheet #1 To Help You Practice "Mental Self-Care": "Daily Positive Self-Talk"

Worksheet #2 To Help You Practice "Mental Self-Care": "Weekly Positive Self-Talk" (if you can't manage to complete the above worksheet each day)

I really hope you give these mini-worksheets a try, because over time, they'll help you to talk to yourself with the kindness you deserve!

How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression, Pillar 2: Practicing "Emotional Self-Care"

Like we've said, "emotional self-care" is self-care when it comes to your feelings.

Of course, when you’re fighting depression, this kind of self-care is really, really important as well, because again, it can help you to:

  • Get some respite from any painful / consuming emotions you're experiencing;

  • Give your mood a boost;

  • Combat feelings of numbness;

  • Prevent you from getting burned out, from snapping over "something small", and/or from your depression deteriorating.

In practice, there are a variety of strategies you can implement to achieve these objectives, and one such one that I'd like to share with you now is practicing mindfulness - which in case you don’t know, has been proven to help people deal with stress, overwhelm, worry, fear, anger, and practically any other difficult, painful emotion that a person can feel.

Have you ever tried it before?

If you haven’t, then I really encourage you to! And, to help you get started, right now, we’d like to share a relatively simple mindfulness exercise with you that can be really effective at making you feel more calm and settled.

In fact, it's so effective that in 2018 it went viral - being shared over 1.5 million times when we posted it on our Facebook page!

Now, to begin with, sit or lie down somewhere comfortable, and simply take a few deep breaths … breathing in through your nose … and then out through your mouth … in through your nose … and then out through your mouth ...

Then, while you continue to do so, gradually try to make yourself aware of:

  • 5 Things You Can See: For example, the table in front of you, the nice painting on the wall, the fridge magnet that your daughter made, the clear blue sky outside, and the leafy green tree across the road.

  • 4 Things You Can Feel: Once you’ve gotten in touch with five things you can see, then – while you continue breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth – try to bring awareness to four things you can feel. For example, the chair that’s holding up your weight, your dress against your legs, the soft carpet beneath your feet, or a loose strand of hair brushing against your face.

  • 3 Things You Can Hear: Next, bring awareness to three things you can hear. For example, the tik-tok of a clock, a bird chirping outside, or the sound of your children playing in their bedroom.

  • 2 Things You Can Smell: Then, try to get in touch with two things you can smell. If you try but don’t find yourself able to smell anything, then try to summon up your two favourite smells. For example, the scent of freshly cut grass, or the aroma of a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

  • 1 Emotion You Can Feel: Lastly, be mindful of one emotion you can feel. 

As you can likely tell, this exercise only takes a few minutes, but like I said, it can be really effective at helping you create separation between you and your negative / painful emotions, which will result in you feeling much more calm and at peace.

How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression, Pillar 3: Practicing "Physical Self-Care"

"Physical self-care" involves three main components:

  1. Implementing strategies to increase your energy levels - since struggling with depression can be completely exhausting.

  2. Taking care of your physical health - which, when you have depression, can often be a challenge to do.

  3. Connecting your body with the world around you - since when you have depression, it's possible to feel extremely disconnected from the world around you.

And, to help you achieve objectives one and two in particular,right now, I want to talk to you about one strategy in particular: exercising (or at least moving your body around).

Now of course, exercising is important for your long-term physical health, but did you also know that it can help you cope with depression as well?
This is because:

  • Exercising releases dopamine in your brain - which is the chemical found in a lot of anti-depressant medications.

  • Exercising can also increase your energy levels - which, like we mentioned above, can often be lacking when you're struggling with depression.

In saying that though, when we talk about exercising, sometimes people with depression get their back up, and respond with something like:

  • "But that's a ridiculous suggestion - because when you're deep in a depressive episode, you feel completely and utterly exhausted. So, how on Earth can I go for a run or lift weights at the gym like I usually would? That's just crazy!"

And, those people have a point - which is why I always says that when you have depression, exercise does not have to be as strenuous as going for a run or lifting weights at the gym, for example.

Instead, I just encourage you to do whatever you feel capable of doing at any given moment in time.

For example:

  • If you don't feel up to going for a run, then you could try going for a walk around the block.

  • If you don't feel up to going for a walk around the block, then you could try going up and down a flight of stairs in your home or apartment block.

  • If you don't feel up to going up and down a flight of stairs, then you could try walking to a different room and back.

  • If you don't feel up to walking to a different room and back, then you could try stretching in bed.

Again, just do your best to do whatever you feel capable of, since even small amounts of exercise and body movements can:

  • Release a little dopamine in your brain;

  • Give you a little boost of energy;

  • Reduce body aches and pains that can be brought about due to lack of movement.

How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression, Pillar 4: Practicing "Social Self-Care"

"Social self-care" is centred around having positive connections with other people, and of course, this is something that's extremely important, because, among other reasons, negative interactions with other people is a major factor that contributes to a lot of people's depression.

For this reason, an important aspect of "social self-care" is implementing boundaries with respect to other people.

Why?

Because boundaries can help protect you from:

  • Having your wants and needs sabotaged;

  • Being taken advantage of;

  • Becoming burned out and exhausted;

  • Having your depression worsen.

To see the types of boundaries you can implement in your life, let's have a look at the following examples.

"Social Self-Care" Boundary Type #1: Boundaries On Your Time

So, let’s say that your friend rings you up and asks if you can spend the upcoming Sunday helping them move house. 

Now, if doing so wouldn’t sabotage your own needs and wants, exhaust you, or cause you any other form of harm, then it’s great to help your friend out and say “yes”.

However, there are many scenarios in which saying “yes” would come at a cost to you, and why as a result, it won’t be in your best interests to do so. For example:

  • Because you want to spend Sunday morning at church, and even though you could theoretically skip it, you really want to go.

  • Because you've had a tiring week at work, and you want to have a proper sleep-in on the weekend to help re-charge your batteries and prepare you for the next week.

In these instances, for the benefit of your own self-care, an effective boundary to implement would be one on your time.

  • For example, by saying to your friend: “I’d be happy to help you move – but I’m only free from 12 o’clock onwards.”

"Social Self-Care" Boundary Type #2: Boundaries With Your Possessions

In this instance, let’s say that your friend asks to borrow $200 from you. 

Now, there may be many occasions in which you’d be happy to loan your friend the money – in which case, no problem!

However, there may also be many instances in which you don’t want to do so. For example:

  • If your friend has borrowed money from you in the past but has never paid you back.

  • If you feel like you can only afford to loan them $100.

In these cases (as well as many others), to avoid you doing something that you aren’t comfortable with, you could establish boundaries with respect to your possessions. For example, by telling your friend:

  • “I’m sorry, but you still owe me money from before, and until you pay that back, I’m not comfortable loaning you anymore.”

  • “I’d be happy to loan you $100 – but right now, I can’t afford to give you anymore than that.”

"Social Self-Care" Boundary Type #3: Boundaries Based On How You Feel

To return to our first example, let’s say that your friend asks you to help them move house on Sunday.

Now, like we said earlier, if you have other things you want to do on that day, then you can establish boundaries with regards to your time (i.e. you can restrict your availability to the times when you’re happy to help out).

However, there might also be occasions when you don’t have any other commitments on, but for whatever reason, you just don’t feel like spending the day helping your friend move.

This could be, for example, because you can feel a depressive episode coming on, and you know that the best thing you can do for yourself is to have a quiet day at home practicing self-care.

In this case, the best thing you can do to protect yourself is say "no" to your friend – for no other reason than because you simply don’t feel like helping them move house.

"Social Self-Care" Boundary Type #4: Boundaries Based On Your Likes And Dislikes

In this example, let’s say that your friend invites you to go and watch a football match with them, when little do they know, you don’t actually like watching football at all.

In this case, if you really want to spend time with that particular friend, then you may decide to say “yes”.

However, if you know that you just wouldn’t enjoy the match at all even in your friend’s company, then rather than going just to please them, you could instead say:

  • “I’d love to spend time with you, but to be honest, I really don’t like football. Is there something else you feel like doing that we would both enjoy?"

Even though you’re not actually stating it, responding in this way implicitly enforces the boundary that you will not do things that you don’t like doing, just so that you can please someone else.

"Social Self-Care" Boundary Type #5: Boundaries Based On Your Values

This type of boundary is all about what behaviours you will, and will not tolerate from other people. For example:

  • I will not allow my partner to talk to me disrespectfully. If they do, then rather than keeping silent because I don’t want to upset them, I will speak up and tell them that I won’t accept this behaviour.

  • I’m more than willing to help my friends out when they’d like me to, but in return, I expect them to be appreciative – not to just use me and take my support for granted. I deserve better than that, and if that’s how they’re going to behave, then they don’t deserve my help or my friendship.

  • I will always do my best to make my partner happy, and to help them get their needs and wants met. However, in return, I expect them to do their best to make me happy as well, and to help me get my needs and wants met too.

  • I deserve to be treated as well as I treat other people, and I will not settle for anything less.

  • I have no room for toxic people in my life, so if someone behaves selfishly towards me or in a way that shows they have no regard for my needs, wants or values, then I’m going to disassociate myself from that person.

Having boundaries based on your values are arguably the most important boundaries you can have to stop people from mistreating you, and to surround yourself with people who will treat you with the respect, love and care you deserve.

For this reason, it’s really, really important that you carefully think about what your own value-based boundaries are and then implement them!

"Social Self-Care" Boundary Type #6: Boundaries Based On Topics Of Conversation

Let’s say you have someone who constantly rings you up to complain about their life – which is something that you find extremely negative and draining. 

In this scenario, it’s beneficial to put in boundaries to protect yourself from this, such as by:

  • Telling them how their constant complaining makes you feel, and how while you’d be happy to help them try to constructively solve the problems in their life, you’re no longer willing to continue listening to them doing nothing but complain.

  • Alternatively, you could listen to them, but simply stop the conversation when you’ve had enough of it.

How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression, Pillar 5: Practicing "Spiritual Self-Care"

Now, when many people think of "spiritual self-care", they often assume it's related to religion. And, while practicing religion can be part of "spiritual self-care" if you want it to be, "spiritual self-care" involves so much more, including:

  • Having a purpose in the world;

  • Leading a meaningful life;

  • Feeling fulfilled.

And, one strategy in particular that you can implement to practice "spiritual self-care" is journalling.

Why?

Because journalling can help you become more aware and in-tune with your feelings surrounding "spiritual issues", such as what your purpose is, whether or not you're living a meaningful life, and how fulfilled you are.

In particular, below are some specific journal prompts you may like to answer which can help you "spiritually self-care":

  • What are some things in my family life that give me meaning, fulfillment, and purpose?

  • What are some things in my work life that give me meaning, fulfillment, and purpose?

  • What are some hobbies that give me meaning, fulfillment, and purpose?

  • What are some areas of “personal growth” I’m working on that are giving me meaning, fulfillment, and purpose?

  • How could I make more time for the things that really matter to me?

  • How can I continue to cultivate more meaning, fulfillment and purpose in my future?

  • What are some daily habits I can practice that will help make me more connected with the world and my place in it?

  • What could I do to be more "present" each and every day?

  • What are some good things about the present moment which I can be grateful for?

  • What are some areas of my life that are lacking in clarity? How can I gain more clarity in these areas?

  • What would my “highest self” do to navigate the challenges I’m facing right now?

  • How can I give myself more space to get in touch with my inner wisdom?

How To Practice Self-Care When You Have Depression, Pillar 6: Practicing "Practical Self-Care"

OK, so we're almost at the end of this article, and to finish it off, I'd now like to talk about the sixth and final pillar of practicing self-care when you have depression: "practical self-care".

Now, to put it simply, "practical self-care" involves doing the things that need to get done in order to help you feel comfortable, safe, cared for and in control of your life. 

Under my definition, it can include, for example:

  • Doing your chores so that you have a clean home to live in (such as cleaning the dishes, washing your clothes, etcetera).

  • Taking care of your finances so that you can support yourself (and perhaps others).

  • Going to the doctor if you're feeling sick, so that you can get better and return to your normal life.

  • Asking for support when you need it - to help you avoid feeling overwhelmed, stressed out and unable to cope.

And, when you're struggling with depression, a critically, critically important component of "practical self-care" is doing the things that you need to do in order to survive-, cope with- and ultimately heal from your depression.

This can include, for example:

  • Going to therapy;

  • Reading self-help books that are written by therapists;

  • Finding solutions to the problems you have which are contributing to your depression;

  • If applicable, taking your anti-depressant medication;

  • Reaching out for help so that you can be supported.

I really hope you've found this article helpful, and that moving forwards, you have a better idea of how to practice self-care when you have depression.

All my love,

Mathew Baker

Professional Counsellor & Co-founder of The Depression Project.
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