“Depression is an illness that requires a good deal of self-care,” writes psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, in her excellent book Living with Depression: Why Biology and Biography Matter along the Path to Hope and Healing.
But this might seem easier said than done, because when you have depression, the idea of taking care of anything feels like adding another boulder to your already heavy load. Serani understands firsthand the pain and exhaustion of depression. In addition to helping clients manage their depression, Serani works to manage her own, and shares her experiences in Living with Depression.
If you’re feeling better, you might ditch certain self-care habits, too. Maybe you skip a few therapy sessions, miss your medication or shirk other treatment tools. According to Serani, as some people improve, they get relaxed about their treatment plan, and before they know it are blinded to the warning signs and suffer a relapse.
Because skimping on self-care is a slippery slope to relapse, Serani provides readers with effective tips in her book. As a whole, the best things you can do to stave off relapse are to stick to your treatment plan and create a healthy environment. I’ve summarized her valuable suggestions below.
1. Attend your therapy sessions. As you’re feeling better, you might be tempted to skip a session or two or five. Instead, attend all sessions, and discuss your reluctance with your therapist. If changes are warranted, Serani says, you and your therapist can make the necessary adjustments.
Either way, discussing your reluctance can bring about important insights. As Serani writes:
Personally, the times I skipped sessions with my therapist showed me that I was avoiding profound subjects — or that I was reacting defensively to something in my life. Talking instead of walking showed me how self-defeating patterns were operating and that I needed to address these tendencies.
2. Take your meds as prescribed. Missing a dose can interfere with your medication’s effectiveness, and your symptoms might return. Alcohol and drugs also can mess with your meds. Stopping medication altogether might trigger discontinuation syndrome. If you’d like to stop taking your medication, don’t do it on your own. Talk with your prescribing physician so you can get off your medication slowly and properly.
Serani is diligent about taking her antidepressant medication and talks with her pharmacist frequently to make sure that over-the-counter medicines don’t interfere. With the help of her doctor, Serani was able to stop taking her medication. But her depression eventually returned. She writes:
…At first, it was upsetting to think that my neurobiology required ongoing repair and that I’d be one of the 20 percent of individuals who need medication for the rest of their lives. Over time, I came to view my depression as a chronic condition — one that required me to take medication much like a child with diabetes takes insulin, an adult with epilepsy takes antiseizure medication, or someone with poor eyesight wears glasses…
3. Get enough sleep. Sleep has a big impact on mood disorders. As Serani explains, too little sleep exacerbates mania and too much sleep worsens depression. So it’s important to keep a consistent sleep and wake cycle along with maintaining healthy sleeping habits.
Sometimes adjusting your medication can help with sleep. Your doctor might prescribe a different dose or have you take your medication at a different time. For instance, when Serani started taking Prozac, one of the side effects was insomnia. Her doctor suggested taking the medication in the morning, and her sleeping problems dissipated.
For Serani, catnaps help with her fatigue. But she caps her naps at 30 minutes. She also doesn’t tackle potentially stressful tasks before bed, such as paying bills or making big decisions.
(If you’re struggling with insomnia, here’s an effective solution, which doesn’t have the side effects of sleep aids.)
4. Get moving. Depression’s debilitating and depleting effects make it difficult to get up and get moving. Serani can relate to these effects. She writes:
The lethargy of depression can make exercise seem like impossibility. I know, I grew roots and collected dust when I was anchored to my depression. I can still recall how getting out of bed was a feat in and of itself. I could barely fight gravity to sit up. My body was so heavy and everything hurt.
But moving helps decrease depression. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, start small with gentle movements like stretching, deep breathing, taking a shower or doing household chores. When you can, add more active activities such as walking, yoga or playing with your kids or whatever it is you enjoy.
It might help to get support, too. For instance, Serani scheduled walking dates with her neighbors. She also prefers to run errands and do household chores every day so she’s moving regularly.
5. Eat well. We know that nourishing our bodies with vitamins and minerals is key to our health. The same is true for depression. Poor nutrition can actually exacerbate exhaustion and impact cognition and mood.
Still, you might be too exhausted to shop for groceries or make meals. Serani suggests checking out online shopping options. Some local markets and stores will offer delivery services. Or you can ask your loved ones to cook a few meals for you. Another option is Meals-on-Wheels, which some religious and community organizations offer.
6. Know your triggers. In order to prevent relapse, it’s important to know what pushes your buttons and worsens your functioning. For instance, Serani is selective with the people she lets into her life, makes sure to keep a balanced calendar, doesn’t watch violent or abuse-laden films (the movie “Sophie’s Choice” sidelined her for weeks) and has a tough time tolerating loud or excessively stimulating environments.
Once you pinpoint your triggers, express them to others so your boundaries are honored.
7. Avoid people who are toxic. Toxic individuals are like emotional vampires, who “suck the life out of you,” according to Serani. They may be envious, judgmental and competitive. If you can’t stop seeing these people in general, limit your exposure and try having healthier individuals around when you’re hanging out with the toxic ones.
8. Stay connected with others. Social isolation, Serani writes, is your worst enemy. She schedules plans with friends, tries to go places she truly enjoys and has resources on hand when she’s somewhere potentially uncomfortable, such as books and crossword puzzles.
If you’re having a difficult time connecting with others, volunteer, join a support group or find like-minded people online on blogs and social media sites, she suggests. You also can ask loved ones to encourage you to socialize when you need it.
9. Create a healthy space. According to Serani, “… research says that creating a nurturing space can help you revitalize your mind, body and soul.” She suggests opening the shades and letting sunlight in. There’s also evidence that scent can minimize stress, improve sleep and boost immunity. Lemon and lavender have been shown to improve depression.
Serani says that you can use everything from essential oils to candles to soap to incense. She prefers lavender, lilac, vanilla and mango. If you’re sensitive to fragrance, she recommends diluting essential oils, buying flowers or even using dried fruit.
You also can listen to music, meditate, use guided imagery, practice yoga and even de-clutter parts of your home a little each time.
Serani’s last point involves empowering yourself and becoming resilient. She writes:
By learning about your biology and biography, following your treatment plan, and creating a healthy environment, you don’t allow anyone to minimize you or your depression. Instead of avoiding struggles, you learn from them. You trust your own instincts and abilities because they are uniquely yours. If you experience a setback, you summon learned skills and seek help from others to get back on-point. If a person’s ignorance on mental illness presents itself in the form of a joke or stigma, you clear the air with your knowledge of neurobiology and psychology.