When you live with depression, taking steps to protect your well-being through acts of self-care can be so important.
Taking care of yourself may not seem like much until you start to let it slide.
Living with depression can make everything seem 100 times harder. And then your depression symptoms may increase the more you ignore your needs and self-care — like getting restful sleep, eating nutritious meals, and taking time to relax.
Taking care of yourself one step at a time can have a positive impact on your overall well-being.
While you’ll want to reach out to a mental health professional for treatment options and support, a good self-care routine can also go a long way toward helping you manage your day-to-day life.
On your darkest days, wellness may seem a thousand miles away. But according to Daoist philosopher Laozi, that journey begins with a single step.
To take your first 10 steps, consider these self-care strategies:
Depression can feel tough to cope with — especially if you’re dragged down by dark, negative thoughts. You might feel guilty, worthless, hopeless, and helpless to do anything about your state of mind.
Have you tried ignoring those thoughts or tried pushing them away without much success? This is natural. However, instead of ignoring these thoughts, you may be able to rewrite or replace them with more positive ones.
Guided imagery can help you create a mental “happy place” with relaxing scenes and images.
Consider following these steps:
- Close your eyes and slow your breathing to a steady rhythm.
- Turn your thoughts to somewhere you’d like to go — a place you’ve visited before, one you hope to visit, or one you’ve only imagined.
- Start adding sensory details. Do you hear birds, rushing rivers, the tide? Maybe you smell trees and fresh earth, or feel the warmth of sunlight tempered by a cool breeze. Perhaps you’re sitting by a campfire, listening to the crackle of flames, with the taste of hot chocolate in your mouth.
- Open yourself up to the image, “sinking in” by walking along a path or leaning back in your chair to relax. Add new details as you explore.
- Keep breathing steadily. Imagine each inhale pulls calm and peace into your body, while sadness and despair ride out on each exhale.
Does it really work? Research seems to point to yes.
Several small studies have shown that guided imagery has promise for relieving depression in:
Tip: Find free recordings with a YouTube search for “guided imagery.”
The idea of writing in a journal might seem spectacularly unhelpful for depression. You want to get away from negative thoughts, not wallow in them further.
The trick to journaling for depression, explains Roberta Alves, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is focusing on your successes, big or small.
“Looking back on things you’ve accomplished throughout the week can show you that your life does have meaning, that you do contribute to the world,” she says.
Maybe you called a friend, or decided to go into your office instead of working from bed. How did those choices make you feel?
Of course, you can express negative feelings, too. Just limit the space and time you give to those thoughts.
- Decide how long you’ll write in your journal each day. Then, set a timer for half that time. Vent your frustrations and distress until the timer goes off, then write about more positive and meaningful experiences.
- Get your negative thoughts out. Then, aim to fill the same amount of space (whether that’s 10 lines, half a page, or one full page) by recording positive experiences, or challenging and reframing those negative thoughts.
Alves recommends decorating your journal with meaningful pictures and photos. That way, simply looking at your journal will remind you of the things you find most important in life.
She also notes that it’s helpful to set specific times for writing, so journaling becomes part of your regular routine.
The self-critical and self-defeating thoughts that often accompany depression can feel impossible to escape. Maybe they play on a loop — a track permanently set to repeat that you can’t seem to switch off. But this is depression talking, and depression often lies.
Just to be clear: We’re not suggesting you can banish depression through positive thinking alone. Positive self-talk and optimism aren’t cures, but they can boost resilience and improve your outlook.
To revise the way you talk to yourself, try breaking down the negative thoughts:
- Identify the thought.
- Consider whether you have any proof to back up that thought. What evidence might counter it instead?
- Get more insight by exploring cognitive distortions, like all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading, or overgeneralization.
- Ask yourself if you’d say the same thing to a friend. No? What would you say instead?
Then, try slowly mixing positivity into your internal dialogue:
- Aim to focus on everyday humorous and lighthearted moments instead of the darker ones.
- When you find yourself fixating on flaws, remind yourself of your strengths and positive qualities.
- Accept praise and compliments instead of brushing them aside.
It’s natural to slip back into self-critical dialogue at first. Just acknowledge those thoughts and then let them keep sailing on instead of dropping anchor in your mind.
Practicing mindfulness can help you tune into your emotions, making it easier to recognize distressing thoughts and feelings as mere thoughts — not reality.
Learning to challenge automatic responses to these thoughts can eventually
Mindfulness also helps you stay present and engaged in your day-to-day life, so you’ll be more aware of pleasurable moments and sensations.
Consider these quick steps to enhance mindfulness:
- Do one thing at a time. Devote all of your senses to that activity.
- Take a nature break. Sit outside and experience the world with all of your senses.
- When negative thoughts surface, sit with them briefly before reacting or responding.
- Try meditation.
- Work with a therapist who offers mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
When people, places, or things that used to light you up no longer seem enjoyable, you might find it hard to care about… well, anything at all.
Yet, giving yourself the opportunity to try something new could be the key to rekindling interest in your life.
“Engaging your mind and body can help you fight depression and create new chances for happiness,” Alves explains.
Choose something you’ve always wanted to try — from painting to rock climbing to learning a new language.
Then, create time for the activity in your daily routine. Scheduling it ahead of time makes it more likely you’ll stick with it, Alves notes.
Tip: When setting a goal for weekly activities, keep it small and manageable. You might, for example, start with just 1 hour a week. As time goes on and your hobby feels more rewarding, increasing the time you spend on it will feel much easier.
When you’re feeling low, it can feel easiest to reach for the remote or your phone.
Don’t get us wrong, rewatching lighthearted shows or scrolling through cat photos and funny videos can sometimes help keep the crushing weight of depression at bay.
But at the same time, it never hurts to take a break from the screens and try relaxation approaches that might bring you more benefit:
Sleep issues are fairly common when you have depression.
When you’re feeling deeply fatigued and low, sleep might feel like the only thing you’re capable of.
You might sleep 10 to 12 hours (or more), struggle to get out of bed, and spend the day drifting in and out of focus.
Or maybe you have a hard time falling asleep altogether.
Not only can sleep deprivation make depression symptoms worse, lying awake in bed gives your brain plenty of time to fixate on unwanted and negative thoughts.
To get more restful sleep (which can help improve your mood), consider these tips:
- Stick to the same bedtime and waking time every day.
- Get some sunlight during the day, but keep your bedroom cool and dark for sleep.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the late afternoon or evening.
- Try to avoid using your phone and computer for at least 1 hour before bed.
Research supports physical activity as a beneficial treatment option for depression — so if you can exercise, consider making time for regular physical activity.
But we get it, when you have depression, being active is usually easier said than done.
How can you think of working out when you feel too drained to even get out of bed? The best approach is to take it slow.
- First, try sitting outside — sunlight and fresh air have benefits, too. Just being outside might give you the energy to get moving.
- Try walking to the end of the street and back, or to a nearby coffee shop or other places you enjoy visiting.
- Choose exercise that feels easy and fun: swimming, roller skating, walking with friends, or even hopping on the swings at the park.
- Walk around your home for 10 minutes while listening to your favorite songs. Repeat a few times during the day.
While it might feel easiest (and safest) to isolate yourself, turning to loved ones for support is usually a better option.
Just remember: No one can read your mind, so they won’t know what you need unless you ask.
You might, for instance, ask a parent or sibling to bring you dinner, or ask a friend for company during a walk.
Trusted loved ones can even help you find a therapist and schedule an appointment.
Have you heard that food can affect your mood? Well,
- leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, and kale
- organ meats
- whole grains
- Brazil nuts
Most people also have low levels of vitamin D, and increasing your vitamin D intake may improve your mood.
Besides sunshine, you can get vitamin D from foods, such as:
- salmon and other fatty fish
- dairy and fortified soy products
If you want to try some supplements or remedies, you can reach out to a healthcare professional about trying something like St. John’s wort for mild depression symptoms. Just be sure to ask a doctor or pharmacist before combining supplements with any medications.
When you feel overwhelmed by depression, basic acts of self-care may not always feel possible.
You’ll want to start by seeking professional support, so they can work with you to find a treatment plan that fits you best. If your symptoms aren’t improving, are getting worse, or your depression symptoms are new, professional support is essential.
Consider these resources for finding support:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
- National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists