8 Self-care Practices For Moderate Depression
Keep it simple. Do what works. Trust yourself.
Sleeping a lot.
Living with the background hum of anxiety.
Feeling reticent and insecure.
Bottling up my emotions.
This, and more, characterized daily existence for most of my adolescent and adult life as I lived with depression.
When I started naturopathic medical school though, depression slammed me to the ground and sat on my chest. In addition to sleeping as often as I could, I also lost contact with friends which resulted in blow-out arguments and hurt feelings. I struggled to wake up in the morning and always arrived late to school. My short attention span and lack of focus mucked up studying time, especially if I studied alone. And I ate any and everything, even unhealthy foods, just to keep hunger at bay.
Hindsight being 20/20, I now see the patterns that gave me some control over the depression. As I matriculated, I could still function as a student, friend, church member, clinician, daughter, and sister - although imperfectly - if I kept to eight basic tasks.
They all boil down to keeping things simple, repeating what works, and trusting myself.
1. Having food available that was easy to make
At some point, Walmart sold a 40.00 rice maker and my mom picked up a small slow cooker from a tag sale. Those two things made life infinitely easier. I dumped everything into a pot for electricity to cook.
I simplified meal planning by jotting down what I liked to eat, picking out the things I could afford, and just mixing and matching for a week's worth of dinner.
Lunch was leftovers from the night before.
Breakfast was usually the same - oatmeal and cream of wheat. Or an omelet - which the rice cooker sometimes made.
Then I happened upon Nutribullet and made a smoothie with greens and fruit some mornings.
Buy organic, frozen veggies to cut down on prep time and make organic food affordable.
Substitute a meal for a nutrient-dense smoothie. Here are 39 varieties by Dr. Axe. I like the Healthy Chocolate Smoothie and the Chocolate Avocado Smoothie.
Extra-thick, gluten-free oatmeal by Bob Mills fills me up. It staves off hunger longer than other oatmeals. That may be true for you too.
2. Eating healthier foods
Some time passed before I saw the connection between what I ate and how I felt. Eventually, I made the unfortunate discovery that mac & cheese increased the severity of my depression, anxiety, and joint pains. After eating a hunk of cheesy, slightly brown-along-the-edges, glutinous mac & cheese, I felt achy, tired, and low-spirited.
Diet affects depression. There are no two ways about it. The western diet or SAD, standard American diet, with its red meat, processed foods, sugar, potatoes, white grains, dairy, and nonexistent veggies contributes to depression. (Our normal just makes us sick while others, like the Norwegians' regular diet, reduces depression. Smh!)
So, I ate more fish, veggies, and rice instead. And legumes like chickpeas and lentils.
Although, I didn't give up mac & cheese completely, limiting the frequency and amount made a difference. My joint pain lessened, the anxiety diminished, and I felt sharper in class.
Work with a naturopathic or integrative doctor to discover any food sensitivities. Gluten's a common one and contributes to depression.
3. Regular time with friends that weren't depressed
The three of us had a running dinner date at Whole Foods or Chipotle each week. Because of the nature of who we are, it settled into a round-robin; we each vented and received support from the other two. Since they were mentally healthier than I, their perspectives often rescued me from the pit of despair.
High-quality relationships with people who don't categorize as depressed can lessen depression. All of which makes relationships beneficial to those with depression. So it makes sense that I left dinner feeling connected, hopeful, successful, and with a sense of personal agency.
This can be the most difficult if you don't have a network by default as I did in a school setting. And getting out may be the last thing you feel like doing.
It may be helpful to join a group geared to being open and accepting as part of the culture. Religious and spiritual groups tend to have this underlying nature.
Develop coping skills to handle social situations.
Ask a friend or family member to go with you to a social event.
Attend events like sip n' paint where the focus is on an action and less on socialization - although connecting with others enhances the experience.
4. Using herbal and natural medicines I could easily implement and maintain
I hooked up with a great doctor and student team at the local naturopathic clinic. She showed me how low my vitamin D levels were. No wonder I suffered from depression, acne, and a number of other health concerns!
I chose this over the recommended anti-depressants from the school psychiatrist. I'm not saying everyone should do this but with vitamin D deficiency linked to depression, anxiety, and mental illness it made sense to build a basic foundation where I filled in my nutritional gaps before medicating.
Additionally, I started drinking an infusion of nettle leaf tea. The world-renowned herbalist Susun Weed offered a class that I stumbled upon.
Pouring hot water over one cup of nettle leaf tea and leaving it to sit overnight in a mason jar didn't cost more than 5 minutes worth of time.
Use Traditional Medicinals tea bags instead of the fresh herb.
Work with a naturopathic doctor or integrative doctor to test for micronutrient deficiencies.
Simplify your supplement regimen. Targeted, a shortlist of supplements, and consistent intake.
5. Asking for help
Near the end of the program, a few classmates and I noticed how much better we felt studying less but taking care of ourselves more. We'd even noticed our grades improve. When I reflected on that idea, I can pinpoint counseling as one of those self-care things that made a big difference.
It took almost three years but I returned to counseling twice a month. Even though we rarely talked about school, I finally admitted to all the unmet needs and desires. And these were the things complicating my life. These were the driving forces behind my depression. I just wasn't listening to myself and what I really wanted to do. (Which did not include attending medical school as I reluctantly acknowledged.)
Asking someone to help me process my thoughts and offer a different perspective felt like love on a gold plate. As if I'd become the belle of the ball. I finally stopped ignoring myself in lieu of my responsibilities.
Here are 5 ways to know you need therapy after all.
Try a different form of therapy when you feel stuck or frustrated with your current therapist. Don't give up.
While shopping for a new therapist, complete a workbook on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and self-coach. (I have the Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and I like it. But I'm going to try this one.)
6. Releasing a core belief that fractured my confidence and drained my motivation
Pathological thoughts. Those, I believe, are the heart of depression. And I'd ingested a number of them. "My grades predict the quality of doctor I'll be" wreaked internal havoc of unprecedented proportions.
One fine year I'd had enough and just stopped checking my grades. “If the administration wants to talk to me about failing a course they'll do that”, I reasoned. Otherwise, I'm going to study, show up, take the test, and let it be.
It was the year I made one point shy of a 4.0. (Which I discovered right before the next semester since I’d banned navel-gazing my GPA.)
The relief of that year can't be captured in words. Maybe a picture will do.
This came at a point of utter frustration. If you're experiencing the same thing with a particular habit, then let it go. Sometimes, at your wit's end, you can release things permanently.
CBT can help with this too.
7. Finding a purpose beyond myself
When my friends came down with the flu or were on the brink of divorce I took care of them the best way I knew how.
Allowing myself to help someone else sparked brief moments of success. Brief moments of empowerment. They fed my sense of personal agency because I could see my ideas shaping another's life for the good.
They were also moments of short duration. I had limited resources emotionally so I couldn't be the one right at the heart of the matter, or supporting them by myself. But I did step up when I could. I believe it made a difference for them. It certainly did for me.
Find someone you can help. That may be as easy as buying something to eat for a person of lesser means, volunteering at the animal shelter, or joining a soup kitchen.
Or, become the pen pal for a child overseas who will receive your monthly donation.
Make it personal and direct - you need to see your impact.
8. Regular prayer
This fell by the waste-side at the beginning of the program. I couldn't feel it's impact and it seemed like one more thing on a very long list of to-do’s.
But with inconsistent consistency, I came to see that sharing my issues with God helped me handle the burden of becoming a doctor. It was my time to be honest, to share my anger, resentment, self-pity, fears, etc.
And then through dreams, random emails, impressions in my mind, and synchronicity receive answers, direction, and inspiration.
Take a moment to give thanks at the start of your meal.
Journal your daily list of gratitude to close the day and end with peace.
Learn a prayer that means something to you and pray it.
Write down your worries at the end of the night and choose a prayer of hope to pray over them.
Bonus: Trusting Myself - or not.
I must admit, however, I made the greatest mistake when I didn’t trust myself. After my mother died I wanted a leave of absence to travel abroad. I had the money, a legitimate reason, and a long-held dream. But I allowed others to talk me out of it. Staying in school under such intense pressure pushed me into a dark place where suicide came to mind for the first time. On two occasions I almost went through with it.
I truly believe giving my heart its desire even in the midst of grief could have prevented suicidal ideation from creeping into my life. Of course, I can’t say for sure, but living in sunny Spain for a few months would likely have been better than studying and attending class for 50+ hours a week.
Pay attention to the desires that never go away, even as the years pass on. They are meant to be followed because the experience holds healing and transformation for you. Find a way to make it happen.
Get help if you don't have the courage to do it alone. (My therapist helped me challenge the fears of living abroad. I haven't relocated but started traveling to the places I love instead. The healing and transformation's for real!)
Fours years post-graduation, I still do these same things in some form or another. I’ve gotten a real handle on depression by meeting both my physical and spiritual needs.
Self-care made the difference. It became relevant and transformative with self-reflection.
So, to create the practices that work best for you, pay attention to what lightens your mood and keeps you functional.
Also, include basic fundamentals like healthier food choices, simple meals, and positive connections.
And above all else, trust yourself.
If you don't know which nutrients cause your period problems, and possibly depression and anxiety, take the Hormone Quiz to find out.
To a better period asap!