How Does Self-Care Help with Depression?

Why Self-Care Can Help With Depression — Plus, 7 Science-Backed Activities to Try

Alongside professional treatment, consistent self-care can help relieve depressive symptoms.

Self-care is a trendy and prevalent word in our culture. Yet, what exact is self-care? And how does it benefit your mental health, specifically how does self-care help with depression?

Self-care can include any activity you find relaxing or enjoyable.

According to this evidence-based article by Julie Lynn Marks & Seth Gillihan, PhD, experts unpacks how self-care can help relieve depression. Along with treatments like psychotherapy and medication, lifestyle management strategies — including a solid self-care regimen — can help people with depression feel better.

Self-care means doing things that help you live well and keep up your mental and physical health.

Things like revamping your sleep routine, getting regular exercise, or doing an activity you find relaxing all count as self-care.

Understandably, consistent self-care can be challenging for some people with depression, especially those with symptoms like low energy, fatigue, or lack of motivation.

“The most important thing to realize is that self-care may be hard if you’re depressed,” says Debra Kissen, PhD, a psychologist and the CEO and clinical director of Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Centers throughout Illinois. “It’s going to be the very opposite of what your brain wants to do. So it’s going to be helpful, but it’s not going to be easy.”

The good news: You don’t have to completely overhaul your daily routine to get enough self-care, says Dr. Kissen. A couple of small acts of self-care each day can make a big difference.

How Can Self-Care Help if You Have Depression?

Self-care can help you learn how to address and prioritize your mental and physical health needs.

This is particularly important if you have depression, but the condition can sometimes make tasks like these feel challenging.

“Life requires a lot of energy, so we need to maintain our energy supply to function well,” Kissen says. The trouble is that many people with depression experience lack of energy as a symptom.

In general, practicing self-care regularly can help boost energy in the long run, as well as keep stress levels in check and reduce risk of illness.

When it comes to depression in particular, research suggests that certain self-care activities can effectively help improve depressive symptoms.

Although self-care can help just about anyone with depression feel better, Kissen warns that if you have severe depression, self-care likely isn’t sufficient on its own, and you should prioritize professional treatment above all else. “The only harm would be if somebody thinks that self-care is enough when they are really stuck in depression,” she says.

Evidence-based treatments for depression like psychotherapy or medication will provide the most rapid and long-lasting relief for severe depression, she notes. Self-care often works best alongside standard treatments for depression.

7 Top Self-Care Strategies for Depression

There are many ways to practice self-care. It often looks different from person to person.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach here to specific methods,” says Ash Shah, LCSW, the clinical counseling director at Empower Your Mind Therapy in New York City and on Long Island, New York. “It’s important to try various strategies out to see which ones work for you and help you feel better afterward.”

Research shows that these seven common self-care strategies can help people with depression feel better.

1. Set a Sleep Routine and Stick to It

Practicing good sleep hygiene — meaning you have healthy sleep habits and surroundings — is a good goal for anyone, and it’s especially important if you have depression.

That’s because poor sleep raises your risk for depression, and having depression makes you more prone to sleep problems. Approximately 75 percent of people with depression have difficulty falling or staying asleep.

If you struggle to get enough shut-eye each night, making some small changes to your routine can help stabilize your sleep patterns. For instance, try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Also, limit how much time you spend using screens or other devices that emit blue light in the hour or so before bed, because blue light can make it more difficult to fall asleep.

If changes like these don’t help, tell your doctor. They can recommend professional treatments to improve your sleep.

RELATED: Sleep 101: The Ultimate Guide to a Better Night’s Sleep

2. Exercise Regularly

The science is clear: Exercise does a lot of good for depression. In fact, regular exercise may work as well as antidepressants for some with mild to moderate forms of depression (though it’s probably not enough on its own for severe depression).

Exercise doesn’t always have to be long or intense to help you feel better. Just 30 minutes of walking every day can boost your mood and your overall health.

Tip: If 30 minutes sounds overwhelming, you don’t have to do it all at once. Smaller increments of activity like taking 10-minute walks three times a day are also good for you.

RELATED: 7 Great Exercises to Ease Depression

3. Spend Time in Nature

Getting outdoors, especially on sunny days, can help you feel better if you have depression.

Taking nature walks can help reduce depressive symptoms.

What’s more, natural sunlight can lift your mood and energy levels because it influences certain chemicals in the brain that affect mood and energy, such as serotonin.

Try to get outside every day, even if it’s for only a few minutes, Kissen suggests. Just 5 to 15 minutes of natural sunlight a few times a week, especially during the summer months, can be enough.

If you have seasonal depression and struggle to get outside during the winter, consider trying a light box. A light box can help you get more light exposure during the darker winter months.

RELATED: Why Nature Is So Helpful for Depression — Plus, How to Spend More Time Outdoors

4. Try Mindfulness, Yoga, or Other Activities You Find Relaxing

Relaxation exercises may relieve stress and help you better manage your emotions. That’s important because stress can affect people with depression more intensely in some ways than people without the condition.

A method called mindfulness — learning to observe your present thoughts and emotions without judgment — can help you better regulate your feelings and avoid falling into automatic or destructive habits.

 Regularly practicing mindfulness meditation may help reduce symptoms of depression and may lower depression risk.

Other relaxation practices could also be helpful for depression:

  • Deep breathing
  • Guided imagery (a relaxation exercise that helps people visualize a calming environment during times of stress)
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (a technique that involves tensing and releasing muscles in your body, with a focus on the releasing phase)
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi

5. Try Journaling

Journaling allows you to express your thoughts and emotions on paper, which can be therapeutic for conditions like depression. Although more research is needed to confirm how effective it is for depression, journaling comes with few risks and is likely safe for anyone to try.

6. Eat a Nutritious Diet

In general, eating a balanced diet can help you have more focus and energy throughout the day.

When it comes to depression, eating a nutritious diet — one that incorporates plenty of fruits and vegetables while limiting inflammatory foods like meat, fast food, or junk food — may help lower your risk of symptoms.

RELATED: Depression: 6 Tips for Eating Well When Cooking Feels Impossible

7. Stay Connected With Others

Social withdrawal is a common symptom of depression, and social isolation and loneliness can make depressive symptoms worse.

Although it may be challenging, especially if you struggle with fatigue or lack of energy, Kissen suggests trying to stay connected with others, even if it’s for brief periods of time. “Being around people helps give you that lift in mood. Going to the supermarket and seeing others counts,” she says.

It can help to make a short list of family members and friends who can support you, and commit to calling, texting, emailing, or seeing them on a schedule that works for you. Consider aiming for at least one emotional connection a day.

RELATED: 4 Ways to Cope With Loneliness if You Have Depression

How to Get Started With Self-Care for Depression

If you’re not sure where to start, these tips could help you begin a self-care routine that you can stick to in the long run:

  • Find a a Therapist or Talk to your therapist. If you see a therapist or another mental health provider, work with them to plan how you’ll fit self-care into your routine.
  • Start small. “There are so many strategies out there, it is easy to get overwhelmed and feel unsure of what to do for yourself,” says Shah. “Start with short, easy tasks.”
  • Break bigger tasks into smaller chunks. For instance, as mentioned earlier, you could break up 30 minutes of exercise into three smaller, 10-minute increments throughout the day. Or if you want to eat more nutritiously, start by eating one additional piece of fruit or a vegetable per day and gradually add more.
  • Try your best to stay consistent. There may be days when self-care will feel difficult to accomplish. If you’re struggling with symptoms like fatigue or low motivation, try your best to get self-care done, says Kissen. “You kind of have to do the behaviors first and then the feelings catch up. Don’t do it because you want to; do it because it’s good for you,” she says. If you’re consistent with self-care, the benefits will follow.

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