As someone with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, I feel like I have been on a lifelong quest to take better care of myself. When I was in the midst of a deep depression or a gripping anxiety attack, the last thing I felt capable of was a major lifestyle overhaul. Rather, it is a series of small choices that add up to a healthier lifestyle. While I love getting massages or walking by the ocean, in reality I need to take better care of myself where I usually am — at home, in the car, at work, or out with family and friends.
As frustrating as it can be, mental illness is part of my life, so I needed to develop coping skills that I could use throughout the day. Making this perspective shift — from looking outside for self-care to also looking inside —helped me cultivate skills and self-awareness that I can use to cope with depression and anxiety in my everyday surroundings. Depression decreases my energy. I feel exhausted and have frequent headaches. Anxiety, on the other hand, speeds me up. My heart races, I sweat more, and I feel an almost uncontrollable energy. For me, self-care starts with noticing how I feel, both physically and emotionally.
Paying closer attention to what is happening in my body clues me in to what is happening in my mind. Noticing symptoms early helps me practice better care and often prevents my moment of anxiety or depression from turning into a full-blown episode. When my anxiety starts to build, my breathing becomes rapid and shallow.
I feel physical tension, especially in my shoulders and jaw. Taking a series of deep breaths helps me to pause and step outside of my racing thoughts. Inhaling and exhaling gives me an emotional release, and it also helps me physically. Deep breathing increases circulation, releases endorphins, and relaxes muscles. I do my breath work throughout the day, not just when I start to feel anxious or depressed.
What I love about deep breathing is that I can do it anywhere — in the shower, in the car, at my desk, and even while having a conversation. I can give myself a second break, no matter what I am doing. One symptom of my depression is negative thinking. I struggle with self-criticism, which definitely translates into how I view my physical appearance. My instinct when I catch my reflection in a mirror is to put myself down. Have you gained more weight?
You look disgusting. You are never going to get in shape. I want to treat myself with more kindness, so I am making a concerted effort to change these thoughts. I acknowledge my feelings as real and valid without turning them inward. The first step in changing how I talk to myself was becoming aware. I began to notice how often I put myself down, or scrutinized my behavior. I started saying to myself, Amy, you are doing it again. Step away from the negative messages. Change the channel. I began to realize that I had a choice: I could tell myself something new.
I now make a concerted effort to replace the negative messages with affirming statements. I tell myself that I did a good job, that I am a good friend, and — most importantly — that I love who I am.
When I was very sick with depression and anxiety, mindfulness helped me create a space where I could both acknowledge the pain I was in and also find peace and stability in the present. When I would put on his leash and start to walk him down the block, I focused intently on what I was experiencing: the chirping of the birds, the sunlight filtering through the trees, the temperature of the air.
For 10 minutes, I was immersed in the present moment, and I found that the walk helped me reconnect with my inner strength. I felt a sense of peace by noticing the natural beauty around me. When I feel my anxiety or depression escalating, a tremendous pressure builds up inside of me. For a long time, I would stuff that feeling down and ignore it, hoping it would go away.
Today, I practice self-care by acknowledging my symptoms and taking a time-out for myself. Sometimes, I need a short break, like a brief walk outside or deep breathing in a private room. Taking these quick breaks prevents the pressure of my mental illness from building, and helps me determine what, if any, next steps I need to take to ensure my well-being. Depression can be, well, depressing. I feel heavy and weighed down, and having fun is usually the last thing on my mind. Sometimes, I put on my favorite music and dance in the kitchen while cooking dinner.
If my energy is especially low, lighting a nice candle and drinking a mug of hot tea feels comforting. Going without sleep ratchets up my stress level and strains my emotional health. Because I have trouble falling asleep, I stop doing any stressful or work-related activities by pm. Next, I prepare myself a hot cup of herbal tea and head upstairs to bed. I give myself a good 30 minutes to read before the time I would like to fall asleep, and I avoid getting on the computer or looking at email. If my thoughts are racing, I write down what I am thinking about in a notebook.
I tend to get trapped in my own thoughts and feelings. Each of my five senses is important and engages different parts of my brain, and affects my mood. The simple act of feeding my senses brings me back into the present moment, making me feel more safe and grounded.
I look outside — and really look — at the beauty of the trees and sky. I listen to music, which can soothe or energize me, depending on what I need to hear.
I try new recipes so that I can experience different flavors and engage my sense of taste. I use touch to calm down by petting my dog. When I wash the dishes, I focus on how the water and soap feel on my hands. I love using essential oils to cope with anxiety — I carry a bottle of lavender oil in my purse and if I begin to feel afraid or unsettled, I pull it out and breathe in the aroma 10 times.
Developing these 10 acts of self-care has been a journey, one that continues today. I had to explore what works best for me, and I continue to learn — in therapy, from friends, and in books and online — about new ways that I can take good care of myself. Each of these tools remind me that I can cope with mental illness and that I always have a choice of how to handle my symptoms. Every time I choose self-care I am reconnected with two important truths: that I deserve to love myself and that I, indeed, am worth it. Amy Marlow is living with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and is the author of Blue Light Blue , which was named one of our Best Depression Blogs.
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