Dealing with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or any other mental health issue generally taxes a person’s coping mechanisms. While there is no substitute for proper care—counselling and/or medication prescribed by a doctor—there are several self-care strategies you can use to make the days (and nights) a little easier.
No one strategy will work for everyone or in all situations. Explore until you find what works for you in particular circumstances…
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as many as 30-percent of adults don’t get enough sleep. And according to Harvard Health Publications, this number increases to as much as 80-percent in people with mental health issues. While a good night’s sleep is essential to everyone, people with mental health issues can especially benefit from getting proper rest.
Make appropriate lifestyle changes, such as avoiding caffeine and nicotine a few hours before bed, and follow sleep hygiene best practices, such as setting a regular bed time, to promote better sleep. But don’t think that only a deep sleep will help. While it’s true that REM sleep helps regulate emotion and is important in the long run, even closing your eyes and resting for as little as 10- or 15-minutes can help improve your mental state.
Get (or Borrow) a Pet
Numerous studies have established that pets can be good for your health. Animals offer companionship, encourage exercise, reduce stress, improve mood, and even lower blood pressure. For people with mental health issues, pets can be a stabilizing influence. They force you to focus externally, provide meaning and purpose, and create a sense of value and accomplishment.
While many health practitioners argue that adding the responsibility of a pet can be a good thing, you might feel like taking care of yourself is about all you can do most days. If that’s the case, consider borrowing a pet—take a friend’s dog for a walk, or volunteer at your local shelter. Many animal rescues rely on volunteers to help socialize the animals by playing with and petting them. And you’ll get the added mood boost that comes from doing a good deed.
Take a Walk
We all know that exercise has both mental and physical benefits, but the last thing we want to do when we’re anxious, depressed, or not in our best frame of mind is hit the gym. Fortunately, many of the mental health benefits of exercise (and a few of the physical ones) can be achieved with a simple walk.
Taking that walk outdoors has the added benefit of getting you close to nature—a proven mood booster. Plus, natural sunlight leads our bodies to produce vitamin D, which helps us sleep better, and exposure to sunlight during the day boosts melatonin production at night, which helps regulate sleep and can improve our mood. And you don’t have to walk quickly. While increasing your heart rate is necessary for weight loss, the mental benefits of walking occur at any pace. So even if it’s just a meandering stroll around the block, get moving.
Write It Down
If you don’t already, start keeping a journal. Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper can help you identify and clarify what’s bothering you. And just the act of writing it down can get it off your mind. Externalizing your thoughts and feelings makes them easier to examine and address.
There really isn’t any proper way to journal, but remember that this is just for you. Buy a special notebook and maybe even a special pen to make journaling more of a treat. Don’t worry about recording the details of your day. Instead, focus on your thoughts and feelings. Start each entry on a new page, and don’t re-read previous entries—the point is to get the thoughts and feelings out so you don’t dwell on them!
Do Something Small
One key feature of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety, is feelings of uselessness, helplessness, and lack of control. Setting a small, achievable goal for the day and then accomplishing it can help combat these feelings.
Remember, the idea is to set yourself a task that is easily accomplished—because we all know that when you have a mental illness, what’s “easy” is sometimes anything but! Your goal can be as simple as “get out of bed” or “get dressed.” And remember to celebrate your accomplishment when you do it. Write down your goal as a single-item to-do list and put a big checkmark to it when you’re done.
Talk About It
There’s an old saying: Shared sorrow is half sorrow. Talking to someone about your problems helps. It doesn’t have to be a therapist, either. The point is not to get help (though you certainly should get professional treatment if and when you need it)—but to simply to let your thoughts and feelings out.
Turn to a close friend or family member, and let them know you just need someone to listen. You might also rely on a crisis line in your area if you need to talk and no one is around. Some people even find talking into a tape recorder, or to a pet or stuffed animal, or even just out loud to themselves, is enough to put it all in perspective.
There are many, many studies on the benefits of meditation. It increases concentration and focus, creates mindfulness, and even has physiological effects like lowering blood pressure and easing muscle tension. These results are helpful to anyone, but especially to people with depression, anxiety, OCD, or other issues.
You don’t have to spend hours meditating or adopt a formal meditation practice. Even just closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths when you have a quiet moment is enough. It may help to pick a mantra, such as “peace” or “health” or even “I’m okay.” Try breathing deeply and repeating a mantra to yourself when you lie down to sleep—it may help battle insomnia (a common side effect of mental disorders).
Feelings of worthlessness are a key feature of depression, which accompanies many other mental disorders, as well as some physical conditions. And when the very basics of self-care seem overwhelming, as they sometimes can with mental illness, going above and beyond to “treat” oneself may seem rather foolish.
But experts say this is exactly what you should do. Don’t just eat a meal; indulge in your favourite take-out. Don’t just shower, soak in a hot, bubbly bath. Get a mani/pedi or a massage. Take yourself out to a movie or have a marathon of your favourite TV show. Whatever is going to make you feel even just a little bit better, do it—and don’t feel guilty about it!
Scream and Cry, and Then Laugh
Emotions are an integral part of our mental state. When our mental processes are impaired, we don’t always react the way we should to things. We might be inappropriately angry or inexplicably sad. And trying to control these unwanted emotions and remain a functional member of society often just makes the underlying mental condition worse. So the solution is, stop trying to control them.
This doesn’t mean you should rage at people or cry in the workplace, of course. What it means is that you should find a safe time and place to indulge your feelings. When you’re alone, or with someone you trust, scream and cry and let it all out. Then, put on a funny movie or do something that makes you laugh. The combination of catharsis and laughter will really boost your mood.