Mental Health

How to Practice the Elements of Self-Care

“Self-care” is a term used by social workers and psychologists, and it usually refers to activities that are pleasurable. Helping professionals often suggest a walk in nature, a yoga class, or a bubble bath. In a recent article on The Mighty, contributor Mawiyah Patten writes about her own experience of depression and the role of self-care.

Patten says:

Pleasure is great, and it is important. During seasons when I am depressed, I force myself to indulge in pleasure as though it were a lifeline, because it is. Most likely, there is actual theory and clinical principles behind this, but I’m no clinician, so I can’t speak to that. Here’s my interpretation: feeling bad all day, every day, is exhausting. It’s not good for your body, or your heart, or your psyche. So when I reach day 3 of feeling sad and terrible, I force-feed myself pleasure, even though depression sucks all desire for fun and pleasure out of you. For me it feels similar to the way you might force yourself to eat a salad because you know it’s good for you, even though you may (expletive deleted) hate eating salads.

Despite Patten’s commitment to caring for herself through pleasurable activities, she recently realized pleasure was not the whole answer. Her self-care regimen was not doing enough to heal her depression. She expanded her personal definition of self-care.

She decided that self-care must include asking for help, and vulnerability, and being painfully honest with other people and yourself about what you need. Self-care means taking radically good care of yourself, and making it a priority over all other commitments. Patten’s expanded definition includes these items, as well:

Take Care of Your Body

Don’t neglect medical self-care. It may not be glamorous to go to the dentist, but it’s a sign you are truly caring for yourself. Get a Pap smear and a mammogram, or a prostate exam. It’s not fun, but it demonstrates to that depressive part of your brain that you are determined to live and live well.


Just quit. Quit doing anything that feels like too much. Quit overextending yourself. Instead, make your own peace and well-being the priority. Don’t be afraid to quit a volunteer job, or a marathon, or even a job that is not making you happy. Often, depressed people are performing for themselves or other people, more concerned about looking like a good person than actually loving themselves. Quit doing that.

Ask for Help

Asking for help is scary, and sometimes you won’t get the reaction you hoped for. But when you let the people who love you into the dark corners of your life, those corners get a little lighter. Be honest about your feelings of deep sadness, even your suicidal feelings. Depression always carries the illusion of isolation, but for most of us, there is someone else who cares, and wants to help you.

Take Care of Your Relationships

Depression is a medical and psychological disorder, but it is usually also includes family of origin issues, cognitive distortions around your identity, and your relationships with others. To recover from depression, you must work through those issues. Honest, direct communication, and sometimes counseling, are part of the answer.

Take Care of Your Basic Needs

Put your financial house in order. Pay your bills. Face up to the small realities of daily life.

These are the less pleasurable aspects of self-care, but they are critical to overcoming depression.