How can you maintain good self care practices when you are going through depression and/or burnout? Someone asked me this question, and it’s a question that I am in the process of trying to answer for myself.

Often, the knowledge that we are burning out or becoming overwhelmed by depression prompts us to think more about self care (or perhaps a therapist or close friend will bring up the idea as they try to help you). The trouble is, self care is particularly challenging when you are in the midst of depression or burnout. Self care in those times seems overwhelming, exhausting, too much, maybe pointless, and the suggestion of it can be deeply irritating, as it may seem to imply that your depression is your fault or could easily be chased away by more time spent in the sun or eating vegetables.

So, let’s get this clear. Depression and burnout are not your fault, and you aren’t going through them because you’re not trying hard enough. I bet, on the contrary, you’ve been trying really hard – too hard, perhaps. Maybe not in ways that other people even notice. But definitely in ways that take a lot out of you.

Self care shouldn’t be one more thing that overwhelms you and makes you feel bad and like you aren’t doing enough.

Image is a stone staircase and the words “Self care shouldn’t be one more thing that overwhelms you and makes you feel bad and like you aren’t doing enough.”

But that still leaves us with, how do we do it?

I don’t have all the answers to this, so I welcome other people’s suggestions. Though I would caution readers that to give suggestions to a person who’s dealing with depression or burnout, it’s best if you can make them from a place of empathy and knowing how it feels to be in that place. Otherwise, we get advice like, “Just try a vegan clean foods diet, while doing partners yoga in the park, wearing a dress that makes you feel fabulous, thinking positive thoughts at a jar of rice.” Listen, if we were up to doing any ONE of those things, we wouldn’t be asking!

Here are a few ideas that I’ve collected or come up with:

1. Slow it down. I’m by no means a Type A person, but I think a lifetime of trying to fit into a world that I frequently find overwhelming has conditioned me to think that trying really hard all the time is the only legitimate way to be. So, although it can be immensely helpful for me to rest and do a LOT less, I am plagued with guilt and shame when I do. It IS okay to scale back your life when you need to, in fact it’s more than okay – it is sometimes absolutely crucial.

2. Try doing things in tiny increments. A friend of mine who is also autistic had the excellent suggestion that if you feel too overwhelmed or depressed to practice self care, it can be helpful and attainable to make very small steps. If you can’t create an exercise routine for yourself, try doing ONE squat. Now you have a “history” to build on gradually, a sense of having accomplished a thing that maybe you can do again tomorrow. Close your eyes for just ONE second and say the word “peace” to yourself. Step outside your house or apartment for just ONE moment and take one breath. Now instead of feeling like you can’t do it, know that you have taken one step.

3. Break it down into manageable parts. This is kind of a combination of the first two tips, but it’s useful for larger self care tasks like, for example, making an appointment to see your doctor. I do this all the time when a task overwhelms me. I’m in the process of doing it right now because I want to get a physical to make sure my fatigue is not a medical issue. First, I need to find a doctor. Then, I need to make sure that doctor is in my insurance network. Then, look up the doctor’s phone number. Then, look at a calendar and find some dates that would work for me so I am not caught off guard when they schedule my appointment. Then, call and make the appointment. I probably won’t do all of those things in one day, or even one week. That’s okay.

4. Ask for and accept help. I know that this is really hard for a lot of people. It’s hard for me. I feel shame sometimes about needing help for some things that other people manage handily. This shame does not always just come from within, unfortunately; other people sometimes judge us for those things, and that compounds the difficulty of asking for help. Someone close to me was recently scolded by an acquaintance for “depending too much on other people.” What is too much? – who gets to make that judgment call? In my view, most people depend too little on others, and burn out from trying to push past their own limits. Another challenging factor for me is that asking for help usually involves even more social interaction that I feel like I cannot handle, and it’s hard to predict whether the payoff of receiving help will outweigh the extra social energy expenditure. Usually, it does.

5. Find support from people who get it. The truth about support is that you can’t always get the kind you need from the people you love the most – often, you also need support from people who are also going through what you’re going through. Love and support from family and friends is invaluable, but talking (online or otherwise) with people who have similar struggles is so helpful. In many instances, just hearing someone else say, “I have had that exact same experience,” is enough to pull you out of a ditch, even if that person can’t give you specific advice on how to deal. There are Facebook groups for practically everything now, and they are a great resource.

If you can add anything to this list, please post a comment and share what works for you. You never know who may benefit from your experience!

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