Self Care During Depression or Burnout

Autism

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!

Know Thyself: Your Top Ten

Parenting

It’s been hard to get started on a second post about self care, partly because I’ve felt like a bit of a fraud thinking about how to write about it when I have not been practicing good self care since the month began. I’ve been pushing too hard and flaming out almost daily. I am not even sure why.

Last week my focus was on self-acceptance, and how that has to be step one toward proper self care. Acknowledging that self-acceptance is a long process, however, we can’t get stuck on trying to “achieve” that before beginning to care for ourselves well.

I found this Self-Care Assessment Worksheet that may help you evaluate the areas of your life where you need better self care, and how to go about that. I think it’s pretty good, though a few line items slightly annoy me (“Love yourself” – okay, check! Done!). (Note: the link is temporarily not working as of the evening of June 8th. Looking into that.)

I made my own list of 10 Things I do to care for myself. I’m not sure it’s complete or completely accurate, but it’s a starting place. I would encourage anyone reading to make their own, and please share it here if you feel comfortable doing so!

1. Organizing the house. Getting rid of stuff we don’t need, tidying up. I often get overwhelmed to the point of not wanting to tackle the clutter, but I always feel amazingly better when things are in order. And conversely, I always feel unsettled and agitated when the house is a disaster.

2. Exercise. It pains me to admit this, because I like sitting around so much, but I do feel better when I keep up with whatever exercise routine I’ve been doing. At different points in my life exercise has different functions for me. Right now I’m doing small strength training workouts because building strength feels important.

3. Reading a great book. I love, I daresay need, to always be reading a book that I can hardly put down. I am almost never NOT in the middle of reading some kind of book, but I feel best and happiest when I’m in the middle of a book I really enjoy.

4. Listening to LOUD music. I know this is bad for my ears, but the tradeoff for feeling so good when I do it seems worth it. I listen to music mostly in the car, or on headphones at home. If the kids are contently playing by themselves in the late afternoon when I’m doing housework or starting dinner, I find that 10 minutes of superloud music in my headphones relaxes me about as much as one alcoholic drink.

5. Sensory breaks/meditation. My therapist has recommended that I take a sensory break every two to three hours, but I haven’t been able to achieve that yet. I set a personal goal to do it four times a day, but I usually only squeeze in one or two: I lie down, put headphones in, and listen to a short soundscape meditation on my Pacifica app. It’s sometimes hard to relax if I can hear the kids in the background, but if I get even two minutes of peace, it’s so restoring.

6. Writing blog posts. I do this for my own well being. This blog is not monetized beyond the trickle of Amazon affiliate rewards that do not even offset the cost of WordPress hosting, but no matter. Nothing compares to the feeling of publishing a blog post that I feel good about.

7. Downtime at home. This is where I have really been falling down on the job lately. I know that I need a certain number of days when I just stay home, and it’s more than once a week, but sometimes I push myself to get out and do All The Things, and I inevitably regret it. Time doing stuff must be balanced with time not doing stuff.

8. Watch TV… alone. Similar to reading a good book, I just love to watch a show that takes me to another world for a while. I watch shows with Mike and that’s fun too, but watching alone is a different experience and more relaxing. Usually I can only get to this at night, in bed, just before going to sleep. Which may be a no-no. But I enjoy it anyway.

9. Sleep. I need 8 hours a night. I’m not sorry. I just need that. These days, I usually get it too. Even then I am still often very tired by the end of the day. I *think* this is related to autism and not always managing my sensory/social needs well, but I am planning to get a checkup to rule out medical issues causing my frequent fatigue.

10. Eat delicious food. I’ve decided. I like to eat the things I like and I’m not going to feel bad about it. Recently I tried to – well, let’s call it what it is, “diet” a little bit, and I was pretty miserable. I like salty foods, spicy foods, bitter drinks, rich flavors. I don’t eat crap, but I also don’t nibble on leaves all the livelong day and I don’t want to. Trying to eat a certain way sucks all the joy out of it for me.

I feel that my top 10 are very achievable, which is probably part of why I chose them. They are treats for myself that make me feel good but don’t make me feel like I need to rearrange my entire life in order to do them. I’m all about attainable goals right now, and small changes.

Self Care is a Radical Act

Autism, Identity, Parenting

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare. – Audre Lorde

I came across the above quote from activist and poet Audre Lorde and felt inspired to write on the theme of self care for the month of June. Interestingly, when I searched Pinterest for the quote, hoping to find it in some already-memed form that I could instantly share, I found a lot of people had chopped off the last phrase about political warfare. Why?

I suppose the truth is a little intense for some people, but I find it exciting. Self care is an act of political warfare, it’s radical, it’s revolutionary, especially when performed by people who are culturally oppressed by messages that tell them not to value themselves. Lorde, who died in 1992, was black, she was gay, and she was a woman. She knew that “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Only in the last year or so have I become keenly aware of the importance of this truth. I am writing on self care this month not as someone who’s got it figured out – far from it. I am writing as someone who feels the urgency of figuring it out, or at least finding my way there.

define

My first thought, my initial intuition, is that a key ingredient to self care is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is not self-esteem. It seems to me that self-esteem is an ability to see oneself as good, smart, lovable, powerful, beautiful. Self-acceptance is at once easier and harder than all of that. Easier because it means it’s okay for you to be broken or falling-apart or lost or needy or still figuring it all out. Harder because, well, it’s hard to sit with all of that without judgment.

In “Acceptance as a Well Being Practice,” Cynthia Kim writes,

Unfortunately, no amount of practice or effort will allow me to make that leap in a single bound. Thinking of it that way, it’s easy to give up before I even get started.

What I’ve discovered over the past two years, however, is that I didn’t need to leap. Instead, I needed to build a bridge across the chasm, one plank at a time, and walk over it.

I have had to read that piece over and over again in the last several months. I never seem to stop needing to relearn this time and again: this is a process. I can’t rush it. I can’t just close my eyes, recite “I accept myself as I am,” and open my eyes a new woman. Instantly enlightened. This might take all day. It will probably take the rest of my life, if I’m doing it right.

The chasm I am currently trying to cross is to accept myself as autistic. Frankly, I thought this would be easy. I thought I was going to leap that one in a single bound, because I was so relieved to have the answers that autism provided to the confusing questions of my life, because I certainly accept other autistic people as worthy and valuable just as they are. But it’s not so straightforward. It’s in the details of life that I get tripped up.

Instead of accepting that some things are more energy-draining for me than other people, somewhere in the back of my mind I tell myself, I’m just being lazy. Instead of accepting that my social desires often outstrip my abilities, I tell myself, I’m just being antisocial. Instead of accepting that sensory breaks are real needs, I tell myself, I’m just being weak and pathetic. Instead of accepting that inadequate self-knowledge and attending support have probably held me back from the kind of success I’ve wanted in life, I tell myself, I just haven’t tried hard enough. Those are horrible things I would never say to anyone else, but I feel comfortable saying them to myself!

bridge

But I have to keep laying down the planks and building my bridge. When we don’t accept ourselves, we punish ourselves in all sorts of tiny ways. Self-deprivation is a big one. It’s an easy one, because often it requires zero effort. We simply don’t take care of ourselves, and that suffices to punish us for not being good enough in whatever ways we feel we are inadequate.

Everyone has their own chasms to cross when it comes to self-acceptance and self care. Neurological differences, disabilities, mental illness, chronic physical illness, body image issues, past or current abusive situations, financial poverty, marginalization because you are of a minority race or gender or sexual orientation, failed relationships, thwarted ambitions, career ambitions beyond motherhood or not having career ambitions beyond motherhood. Any of these, or fill in the blank with your own, can be reasons we beat ourselves up, but should not be.

This is precisely why self care is an act of political warfare. To do it you must reject the cultural messages that have told you that you are undeserving of care, for whatever reason. You take back the power to deem a person worthy or unworthy, and proclaim yourself worthy, just as you are.