Prevent burnout and combat compassion fatigue with these 17 self-care ideas and strategies for therapists.
A recent study found that many mental health professionals do not recognize their own burnout. For therapists and other mental health workers, self-care is essential for preventing burnout and compassion fatigue.
Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.
This is a list of self-care ideas and strategies for mental health professionals. Please share with anyone who might benefit!
1) Take small breaks throughout the day. Spend a few moments sitting in silence, browse funny memes, joke with a coworker, or take your lunch outside; by the end of your workday, you won’t feel as drained.
2) Meditate. Spend at least 5-10 minutes a day, in the morning or between sessions, meditating or listening to guided imagery recordings.
3) Schedule an appointment weeks in advance for a facial or massage. You’ll have something to look forward to!
4) Don’t neglect your basic needs. Drink water, choose healthy foods, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.
Don’t take your health for granted. Don’t take your body for granted. Do something today that communicates to your body that you desire to care for it. Tomorrow is not promised.
6) Don’t bring your work home with you. It can be difficult to not think about the problems a client is experiencing or to check your email, but it’s crucial to have balance in your life. If you let your work consume you, you’ll soon find yourself depleted and with nothing to give.
7) Take the time to sincerely thank or praise your colleagues. Sometimes, it seems as though we’re in a thankless field. Spread positivity by expressing gratitude and giving compliments. (I also like to pass along the praise I hear for someone else!)
8) Be kind to yourself. Be realistic. Practice positive self-talk and forgive yourself for the mistakes you make. Acknowledge that you’re not always going to know the right thing to say, nor will you be able to help every client you see.
Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love.
9) Treat yourself to your favorite beverage at least once a week. Enjoy a Starbucks coffee or a kombucha tea during the workday. Consider surprising a coworker with one too!
10) If you work in a shared office space or residential setting, get up and communicate in-person instead of sending an email. (You can always follow-up with an email to recap the convo if needed.) Human interaction throughout the day is far more rewarding than staring at a screen.
11) Take a short “nature bath”! Multiple studies have found that being outdoors improves mood and reduces stress. If you work in an urban setting, nurture a potted plant or listen to nature sounds in your office to promote relaxation.
I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.
Free resources for anger management, including articles/guides, assessments, PDF printable handouts, worksheets, workbooks, and recommended mobile apps.
This resource list for anger management includes articles/guides; free anger assessments (both interactive and PDF formats); free printable workbooks, manuals, handouts, and worksheets; treatment planning resources; research articles/dissertations; and recommended mobile apps.
Please share this resource with anyone you think would benefit!
As a counselor, you probably have a few “go-to” therapy metaphors that you use in sessions. For example, the “airplane oxygen mask” metaphor is a powerful analogy that demonstrates the significance of meeting your own needs before attempting to help others.
Another example of a therapy metaphor is the “rearview mirror” analogy. If you’re driving, and your entire concentration is on what’s behind you, you’ll crash. Good drivers, in contrast, focus ahead, but also regularly check the rearview mirror. The “rearview mirror” metaphor effectively illustrates how recovery from drugs and alcohol requires learning from, but not dwelling on, past mistakes and regrets.
Powerful Therapy Metaphors: Analogies in Counseling
The following is a list of helpful therapy metaphors and analogies for growth, self-care, emotions, addiction, grief, counseling, and life.
Forming a new habit is like carving a path in the jungle. You trod through the undergrowth and take the same route over and over again, until a clear path is formed. Meanwhile, older pathways become overgrown and wild, disappearing from sight with unuse.
A habit forms the way water carves a new stream or river.
You can’t see the grass growing, but after a week or so, you can see that the lawn needs mowing.
You can’t pour from an empty cup.
Mind the “check engine” light in your car. It indicates that something is wrong; if you ignore it, the problem will likely become worse. The longer you ignore internal cues, the greater the damage to your “car.”
A plant requires the right amount of water, sunlight, and fertilizer to grow and thrive.
You are a battery that needs to be recharged every so often.
Metaphors for Emotions
Our emotions are like a thermometer in the window. You can see clouds or rain or sun, but without a thermometer, you won’t know if it’s 90 degrees or 17 below. Emotions impact how you experience the outside world.
Life is like a heart monitor; there are ups and downs. If it goes flat, you’re dead.
The more you bottle up your emotions, the more likely you are to explode.
Repressing anger is like stuffing trash in a garbage can. Eventually, it’s going to spill over if you don’t take out the trash.
When you resent someone, it’s like drinking poison and expecting them to die.
Anxiety is a hungry monster that gets bigger when you feed it.
Worrying is like riding a stationary bike; you can peddle as hard as you can, but you’ll never get anywhere.
Therapy Metaphors for Addiction
Addiction is a disease of the soul.
When you’re in active addiction, you’re a shadow of yourself.
Addiction is like being in a toxic relationship. It’s all-consuming, lust-worthy, and even thrilling at times… but at the cost of your health and well-being. You have to break up in order to move on with your life.
Addiction is like a tornado, ravaging everything in its path. After the storm, it’s time to rebuild. It won’t look exactly the way it did before the tornado hit… but there’s potential for things to be even better.
Addiction is like other chronic health conditions in that there’s no cure, but it’s 100% manageable with treatment and lifestyle changes.
The longer you sit and stare at a plate of cookies, the more likely you are to give in to temptation. Set yourself up for success by avoiding triggers when possible.
If you hang out in a barber shop long enough you’ll end up getting a haircut.
Temptation is like a muscle that grows weaker with use until it finally gives out.
Living life without drugs or alcohol is like any skill; you first learn how to do it and then you have to practice. You may slip up, but don’t give up; learn from your mistakes. You can’t excel at anything without practice.
Cravings are like waves; ride them out until the wave recedes.
Attempting to save someone from drowning is dangerous. In their frantic efforts for oxygen, they’ll claw over and push the person trying to help underwater. This is an unconscious survival instinct. When your loved one is in active addiction, they’ll fight anyone and anything that gets in their way of a gulp of air.
Metaphors for Grief
Grief is a deep wound that takes time to heal. The wound is raw and painful, but will eventually scab over, although leaving behind a permanent scar.
Every person you lose takes a little piece of you with them.
Metaphors for Counseling
Going to therapy is akin to filling your toolbox with tools.
In a car, your therapist is a passenger in the front seat, but you’re behind the wheel. A passenger offers assistance with reading the map and providing directions, but it’s up to you to choose the turns you’ll take, and ultimately, the destination.
A counselor doesn’t provide the answers, but offers the tools to find them.
Going to therapy is like going to the gym; you may feel sore and you won’t see immediate effects, but the long-term results are gratifying and well-worth the investment.
Therapy Metaphors for Life
Problems in life are like bad smells; you can attempt to mask them or cover them up, but you have to remove the source before they can truly go away.
You can’t choose the canvas or paint in life, but you decide the picture you’ll paint.
Your life is a book with many chapters and pages. Every day is a new page. You write your own story.
Life is like a “choose your own adventure” book. You make decisions, but you can’t always predict the outcome.
Sometimes you’re dealt a really sh**** hand. How are you going to play your cards?
The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.
Feel happy and relaxed with these 8 simple evidence-based strategies for reducing stress and improving mood
Stress is the body’s reaction to an event or situation. Primarily a physiological response, stress is also experienced psychologically (i.e. worry). Too much stress is associated with mental health issues and chronic health problems.
Because we often have no control over stressors in our lives, it’s important to effectively manage stress.
Here are eight fast-acting stress relievers for short-term relief. (Click here for additional mood boosters.)
Less time sitting = Better mood. A recent study found that replacing sedentary behavior with sleep or light exercise (i.e. walking, gardening, etc.) improved mood. Substituting sleep was associated with decreased stress levels in addition to enhanced mood.
You’ll feel more relaxed and less stressed after receiving a head-and-neck or neck-and-shoulder massage. One study found that participants experienced reduced rates of both physiological and psychological stress after 10 minutes of massage.
When faced with a stressful situation, have your significant other present to ease your anxiety. If your partner is unavailable, visualize him/her; simply thinking of a significant other has comparable positive effects on blood pressure and stress reactivity.
Frequent laughter seems to be a buffer for stress; people who laugh a lot experience fewer stress-related symptoms. Researchers found that the more someone laughed, the less likely they were to feel stressed.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.
Recommended Memoirs About Mental Illness & Addiction
UPDATED MAY 22, 2021
The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin (2017) by Tracey Helton Mitchell
Amazon Description: “After surviving nearly a decade of heroin abuse and hard living on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, Tracey Helton Mitchell decided to get clean for good.
With raw honesty and a poignant perspective on life that only comes from starting at rock bottom, The Big Fix tells her story of transformation from homeless heroin addict to stable mother of three—and the hard work and hard lessons that got her there. Rather than dwelling on the pain of addiction,Tracey focuses on her journey of recovery and rebuilding her life, while exposing the failings of the American rehab system and laying out a path for change. Starting with the first step in her recovery, Tracey re-learns how to interact with men, build new friendships, handle money, and rekindle her relationship with her mother, all while staying sober, sharp, and dedicated to her future.
A decidedly female story of addiction, The Big Fix describes the unique challenges faced by women caught in the grip of substance abuse, such as the toxic connection between drug addition and prostitution. Tracey’s story of hope, hard work, and rehabilitation will inspire anyone who has been affected by substance abuse while offering hope for a better future.”
Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (2008) by Claire Fontaine & Mia Fontaine
Amazon Description: “In powerful parallel stories, mother and daughter give mesmerizing first-person accounts of the nightmare that shattered their family and the amazing journey they took to find their way back to each other. Claire Fontaine’s relentless cross-country search for her missing child and ultimate decision to force her into treatment in Eastern Europe is a gripping tale of dead ends, painful revelations, and, at times, miracles. Mia Fontaine describes her refuge in the seedy underworld of felons and addicts as well as the jarring shock of the extreme, if loving, school that enabled her to overcome depression and self-loathing. Both women detail their remarkable process of self-examination and healing with humor and unsparing honesty.
Come Back is an unforgettable true story of love and transformation that will resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere.”
Drinking: A Love Story (1997) by Caroline Knapp
Amazon Description: “It was love at first sight. The beads of moisture on a chilled bottle. The way the glasses clinked and the conversation flowed. Then it became obsession. The way she hid her bottles behind her lover’s refrigerator. The way she slipped from the dinner table to the bathroom, from work to the bar. And then, like so many love stories, it fell apart. Drinking is Caroline Kapp’s harrowing chronicle of her twenty-year love affair with alcohol.”
A Drinking Life: A Memoir (1994) by Pete Hamill
Amazon Description: “Hamill explains how alcohol slowly became a part of his life, and how he ultimately left it behind. Along the way, he summons the mood of an America that is gone forever, with the bittersweet fondness of a lifelong New Yorker.”
Drunk Mom: A Memoir (2014) by Jowita Bydlowska
Amazon Description: “Three years after giving up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself throwing back a glass of champagne like it was ginger ale. It was a special occasion: a party celebrating the birth of her first child. It also marked Bydlowska’s immediate, full-blown return to crippling alcoholism.
In the gritty and sometimes grimly comic tradition of the bestselling memoirs Lit by Mary Karr and Smashed by Koren Zailckas, Drunk Mom is Bydlowska’s account of the ways substance abuse took control of her life—the binges and blackouts, the humiliations, the extraordinary risk-taking—as well as her fight toward recovery as a young mother. This courageous memoir brilliantly shines a light on the twisted logic of an addicted mind and the powerful, transformative love of one’s child. Ultimately it gives hope, especially to those struggling in the same way.”
Dry: A Memoir (2003) by Augusten Burroughs
Amazon Description: “You may not know it, but you’ve met Augusten Burroughs. You’ve seen him on the street, in bars, on the subway, at restaurants: a twentysomething guy, nice suit, works in advertising. Regular. Ordinary. But when the ordinary person had two drinks, Augusten was circling the drain by having twelve; when the ordinary person went home at midnight, Augusten never went home at all. Loud, distracting ties, automated wake-up calls and cologne on the tongue could only hide so much for so long. At the request (well, it wasn’t really a request) of his employers, Augusten lands in rehab, where his dreams of group therapy with Robert Downey Jr. are immediately dashed by grim reality of fluorescent lighting and paper hospital slippers. But when Augusten is forced to examine himself, something actually starts to click and that’s when he finds himself in the worst trouble of all. Because when his thirty days are up, he has to return to his same drunken Manhattan life―and live it sober. What follows is a memoir that’s as moving as it is funny, as heartbreaking as it is true. Dry is the story of love, loss, and Starbucks as a Higher Power.”
Girl, Interrupted (1993) by Susanna Kaysen
Amazon Description: “Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.”
Go Ask Alice (1971) by Alice
Amazon Description: “It started when she was served a soft drink laced with LSD in a dangerous party game. Within months, she was hooked, trapped in a downward spiral that took her from her comfortable home and loving family to the mean streets of an unforgiving city. It was a journey that would rob her of her innocence, her youth—and ultimately her life.”
The Heroin Diaries: Ten Year Anniversary Edition: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star (2017) by Nikki Sixx
Amazon Description: “When Mötley Crüe was at the height of its fame, there wasn’t any drug Nikki Sixx wouldn’t do. He spent days—sometimes alone, sometimes with other addicts, friends, and lovers—in a coke- and heroin-fueled daze.
The highs were high, and Nikki’s journal entries reveal some euphoria and joy. But the lows were lower, often ending with Nikki in his closet, surrounded by drug paraphernalia and wrapped in paranoid delusions.
Here, Nikki shares the diary entries—some poetic, some scatterbrained, some bizarre—of those dark times. Joining him are Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Slash, Rick Nielsen, Bob Rock, and a host of ex-managers, ex-lovers, and more.
Brutally honest, utterly riveting, and surprisingly moving, The Heroin Diaries follows Nikki during the year he plunged to rock bottom—and his courageous decision to pick himself up and start living again.”
Lit: A Memoir (2010) by Mary Karr
Amazon Description: “Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner’s descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness–and to her astonishing resurrection. Karr’s longing for a solid family seems secure when her marriage to a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting blueblood poet produces a son they adore. But she can’t outrun her apocalyptic past. She drinks herself into the same numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. A hair-raising stint in ‘The Mental Marriott,’ with an oddball tribe of gurus and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. Not since Saint Augustine cried, ‘Give me chastity, Lord-but not yet!’ has a conversion story rung with such dark hilarity. Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober, becoming a mother by letting go of a mother, learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr’s relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up–as only Mary Karr can tell it.”
Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (2008) by Kerry Cohen
Amazon Description: “Loose Girl is Kerry Cohen’s captivating memoir about her descent into promiscuity and how she gradually found her way toward real intimacy. The story of addiction–not just to sex, but to male attention–Loose Girl is also the story of a young girl who came to believe that boys and men could give her life meaning.”
A Million Little Pieces (2005) by James Frey
Amazon Description: “At the age of 23, James Frey woke up on a plane to find his front teeth knocked out and his nose broken. He had no idea where the plane was headed nor any recollection of the past two weeks. An alcoholic for ten years and a crack addict for three, he checked into a treatment facility shortly after landing. There he was told he could either stop using or die before he reached age 24. This is Frey’s acclaimed account of his six weeks in rehab.”
My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean (2018) by Amy Dresner
Amazon Description: “Growing up in Beverly Hills, Amy Dresner had it all: a top-notch private-school education, the most expensive summer camps, and even a weekly clothing allowance. But at 24, she started dabbling in meth in San Francisco and unleashed a fiendish addiction monster. Soon, if you could snort it, smoke it, or have sex with it, she did.
Thus began a spiral that eventually landed her in the psych ward–and then penniless, divorced, and looking at 240 hours of court-ordered community service. For two years, assigned to a Hollywood Boulevard “chain gang,” she swept up syringes (and worse) as she bounced from rehabs to halfway houses, all while struggling with sobriety, sex addiction, and starting over in her forties. In the tradition of Orange Is the New Black and Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight, this is an insightful, darkly funny, and shamelessly honest memoir of one woman’s battle with all forms of addiction, hitting rock bottom, and forging a path to a life worth living.”
Parched: A Memoir (2006) by Heather King
Amazon Description: “In this tragicomic memoir about alcoholism as spiritual thirst, Heather King—writer, lawyer, and National Public Radio commentator—describes her descent into the depths of addiction. Spanning a decades-long downward spiral, King’s harrowing story takes us from a small-town New England childhood to hitchhiking across the country to a cockroach-ridden “artist’s” loft in Boston. Waitressing at ever-shabbier restaurants, deriving what sustenance she could from books, she became a morning regular at a wet-brain-drunks’ bar—and that was after graduating from law school. Saved by her family from the abyss, King finally realized that uniquely poetic, sensitive, and profound though she may have been, she was also a big-time mess. Casting her lot with the rest of humanity at last, she learned that suffering leads to redemption, that personal pain leads to compassion for others in pain, and, above all, that a sense of humor really, really helps.”
A Piece of Cake: A Memoir (2007) by Cupcake Brown
Amazon Description: “There are shelves of memoirs about overcoming the death of a parent, childhood abuse, rape, drug addiction, miscarriage, alcoholism, hustling, gangbanging, near-death injuries, drug dealing, prostitution, and homelessness.
Cupcake Brown survived all these things before she’d even turned twenty.
And that’s when things got interesting. . .
Orphaned by the death of her mother and left in the hands of a sadistic foster parent, young Cupcake Brown learned to survive by turning tricks, downing hard liquor, and ingesting every drug she could find while hitchhiking up and down the California coast. She stumbled into gangbanging, drug dealing, hustling, prostitution, theft, and, eventually, the best scam of all: a series of 9-to-5 jobs.
A Piece of Cake is unlike any memoir you’ll ever read. Moving in its frankness, this is the most satisfying, startlingly funny, and genuinely affecting tour through hell you’ll ever take.”
Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America (1994) by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Amazon Description: “Elizabeth Wurtzel writes with her finger in the faint pulse of an overdiagnosed generation whose ruling icons are Kurt Cobain, Xanax, and pierced tongues. In this famous memoir of her bouts with depression and skirmishes with drugs, Prozac Nation is a witty and sharp account of the psychopharmacology of an era for readers of Girl, Interrupted and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.”
Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (2005) by Koren Zailckas
Amazon Description: “Garnering a vast amount of attention from young people and parents, and from book buyers across the country, Smashed became a media sensation and a New York Times bestseller. Eye-opening and utterly gripping, Koren Zailckas’s story is that of thousands of girls like her who are not alcoholics—yet—but who routinely use booze as a shortcut to courage and a stand-in for good judgment.”
Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines (2009) by Nic Sheff
Amazon Description: “Nic Sheff was drunk for the first time at age eleven. In the years that followed, he would regularly smoke pot, do cocaine and Ecstasy, and develop addictions to crystal meth and heroin. Even so, he felt like he would always be able to quit and put his life together whenever he needed to. It took a violent relapse one summer in California to convince him otherwise. In a voice that is raw and honest, Nic spares no detail in telling us the compelling, heartbreaking, and true story of his relapse and the road to recovery. As we watch Nic plunge into the mental and physical depths of drug addiction, he paints a picture for us of a person at odds with his past, with his family, with his substances, and with himself. It’s a harrowing portrait—but not one without hope.”
With or Without You: A Memoir (2014) by Domenica Ruta
Amazon Description: “Domenica Ruta grew up in a working-class, unforgiving town north of Boston, in a trash-filled house on a dead-end road surrounded by a river and a salt marsh. Her mother, Kathi, a notorious local figure, was a drug addict and sometimes dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches, and whose highbrow taste was at odds with her hardscrabble life. And yet she managed, despite the chaos she created, to instill in her daughter a love of stories. Kathi frequently kept Domenica home from school to watch such classics as the Godfather movies and everything by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, telling her, “This is more important. I promise. You’ll thank me later.” And despite the fact that there was not a book to be found in her household, Domenica developed a love of reading, which helped her believe that she could transcend this life of undying grudges, self-inflicted misfortune, and the crooked moral code that Kathi and her cohorts lived by.
With or Without You is the story of Domenica Ruta’s unconventional coming of age—a darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth and the necessary and painful act of breaking away, and of overcoming her own addictions and demons in the process. In a brilliant stylistic feat, Ruta has written a powerful, inspiring, compulsively readable, and finally redemptive story about loving and leaving.”
Collaborates with Harvard Health Publications to provide a wide range of unbiased, motivating resources and self-help tools for mental, social, and emotional. 100% nonprofit; dedicated to Morgan Leslie Segal, who died by suicide when she was 29.
An extensive, completely free collection of articles on social skills and getting past social awkwardness. It’s written by someone who’s struggled socially himself, and who has degrees in psychology and counseling.
“I had absolutely no direction in my life. I was a loose cannon. An unguided projectile… I viewed life in a negative, nihilistic, cynical, and overall pessimistic way.”
Note: This article, or parts of it, may have been posted to other blogs. It is not entirely unique to this site.
Guest Post: My Experience with Depression
Depression, also known by some as the silent killer. And for good reasons.
Little did I know I was going to find this out firsthand.
Early on in life, before the age of 16, everything was perfect. I had loving parents and, in general, a loving family. I had plenty of friends. I excelled in sports and did well in school.
Things were easy back then. The only ounce of responsibility I had was making sure I got passing grades. And what if I didn’t listen in school and got detention as a result? Well, he’s still a young kid who’s figuring out life. Got into a fight? Well, he’s still a young boy who doesn’t always thinks before he acts.
But my perfect world didn’t last.
My Experience with Depression
Around the age of sweet 16, my life started changing rapidly.
I stopped feeling happy and optimistic. At first, I thought it was just a phase everyone my age went through and that it would pass as quickly as it came. But it didn’t. I had a difficult time adjusting to my ever-changing environment and handling the pressure I believed was being put on me.
I didn’t know what I wanted for my future. My friends and schoolmates already knew what they were going to study when they went to college the next year. I, however, did not. I had no direction in life. I was a loose cannon, an unguided projectile, an immature and wild kid, busy with partying and drinking.
I started getting into frequent fights; I’m not a violent person, but the anxiety, negative emotions, feelings of helplessness, and an overall sense of feeling lost in this world led to physical confrontations with others. The fights were a reflection of my poor mental state.
Then I turned 18. My parents told me it was time to start taking responsibility for my choices and actions because this time “it was for real.”
In college, I decided to pursue the field of nutrition. Not because I had a strong desire to become a dietician, but rather, because people I knew from my home town were going this route, and I figured since I was interested in exercise/health, it might be a good fit.
Newsflash, it wasn’t.
I quit school two months in. Turns out choosing what course to study based on friends rather than what you want in life is not the smartest idea. (Who would’ve thought, right?)
The following year, I gave it another try. This time I studied occupational performance. Long story short, I managed to earn a college degree despite my depression.
After I graduated and started working as an occupational therapist in a physical rehabilitation center, things got better. I was motivated to help people relearn lost skills, improving their quality of life.
But in time, my thoughts turned dark again, becoming negative and nihilistic. I slept less and my sleep quality was poor. I would randomly wake up at night and cry because I felt so terrible. I withdrew from friends and family. I even discovered a way to measure the severity of my depression; when my mood worsened, I craved alcohol. Drinking was a way to self-medicate.
I continued to plow away at work, but an excessive sense of responsibility, perfectionism, and anxiety was eating away at my mental health. I was head deep into my depression.
One day, I woke up and found I couldn’t get out of bed. I had nothing left in the tank. I realized I needed to take some time off work to deal with my depression and get my life in order again. I called my parents and asked to come home.
At first, I didn’t leave the bedroom. There were successive days I didn’t get up to eat or shower. I was in constant mental pain. It was hell on earth.
One evening, I managed to get out of bed and sat down to eat dinner with my parents. They were silent, and looked tired and sad. Until this moment, my depressive haze prevented me from seeing how my illness impacted my family. I decided: that’s it, no more. It was my guilt that fueled the decision to fully contend with my mental illness.
Up until now, I was only living for myself, not participating and valuing what my parents, family, and others did for me. So, something needed to change. I needed to turn my life around. And with my life, my attitude.
I started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants. I took a sincere look at self, including undesirable traits I’d been afraid to face. I set goals for myself. And when I had zero desire to get out of bed, I pushed through. I made sure I did something useful every day.
After several months of therapy and medication, life became manageable. I talked more, was less irritable, and as a result, my life and that of those around me improved. At times I even looked forward to things!
How Depression Changed Me
Although the depression was tough on me, and there were times I didn’t know if I was going to make it, it brought about some positive changes.
I became more mature and resilient; I learned to put things in perspective and take necessary responsibility. But the two most significant aspects that changed were my so-called “intellectual arrogance” and the pessimistic way I viewed life.
Before, I considered myself a fairly intelligent fellow. The problem with this was that I overvalued intelligence, viewing other aspects in life as inferior.
Moreover, my attitude was overwhelmingly cynical and negative. What I failed to realize is that focus shapes experience. And if you only pay attention to the negative, you miss the beauty life has to offer. Now, I actively search for the good and beautiful things happening around me.
What Helped Me Get My Depression Under Control
In addition to medication and therapy, I found the following to be helpful:
Seeking help. We can’t do everything on our own, no matter how much we’d like to. There are times when you will need help to cope with your depression. In addition to professional help, seek support from family and trusted friends. You may find that feeling heard and understood is what carries you through the darker days.
Setting goals. I had no desire to do anything in life. I had no goals. For severe depression, I would advise setting smaller goals you think you would mind doing the least (minimal effort) and/or goals which you found important in the past (before your depression took over).
Taking responsibility. Although depression can be debilitating, practice taking responsibility for the things in life under your control. For me, it was easy to blame others for everything that went wrong, believing the world to be wretched and unfair, but it didn’t do me any good.
Exercising. Mental health and physical health go hand-in-hand. Exercise releases endorphins, the “feel good” brain chemicals related to pleasure. If you don’t enjoy exercise, try a hobby that requires some level of physical exertion. As an additional benefit, engaging in exercise can take your mind off the stressful things in life.
My Depression Warning Signs
For me, there are clear signs that indicate my depression is coming back or worsening. Keep in mind that warning signs vary from individual to individual. What might be a warning sign for me may not for you.
My desire to do anything decreases. Hobbies I enjoy like weightlifting and running suddenly mean very little to me. But it’s not just about hobbies. Things like getting out of bed and showering suddenly become difficult because I have zero motivation or energy.
My thoughts get darker and more negative. It becomes increasingly tough to see the positive things in life or the positive in people. I become cynical and pessimistic.
Overthinking. I tend to overthink when things go bad, which is basically what depression is for me: feeling bad.
Anxiety. Negative thoughts and overthinking lead to increased levels of anxiety. My anxiety about the little things in life may seem insignificant to others who don’t have a mental illness, but a simple act such as calling or visiting a friend can freak me out and lead to rumination.
Ruminating. Intrusive thoughts run through my head and there’s no “off” switch.
Irritability. I become increasingly irritable; I’m in a foul mood all of the time and the smallest things piss me off.
Increased desire to self-medicate. I experience a strong desire to drink. Alcohol impacts the brain by triggering a release of dopamine. This rush of dopamine creates feelings of pleasure and happiness.
Decreased sleep quality. My overall sleep quality gets worse, partly due to constant overthinking and ruminating. Anxiety and stress are also big factors. And when I’m able to fall asleep, I wake up throughout the night.
Depression is a terrible disease that may go unnoticed if the signs aren’t recognized or known. A person with depression might attempt to maintain a positive front, possibly because they don’t want to complain or they’re afraid of being misunderstood.
There are multiple symptoms of depression; my symptoms went hand-in-hand, playing off one another and creating a vicious circle of negative thoughts that sucked the energy and lust for life from me.
Depression symptoms are different for different people. Learning to identify the symptoms will help you to recognize depression in others. Furthermore, an increased awareness enhances empathy and enables you to better support someone with depression.
I give the following advice to anyone with depression:
Don’t give up.
Seek professional help.
Seek support from your family and close friends.
Set goals and work hard to achieve them.
Take responsibility for the things you can control.
Is there a cure for depression? No. Do I think I will ever be totally depression-free? Maybe. What I do know for sure is that my illness is manageable and livable at the moment. I look forward to what the future has in store for me. Which is a lot more than I anticipated at first.
About the Author:
Kevin Mangelschots is a writer and occupational therapist with seven years of experience in the field of physical rehabilitation. He is a long-time fitness enthusiast. Kevin lives in Belgium and has created a platform for other bloggers to share their life stories where he writes about his own experience with depression at retellinglifestories.com.