I like to describe the periodic depression that I experience as low mood. I first began using the term as part of my peer support co-ordinator training because we are encouraged to talk symptoms rather than diagnoses. But as time has gone on I have adopted low mood as part of my inner dialogue. It suits me to think of my symptoms this way and it somehow feels easier to convince myself that I can overcome a spell of low mood, rather than a period of depression. You will have your own way of thinking about your mental health, your own language and your own coping styles. My coping tactics have varied over the years, I consider myself to have been in recovery from my lowest point for about four years. In that time I have discovered and embraced self-care as a form of maintenance. A way of ‘nipping it in the bud’ when I feel myself becoming overwhelmed, excessively stressed or low, it’s a way of living my life to minimise mental distress. That’s not to say that I never experience depression now, because I do, but it gets easier to pull myself out of the darkness as I have more practice and build a self-care armoury.
So with this in mind, the last time I felt myself becoming very low I formulated an action plan. I decided to try and do a month of self-care. I planned to do a little bit of something solely for the purpose of looking after myself every day. Now, if I systematically went through everything this article would be a book so I’ve just put together some of the highlights for your consideration. Here are some of the things I got up to during my month of self-care.
I tried to be selfish
This is a big one for me and looking back now, was ambitious at a time when I was feeling vulnerable. I have a friend who often refers to himself as selfish. I think he considers it to be a negative quality, but I sit in admiration of him. He would not think twice about turning on his heels and striding off in the opposite direction of something that inconvenienced him and his fabulous life. That’s an exaggeration, of course he is not a callous monster, but my point is that he can say no and not feel guilty about it. I needed some more of that in my life. So throughout my self-care month I tried to not take on too much because I definitely had enough on my plate. It’s okay to say no. In fact in my case it should be actively encouraged.
I tried to be conscious of nourishment
I have a tendency to get obsessively involved in achieving goals, usually university stuff, and I forget to take breaks to eat and drink. So during the self-care month I decided to make a conscious effort to keep on top of my hydration. Being adequately hydrated is so important for overall health and one of the things it has a huge impact on is concentration. Despite the difficulties I was having with my mental health I still wanted to try and do my best with my work. I wanted to be able to complete my degree and I was damned if a spell of low mood was going to prevent that. I wanted to do everything I could to help myself, so hydration became priority. In addition, I always find myself reaching for the carbs when I’m struggling emotionally. Not the good kind of complex carbs either, it’s the white bread, the chips, and all the crisps, so many bags of crisps. So along with a bottle of water I also began to carry around with me healthy snacks. I took to sugar snaps peas like nothing you have ever seen.
I tried to keep up appearances
It can be difficult to drag one’s self into the shower when we’re experiencing a period of low mood. There have been times when I was at my worst, I have stayed in bed for a week with no shower, no washing of my face, and no brushing of my teeth, nada. I was not willing to go back there again. So I invented (I didn’t invent it at all) the super bath. This is a bath which is a little too hot in temperature, smells delicious, often the water is purple or pink or yellow, and the intention is to sit in it for a least twenty minutes. The idea is to make an enjoyable event out of what was, to me, a mundane chore which was bordering on optional the lower I sank. Some days it was all I could manage to just sit in the water, but that is considerably more than I may have managed without the self-care super bath to encourage me. I enjoy the process of dropping different mixtures of oils and salts, bath bombs and bubbles into the water and swirling them around. I became a Lush addict during the development of this idea I must admit. Their products smell delightful, some of them have glitter in them, some of them have soothing lavender and chamomile which helps me to relax, and some of them are just ridiculous explosions of colour. Now I like to keep a small collection of Lush bath stuff in the house so I can get a super bath going whenever I need one.
I tried to make time for reading, even if it was just a few pages
I’m sure a lot of you will be familiar with the way we seem to go off the very things that are good for us when we feel low. Often the things that bring us joy such as hobbies or priority time with friends are the first to go. Two things that bring me joy are reading and writing. I find it incredibly difficult to find the motivation to sit down and write when I am going through a period of low mood; but in the spirit of the month of self-care I thought I could probably manage to read one page of a book every few days. If I could combine the reading with a super bath then that was even better. Being able to get through a page of a book was an accomplishment for me at the time and I felt a real sense of progress every time I finished a paragraph.
So how did it go over all? At the end of the month was I a new person? Set free from the shackles of low mood having discovered a miracle technique that was going to solve everything? Well no. I was exhausted. I had spent every day not only battling my desire to crawl back into bed and stay there until I was reported as a missing person, but also trying to push myself to do more self-care. However, a lot of good has come out of this experiment. The first thing is that I still draw myself super baths. I have carried that self-care habit over into the rest of my life; I don’t need to be at the point of desperation to be kind to myself. I can have a purple glitter bath whenever I feel like it. The same is true for the healthy snacks, sugar snap peas are the best thing ever and now I can’t imagine my life without them. Arguably the most important thing that I have taken away from the self-care month is that I am capable. I pulled myself through the rough days, making effort after effort to improve my well being and consistently turning up to the challenge every day. Four years ago I would have most likely given up after two days, considered myself a failure and had one extra thing to beat myself up with. I see the self-care month as a landmark of my recovery process and I hope to repeat it the next time a low mood comes around.
If you can’t face the prospect of a whole months worth of planning, why not try slotting a self-care hour into your week to begin with. If you are experiencing mental distress, it doesn’t have to be all about bubble baths and peas. Talking to someone about how you are feeling is self-care. Going to bed early is self-care. Collecting all the dirty mugs and taking them to the kitchen is self-care. Self-care is about helping you to thrive.
You deserve to thrive.
Sophia Fedorowicz is a psychology student, peer support co-ordinator, writer, and coffee enthusiast. Founder of 'Words for Wellness'; a group designed to encourage creative writing and reading as a self-care tool, she lives with anxiety and depression and believes with all her heart that it’s never too late for anything.