Self-Care When Depressed: How to Start when your Tank is Empty

I am no stranger to depression. I have been coping with depression for most of my life, and was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder about 8 years ago.  I’ve often felt myself thinking something like this: “If I exercised more, I’d have more energy, but I don’t have enough energy to exercise.” This type of thinking has made me feel hopeless and helpless. Have you ever felt like that? You want to do the things that help you to not feel depressed, but you may be too tired too depressed to do them. I used to look for a miracle cure to make me feel better, but there just isn’t one; however, there are some things that have really helped me, which may help you as well. 

What self-care should you practice when depressed? There is no magical, one-size-fits all, recipe for self-care when you are depressed. This is because we are all different, and have different needs/abilities; however, there are some steps that may help incorporate more self-care into your life. The steps are as follows 

  1. Generate Self-Care Ideas that are Tailored to YOU
  2. Pick small, attainable goals
  3. Just do it
  4. Celebrate your Wins 
  5. Keep Going

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Many of these are skills that I have been working to develop over many years. Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, I always bring myself back to this process. If nothing else, it makes me feel more in control of my life. 

Generating Self-Care Ideas that are Tailored to YOU

Asking Yourself for Ideas

You may be thinking “Why did I come to a website for help on self-care, if you aren’t going to tell me what to do”. There are a couple reasons.

  • You are really the only person who knows exactly where you are at, and what you need to do to feel better.
  • You probably already have a pretty good idea on what you need to do to start feeling better.

The truth is, self-care isn’t some big mystery. We all know that things like eating better, exercising more, and getting more sleep is good for us; however, that doesn’t mean it is easy. Making healthy habits can be extremely overwhelming and challenging at the best of times, let alone when when you are feeling depressed. There are things that you can do to set yourself up for success. 

A Short Writing Exercise

This is my number one go to for when I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed. I find myself floating off down dark tangents, when I need to focus on what I can actually DO, right away to make myself feel better. I either think or write “What do I want to do to start feeling better?”.

The reason this can be extremely helpful is because our minds responds well to questions. Our brains will start working on the question, and will likely keep working on the question long after you put your pen and paper. When you are depressed, it can feel like nothing will ever get better, and there is no point in trying. You want to start getting your brain in a different track. Stop thinking about problems, and start thinking about solutions. 

For me, this usually resolves itself in really simple ways; for example, I might realize that I am really hungry and have a snack or that notice that I am really stiff and go for a short walk. You will start to get a sense for what the simple things that you can do for yourself to make yourself feel better right away. It might sound silly. I am by no means saying that having a sandwich will cure depression, but that realization that you have the power to change how you feel, just by doing a simple thing, can be so empowering. For me this has been life-changing. The realization that I do not have to give in to depression is everything. I don’t have to just curl up in bed and cry. I am in control, and I can DO something.

What Would you Tell a Friend?

Along with depression, I also have a lot of anxiety, so listening to my brain has been scary until recently. If you also have this problem, there is another strategy that might work for you. I learnt this great trick from a psychologist many years ago, and it has been helpful for me. It is a simple technique: ask yourself what you would tell a friend or loved one, if they were in the same situation. The reason this trick works so well is because we tend to be easier on others, especially those that we care about, than we would be to yourself. 

Ask a Friend or Family Member

You might want to try calling a friend or family member, and ask them what they think might be right for you. Or ask them what they do for themselves. Perhaps it is something that you can do together (like joining a gym, taking a class etc.)

Your loved ones have the advantage of knowing you, your abilities, and seeing you in a way that you can’t see yourself. They might be able to remind you of times where you felt like you couldn’t succeed, but then you did, or about something that you are good at, that you haven’t done for a while. Maybe they will just be a shoulder to cry on, or a sounding board for ideas that you are thinking of.

Don’t be afraid to ask people for their opinion. Do you like to help your family and friends feel better? Probably. They probably do too. They know you well, and they might just have an idea or two that you haven’t thought of. Maybe they have a recipe to try, or they will go on a walk with you, or join that new gym. Don’t be afraid to utilize the resources around you.

Start Where You Are  (picking small, attainable goals)

By now, you should have a few ideas of some self-care strategies. So, what’s next?


This can be easier said than done. When starting new habits, or taking actions, our brains can be easily overwhelmed. I actually am terrible at setting realistic expectations. I have always been the kind of person who wants to have been at the finish line, yesterday. There are a few resources that have really helped me. First is “The Power of Habits”. It gives a play by play breakdown on how to set habits, and one of them main concepts is about starting small, with one thing. Another book, devoted to that concept specifically is “One Small Change”. If you are interested in changing some habits, they are good reads. 

There is a quote that I love from Bill Gates: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” I think it is probably true. It is also easy to get discouraged if we are comparing ourselves to people on Facebook, celebrities, or anyone else for that matter. People tend to put their best face forward, and it can make us feel like we are failing by comparison (even if we aren’t).

So what happens when you put together our inability to realistically gauge what we are capable of, and these comparison of what we can do, based on what we think others are doing? Probably failure.

An Example

Let’s say someone is so severely depressed that they can’t get out of bed, but then the read this great article about how good exercise is for them, with all of these 1 hour workouts. Is that person going to be successful at those exercises? Probably not. They’d more than likely feel worse because they weren’t doing what they were “supposed to be doing”. What about an article on what to do if you haven’t been able to get out of bed for three days. Would that be helpful? Probably. If someone hasn’t gotten out of bed, their goal should be to get out of bed. That’s it. And to that person, that would be an enormous accomplishment.

More than starting where you are, start at the start of the start. When I was severely depressed, and couldn’t get out of bed, my partner would tell me to just put one foot on the floor. It sounds silly, but it got me out of bed. I read a book about procrastination many years ago (I can’t remember the title), and it suggested that if your goal is to go for a run, just make your goal to just putting on running shoes and stand outside your door. Most people will go for a run. It is kind of tricking your brain to overcome any resistance.  The aforementioned “One Small Change” talks about this as well. It says that the best thing to do is the smallest possible thing that you can do without your brain saying “I don’t want to do that!!!!”. Pick ONE thing, that you KNOW that you can do, and that you WANT to do. 

Then, just do it. 

Just Do It

I am very open about my struggles, so I have had the benefit of talking to a lot of people, and hearing what they experience. Through talking with people, I have noticed a strong link between traits like procrastination, perfectionism and depression. I have seen that I am certainly not along in my destructive thoughts or anxiety. A lot of people, myself included, have anxiety standing between them and their goals. I was surprised at just how many people that I knew had the same fears about going to the gym they might say “everyone will look at me.” or “I’ll feel out of place” or “What if I don’t know how to use the equipment?”.  Years ago, in counselling, I was taught many techniques to overcome these types of thoughts. Honestly, I only remember the one that really helped me!  The first step is to just identify  the thought. If you hear your brain say “what if”, flag it. You are going to want to take a closer look at it. Here is the option that I remember:

Problem-Solve Fears

Problem solve the “what if”. Let’s look at “What if I don’t know how to use the equipment?”, which is probably really more about”What if other people think I am out of place?” or “What if I look silly?”

Let’s say you don’t know how to use the equipment. What would you do then? Here are some actions you could take:

  • See if the gym offer tutorials
  • Watch some YouTube videos online
  • Hire a personal trainer to show you the ropes
  • Ask a friend to go with you and show you the ropes
  • Decide that you will just go on the treadmill, instead of the machines for your first visit.
  • Don’t go to gym at all, and instead do a workout at home.

Keep working the problem until you come up with an action that doesn’t make you feel afraid, then do it.

Celebrate Your Wins

So you’ve done what you set out to do, you put that first foot on the floor or you put on your gym clothes. Now you get moving… Right? Well hang on. There is an important step first. Take a second to acknowledge that you did a thing that you set out to do. You did it. 

This is another concept from “The Power of Habits”, and it is vital! I was first exposed to the idea from my counsellor. This was a stage in my life where I was so depressed I couldn’t get out of bed. She said if it is hard for you to do laundry, and you did it, then you are successful”. Honestly, at the time I thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard, but it has been 8 years, and I hear her voice in my head all of the time. It is encourages me. It gives me the permission to pat myself on the back. If it was hard for me, and I did it, then I deserve a pat on the back. No one can take that away from me.

If you also are thinking, “This is stupid. This would be easy for other people”, you are probably wrong (many people struggle with living a healthy lifestyle, among other things), but more than that, it really doesn’t matter what is easy or hard for other people. It matters that you were going to do a thing, and then you did it. 

You don’t have to pat yourself on the back. There is no need to feel joy, hope, or anything for that matter. This is not about feeling anything. It is simply about acknowledging that you did a thing that you said you were going to do. Now, you can decide what to do next. Maybe you decide you don’t want to go to the gym after all. It doesn’t matter. Now ask yourself again “What do I want to do to make myself feel better?”.  Just keep repeating the cycle.

Keep Going

So what is the best way to practice self-care when you are depressed? It really comes down to doing what is right for you, where you are right now, and that you want to do. Pick something that you want to do that will make you feel better, do it, acknowledge that you did it, and then pick something else. It sounds easy, but its not. It will take practice, and sometimes you will “fail”, but it will only be a failure if you call it that.

You may feel like giving up. I have felt that way. A lot. But I don’t give up. There are a lot of reasons why that is, but mostly it is just that I don’t want to. I have learned so much already about how to ease my pain. Someday, I hope to be the kind of person who doesn’t even hate the pain, but has learned to accept pain as a part of life. Whatever it is you want for yourself, just keep going. You have the power.



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