Spot the Difference: Self-Care or Symptoms of Depression?

The list of self-care tips are usually slight variations on a theme. Take time for yourself, take a bath, light some candles, listen to soothing music, eat comfort food, take time for a nap during the day, lay in bed and watch your favorite TV shows. They can go on and on, recommending specific scents or shows or songs.

Here’s what depressive behavior looks like for me:                                                                           Lying in bed all day scrolling on my phone, eating stale Wheat Thins out of a box, listening to my favorite song on repeat endlessly, not leaving the house, taking really long hot showers because I can’t bear to get out and face the day, going to bed really early and sleeping in very late, watching Netflix all day until the sound is numbing.

When I sense the onset of depressive or anxiety symptoms, I see those self-care lists and take advice from them. The inspirational tone! They’re so cutely organized – I love the little graphics at the top! Yeah, I should take time for myself and lay in bed all day!

How do I distinguish between taking care of myself and isolating myself?

A popular response is that self-care looks different for everyone.  This is true and easy to say. Of course self-care is different for everyone, because everyone is different! For me these behaviors are unhelpful; it would be healthier and more meaningful for me to find a friend to sit with, take a walk, eat something vaguely resembling a meal. But I am able-bodied and mildly extroverted, and I know that those things are the opposite of helpful for other people.

I worry that the most passed-around lists of self-care techniques are perpetuating a single narrative of healing that can be debilitating for a lot of people. Many of those tips look very similar to symptoms of depression (both textbook and mine). Yes, experiment and find out what helps you get through the day, week, year. Take time to rest; don’t feel like you have to push push push to meet some arbitrary ableist standard of productivity. Involve bath bombs if you must. But I know that I must also eat, bathe, and see other humans; I cannot allow myself to justify spending days in bed alternating between sleep and TV as self-care when it is more harmful than helpful.

(I wish I could write a powerful essay about how self-care culture and discourse ignores the experiences of working-class and low-income women in particular; those essays and posts are out there and I hope people read them. The above is based solely on my experience with mental illness and self-care culture.)



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