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How Self-Care May Improve Your Mental Health

New research explains the relationship between self-care and depression.

Key points

  • Self-care is beneficial for mental health.
  • Researchers found that self-care like physical activity, sleep quality, and nutrition may improve depression related to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • More research is needed to fully appreciate how self-care improves mental health.

As a practicing psychiatrist, I’m no stranger to treating mental illnesses like major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety, or PTSD. But the past two years–as the coronavirus pandemic changed the way we live, work, and navigate the world–has allowed me to understand both personally and professionally the importance of self-care for mental health.

That’s why I wrote a book about it called The Self-Healing Mind: An Essential Five-Step Practice for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression and Revitalizing Your Life.

Let’s face it, most of us have a basic appreciation of the importance of eating a well-balanced diet, getting to bed at a reasonable time, exercising when we can, and how paying attention to ourselves can make us feel better. However, the idea that self-care can treat diagnosable mental illness is still a foreign concept for many people.

Whenever I meet a patient for the first time, I always ask about self-care. Questions like: What’s your typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner like? How often are you moving your body? Do you ever meditate?

I find that among patients who are struggling the most with depression, anxiety, or even burnout, self-care is typically the last thing on their minds. I get it–a colleague once said to me, “How do you expect a patient to eat a kale salad if they’re too depressed to get out of bed?”

Because of this, self-care (especially in recent years) has developed somewhat of a bad rap. Sometimes it can even feel like self-care is under siege. All the time, I come across social media chatter suggesting that what you need isn’t self-care. It’s more time, a better job, a good therapist, or the right drug.

While there’s no denying that all aspects of our lives (including the chemistry in our brain and whether or not we can afford a nanny to help with the kids) can at times get in the way of us living optimally, dismissing self-care and its benefits for mental health isn’t evidence-based. That means sweeping self-care under the rug may ultimately cause more harm than good.

With this in mind, I’d like to highlight a recent Slovakian study that looked at the role of self-care in improving depression during the coronavirus pandemic. Results weren’t straightforward, and that’s exactly why I liked it. Self-care, not unlike love, is complicated.

In the study, researchers looked at over eight hundred participants. They included assessments for self-care strategies that included health consciousness, nutrition, physical activity, sleep quality, and interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.

While higher health consciousness during the pandemic was associated with slightly higher depressions scores–that’s understandable considering the emotional toll learning how to live and interact during the pandemic safely has taken on all of us–other strategies like increasing exercise frequency and focusing on sleep quality actually were preventative for developing depression.

Nutrition and interpersonal and intrapersonal connectedness were even less straightforward in this particular study, offering conflicting results that were largely dependent upon the participant’s age and his or her depression severity.

“Healthy nutrition” is a loaded term (and I think most nutritional psychiatrists would agree). Aside from this study, evidence is pretty clear, though, that depression (and other mental illnesses) has at least some correlation with inflammation, and incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet (think the Mediterranean) can actually improve mood. If you want to learn more about that, check out the SMILES trial.

In a post-COVID world, we are also connecting in different ways.

Pre-pandemic, many of us spent more time with people at in-person gatherings.

Now, after a day of seeing patients on Zoom, the last thing I want to do is hang out even more on Zoom. So, I suspect we are all still adjusting to finding better ways to connect in what’s turning out to be a new state of normalcy. I’d love for the researchers to explore the connectedness question again in a few years.

So, back to my colleague’s question, “How do you expect patients to eat a kale salad if they’re too depressed to get out of bed?”

It starts with appreciating that the kale salad alone will probably not fix depression. It takes a comprehensive approach, and as the study suggests, there’s a role for self-care in improving mental illness, even if it’s not always straightforward.

That’s one thing I think we can all agree on.


Gavurova, B, et al. (2022) The Role of Self-Care Activities (SASS-14) in Depression (PHQ-9): Evidence From Slovakia During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Public Health. Volume 9. PP 1-16

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