Habits and Mental Illness: Finding Some Consistency Between the Depression Naps

Habits and Mental Illness: Finding Some Consistency Between the Depression Naps

Habits are important

Abraham Maslow lists “homeostasis” (consistency in your life) as a fundamental human need in his hierarchy of human needs

In episode one of her podcast, “Happier”, Gretchen Rubin talks about the one-coin loophole. Just as we make wealth one coin at a time, we build habits one day at a time, and we need to be consistent.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where participants aim to write 50,000 words in one month. The way you win? By writing every single day, like Stephen King and Hemingway did.

While variety may be the spice of life, consistency is its bread and butter.

Then there’s you.

Your mental illness doesn’t care about the little routine you planned for yourself. Depression takes one look at your bullet point, “Wake up at 7 AM,” and changes it to “PM” while laughing in your face.

Popular wisdom would have you believe that you are a failure if you break one day of your habit. Some will tell you that you can never become rich if you take a self-care day for your depression. Don’t listen to them for a second. Carrie Fisher, JK Rowling, and Mark Twain would all beg to differ.

Still, habits are important if you don’t want your mental illness to control you. Here’s how to build habits successfully while still allowing for the self-care we all need.

Understand the psychology of habit

When a friend recommended Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to me, I never imagined it would be so downright charming. I expected it to read like a textbook. Instead, Duhigg weaves personal narratives into scientific examples like an expert journalist.

The book is in three parts: the habits of individuals, organizations, and societies. I read the section on individuals in one afternoon; the lack of jargon makes it a quick read.

To summarize, Duhigg talks about habits via a few steps. Take exercise as an example:

  • Cue: You eat breakfast in the morning.
  • Routine: Because you always exercise after breakfast, the thought of going to the gym is automatically on your mind during breakfast.
  • Reward: You love the rush of endorphins or adrenaline you get from exercise, so you want to keep going back. (Or if you’re not one of those people, you reward yourself with a smoothie or a piece of chocolate after each workout sesh.)
  • Craving: You start to miss that rush on the days you don’t exercise.

To create a new habit, it helps to give yourself a reward — something to look forward to. It’s also important that this reward be short term. This is why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail; you don’t get the full payoff until the year is over.

To fix an old habit, then, you should keep the same cue and reward. You do this by first by examining what triggers the habits you want to be rid of. Duhigg goes into this research and its implications for overeating, addiction, and other vices. He also discusses the power of belief and in the support of a community.

I won’t go into all that here, though; just go read the first few chapters. There’s a monkey named Julio whose brain lights up with happiness when he gets blackberry juice. It’s a great book.

Baby steps

Let’s go back to Maslow for a second. The bottom tier of his Hierarchy of Needs includes our physiological needs: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion.

With that in mind, consider these priorities as a baseline for your routine:

  • Breathe every day. You’ve got this one down already!
  • Eat every day.
    • You’re likely doing this, too – but what are you eating? When? How much?
    • Your body likes to keep a constant routine. Eating at the same time each day is a great goal to work toward.
    • Keep an eye on your excretions (yes, I mean your poopies) to ensure they are healthy and regular. If not, you may need to adjust your diet accordingly.
  • Drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Yes, you’ll feel like you’re peeing every twenty seconds the first few days; I promise it gets better.
  • Sleep 7-9 hours a night, preferably at the same time each night. That might change sometimes due to insomnia or depressive over-sleeping, but if you do get off track for a couple days, that’s OK. Just keep at it.

I know that some of you reading this work irregular hours, especially if your job is part-time. That really sucks. Someday, I’d love to campaign for consistent working hours as a basic human right. Until then, do what you can.

Also Maslow added “sex” to this list before birth control was even invented. He died before the AIDS epidemic put gay rights into the national conversation. Ace awareness still isn’t part of the national conversation — though it should be. So while I generally agree with sex being on this list, I’m not about to tell you how much or what kind you should want or need, if any. Just make it safe and consensual, please and thank you.

Practice mindfulness

Shortly after I got married, I entered a terrible bout of depression. I counted on my husband to do everything for me – even getting up to get me a glass of water. I was too sad and exhausted to move.

Years later, I was a much more capable individual — and I still preyed on his kindness by asking him to do little things that I was capable of doing myself. I didn’t do this because I am cruel and manipulative and don’t care about his feelings… I did it because I didn’t realize I was doing it.

Had I practiced mindfulness or meditation, I would have noticed that I was taking advantage of my husband.

It all starts with knowing yourself.

  • Do you really need your partner to go get you a glass of water?
  • Do you really need to skip this meeting today for your mental health?
  • How bad do you really feel today?

Sometimes you can still go to work if you have a cold, but it’s almost always better to skip work if you have the flu. So where is your depression at today — a cold, or a flu?

Mindfulness can include meditation, yoga, or journaling out some thoughts. If you want more information on mindfulness, I have a few great book recommendations here.

Know the difference between self-indulgence and self-care

Recently, I posed this question on Twitter (with a signal boost from Nicole Carman):


Feel free to go read the thread if you need some clarification. The best advice that seemed to stem from the thread was this:

Self-care will always help you.
Self-indulgence will make you feel worse.

So you have a meeting scheduled today. You’re prepared, but you’re a little scared of your clients. What if they ask you a question that you’re not prepared to answer?

Assess your situation. If you’re so the meeting is going to give you a panic attack, don’t do it. Instead, if your finances or bosses allow it, get a bowl of popcorn and watch Moana. (At least, that’s how I do self-care; find what works for you.)

You can get the meeting notes later. There is no reason to put yourself in danger or unnecessary turmoil. Your bosses should understand.

Does this sound a little too specific? I needed this advice once before a meeting. I couldn’t make it, and I beat myself up over my perceived failure. It sent me into a state of depression for three weeks. Not even Moana could save me, and that’s when I KNOW I’m in deep.

But it wasn’t failure… nor was it self-indulgence. It was self-care. It was what I needed to do at that time.

On the flip side, if you are just having a little bit of anxiety, try to take deep breaths from your diaphragm. Remember that anxiety does good things for you, too. Maybe your fluttering heart isn’t telling you to run away; maybe it’s telling you to do your best.


OK, so you woke up at 9 AM today instead of 7. Now you’re depressed because it pushes your entire schedule back. You can’t fit in everything that you missed in that two-hour period. You can’t make up lost time anymore. Life is punishing you for having depression, and it’s unfair.

It’s OK to feel those things for a couple of minutes. Count to one hundred and let yourself whine in your head. Throw a little temper tantrum if it helps.

Then, take a deep breath.

You planned to exercise today; how important is that? If you have a list of goals, and exercising every day is #1 on the list, then you can still make time to do it later in the day. But if your goal is to write 1,000 words every day and you don’t think you can fit in exercise, cross it off the list.

Forgive yourself

You’ve revised your schedule, and crossed off all the items that don’t seem as important. Looking at it now, you realize it’s only going to be a half-productive day. Again.

Don’t blame yourself. Focus on all the things you are getting done, and not the ones you aren’t.

This lesson is important for me, too. I love beating myself up over a few missed items on my agenda. It’s like my favorite hobby. But there’s something you and I both need to remember, always:

Your schedule is your servant, not your master.

If your schedule isn’t working for you, fire it and get a new one. It doesn’t make you weak; it means you’re getting to know yourself and your limits.

Similarly, don’t look at your daily schedule and think, I need to do better. Congratulate yourself on your progress, and think about how you can build on it.

Get help

Part of what defines mental illness is its interference with your daily life. That’s the difference between getting depressed over a breakup and being depressed over nothing. You’ll get over the breakup eventually. Depression just keeps coming back.

Mental health days are so important. If your finances or bosses allow it, don’t feel bad about taking the occasional afternoon off of work. Depression is an illness, so telling your boss you don’t feel well is perfectly valid and true. You don’t have to tell them it’s a heart-feeling more than a stomach-feeling.

But know if your depressive symptoms last more than a few days, or they are interrupting your workflow more than once every two weeks, this is not normal. You can get better, and you deserve it.

If you can’t afford therapy (and let’s face it, many people can’t), there is still help available to you. Check out some of these self-help resources. Many of them cost less than $10, and they might pave the way to a happier, more habitual you.

%d bloggers like this: