How Much Should You Push Yourself With Depression?

“How do you know what your limits should be?” The woman in my depression community wanted to know whether she should scale back to part-time work or continue to slog through her full-time job.

I hear this question a lot in the depression community I host, and I’m always asking it myself. It seems as if what pushes me to health one hour can drive me toward illness the next. I keep going back to the Serenity Prayer:

God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

The courage to change the things I can;

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I’ve written about how much to challenge yourself with depression before, but I think it’s important to address again, as I’ve been conducting an experiment with it.

You will find experts who say that hanging in there and not letting depressiondisrupt your life is best, that you should keep on working as much as you can. Positive psychologists like Martin Seligman, PhD, claim that using your signature strengths and contributing to society are antidotes to depression: The sense of accomplishment you get from going to work or volunteering or doing anything productive, even though you feel like hell, will ultimately propel you to better mental health. I believe this is very true.

I have always erred on that side — pushing myself. I mean, I was editing my spirituality column from the computer in the community room of Johns Hopkins Psychiatric Unit. My therapists and friends have always applauded me for going forward as much as I could during depressive episodes. And yes, it did make me feel like I hadn’t totally fallen apart and boosted my damaged self-esteem, which was probably worth something.

But a few months ago, I realized that the only way I am going to heal from all of my chronic illnesses is if I allow myself to err on the other side — to push myself less. So I decided to give myself a license for a year (starting last July) to say no to everything I didn’t absolutely HAVE to do: radio shows, interviews, speeches, business lunches and phone calls, guest blogging, and so on. I did a “stress inventory” that I described in my column on 9 Ways to Treat Depression Naturally, and realized 75 percent of the things that were stressing me out could be easily eliminated.

I understand this is not going to work for everyone — there is the issue of livelihood. Fortunately, I could simplify my life without losing my job. However, if you are trying to figure out how much to push yourself in general when it comes to depression, you might ask yourself these questions:

Do You Lean Left or Right?

One of the best sessions I had with my psychiatrist early on in my recovery was when she told me that self-help books are written for people who could use some introspection in their life, not people who overanalyze their inner lives like I do. To this day, whenever I read a self-help book and it makes me feel bad about myself, I always remember her wisdom.

I have also followed the advice of race car legend Doc Hudson to Lighting McQueen in Disney’s Cars: “Turn right to go left.” Meaning, sometimes you have to lean into the opposite of your intuition. I am starting to think that my inclination to push, push, push has kept me sick for a very long time — that editing my column inside the psych ward was an indication that I was too concerned about life going on, a red flag that I wasn’t allowing myself the rest I needed.

So here’s my question: Do you typically push yourself too much or do you need to be pushed? That will help you know what to do when you get depressed. If you constantly beat yourself up for not doing everything perfectly in recovery, or in life, maybe you should throttle back to part-time (if you can afford it) and try to allow yourself to heal. If you typically need other people to inspire you to change, then maybe pushing yourself is the right thing to do.

In other words, try turning right to go left.

What Are Your Pressure Points?

Managing stress is so much more important to getting well than I ever thought.Stress compromises almost every biological system in your body, wearing out important organs so that you are vulnerable to mood disruptions. Constant cortisol flooding your bloodstream is bad news both for body and mind. It was very helpful for me, through my stress inventory, to identify where mine was coming from.

For example, I don’t like talking on the phone. I have always known this, but I forgot until I did the inventory. Back in college, before cell phones, I took my phone off the hook indefinitely, and my mom had to call my dorm neighbor to see if I was alive. I did the same thing before my husband and I had cell phones and turned off all the ringers in the house. He was a tad annoyed. I’m not sure what it is, but chatting into a technological device depletes my energy. Ever since July, when I gave myself the license to say no, I am extremely careful about which phone calls I take, which usually gives me an extra 15 minutes a day that I can rest — I lie on my bed and simply pay attention to my breath. By making a list of all your “pressure points,” you can see where you are pushing yourself without even realizing it, and therefore make room in your life for activities that heal.

The primary source of your stress could very well be your job or the obvious responsibility; however, maybe there are other tributaries of stress in your life feeding into your central nervous system that you are unaware of — all those small favors and things that you agree to without ever acknowledging what they are doing to your overall stress load.

Are You Being Kind to Yourself?

This is the most important question. In deciding whether or not to push yourself, you must first ask yourself if you are doing this thing — a job, a new class, having lunch with someone — because you WANT to do it, or for other reasons. After asking myself this question periodically throughout the day, I realized that I was spending an inordinate amount of my time on emails and phone calls not because I wanted to, but because I was afraid not to. A stage-four people-pleaser, I didn’t want anyone to be upset with me for not getting back to him or her, and much worse, I didn’t want anyone to not like me. I was taught at a young age never to burn any bridge and to network at every possibility — you never know when you might need that contact. Yes, well, that leads to exhaustion and chronic illness. Now (since July) I am trusting that it is okay if someone is angry with me because I can’t get back to him. It’s even going to be okay if he doesn’t like me. I have to be kinder to myself than any other person if I am ever to heal from my chronic illnesses. I spent way too many years doing it the other way around.

Three months into my experiment I can already tell that erring on the side of not pushing myself is rendering better results than pushing myself. However, not only is each person unique, but each situation varies greatly. So you have to feel out the terrain for yourself and make your own guess.

Good luck, and say the Serenity Prayer often!

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