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How my mental health affects my beauty routine

I haven’t washed my hair in over a week. For those of you also in begrudging ownership of an oily scalp, you can only imagine how greasy my hair is right now. I’m pretty sure if the temperature was warm enough, you could fry an egg on my head.

I haven’t applied fake tan in almost a month; something I’ve been doing religiously every 10 days or so since I picked up my first bottle of Dove Gradual Self Tan lotion in my local Boots at 15 years old. Truthfully, I’d forgotten how translucent my skin could be. My veins are this blue? Who knew.

I haven’t waxed my facial hair, something I’m reminded of every time I run my fingers over my spiky new whiskers like an amateur cartoon villain. I haven’t shaved my legs – or as I’ve been calling them, my thermal fleece-lined leggings – in god knows how long. And don’t even ask me when I last applied a full face of makeup. I’m not sure I even remember how.

Truth be told, my entire beauty routine – something in which I normally find great joy and habitual comfort – has gone out the window. In fact, lately, it takes all my might to run a bath.

“It’s very normal to struggle with things like showering or washing your hair when you feel depressed,” my therapist told me when I apologised for my dishevelled, un-showered appearance via Zoom (let’s just say I’m enormously grateful they haven’t invented smell-o-vision yet). “When you’re struggling with your mental health, even the most mundane tasks can feel overwhelming.”

When I WhatsApp my best friend, a trainee clinical psychologist, she agrees. “When somebody is overwhelmed and feel like they have challenges they can’t face, their body and mind go into shutdown,” she says. “They stop pouring their energy into things that aren’t essential, and that’s why things like self-care and socialising are often the first to go – they just focus on getting up and doing whatever their body can cope with.”

A quick look on social media shows I’m not alone. “my beauty secret is that sometimes I skip my entire skin care routine because I’m too depressed,” said one woman on Twitter. “my mental health is so bad and i simply can't get myself to get up and wash my face so what's the best makeup wipes to use,” said another.

In fact, there are various search topics on TikTok, such as ‘skincare for depression’ (1.6 million views) and ‘sad 60 second routine’ (237.2 million views), with videos showing the reality of maintaining a beauty routine with poor mental health. In a video titled ‘skincare routine I am capable of while being depressed’, one woman looks at herself in the bathroom mirror, cries, splashes her face with water, pats it dry with a towel, and walks off. In another, which begins ‘realistic morning routine of a lawyer who is depressed AF’, she washes her face but doesn’t brush her teeth, mixes foundation with moistursier because she’s “too lazy for a base routine”, and simply puts her hair up because she “can’t bring herself to give anymore f*cks than I do”.

Some users, such as @skinfiltrator, share practical advice for looking after your skin when your mind is draining you. “I suffer from chronic depression and I wanted to do some more videos about how I balance my skincare with my mental health,” she says. “I try to use what I’ve got around me, rather than going to the bathroom.” She applies cleanser before ‘rinsing’ using a water bottle, before sweeping over a cotton pad with micellar water (“because I know I’m not giving my face as good of a wash as I normally do”) and applying moisturiser. “And you know what, if you’re feeling too down to do even that, it’s okay,” she adds.

The relationship between our mental health and our beauty and wellness routine is clearly a complicated one, and could be linked to our self-esteem during depressive episodes, says clinical psychologist Dr Linnie Telford. “Often when we feel low in mood and feel unable and unmotivated to do basic routines, it can be associated with a lack of self-worth, but also hopelessness and helplessness or fatigue. It’s important that the lack of motivation is seen as symptomatic rather than laziness.”

So, what do we do? It seems counter-intuitive that much of the advice for boosting your mood focuses on self-care and mindfulness – which the NHS even lists as a treatment option for clinical depression – when depression can make brushing your teeth feel like climbing Kilimanjaro, let alone applying a nine-step skincare routine à la Kim K or whipping out the affirmation cards.

“The premise of this recommendation is that we sometimes have to do things without motivation – such as brushing our teeth – and in the doing and practicing of that act, the belief and the motivation that ‘we can do things’ develops,” explains Dr Telford. “Try breaking things down into steps; often, we get overwhelmed by what we think we should be doing, and the need to do everything in its entirety. For example, would washing your face every morning every day for a week be a good start rather than a full beauty routine? Or perhaps cleaning your teeth by 2pm?”

This is something that my therapist, my best friend and Dr Telford all agree on: when we feel low, we often adopt an ‘all or nothing’ mindset – but that doing something is better than nothing, and even the smallest effort can make us feel better. So, on their advice (three medical professionals can’t be wrong, right?), I drag myself from my depression pit (in bed, curtains closed, ignoring my WhatsApps and flicking between serial killer documentaries and EastEnders, in case you were wondering) and slowly slope to the shower to wash my hair.

At first, my legs feel like lead and my brain is fuzzy like white noise. This is a bad idea. But slowly, as I feel the warm water on my skin and breathe in the comforting, vanilla-laced scent of my shampoo, I start to feel less fuzzy. A little lighter. Afterwards, I get a slight kick out of how clean my scalp feels; no longer oily enough to fry an egg. Who knows, tomorrow I might even shave my legs. Maybe.

By Ali Pantony. This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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