These days, a lot of us have forgotten how to self-care.
We’ve placed our self-care on the back burner in order to focus on what’s truly “important” in life: Relentless productivity. TCB. Crushing it.
To say that someone “burns the candle at both ends” was once a comment on excess and imbalance. Now, it’s more like a badge of honor.
If you were asked to make time today for self-care, would you know where to begin?
A few years back, a therapist asked me about my self-care routines. At the time, I was working an intensely stressful job in community mental health and carrying a full load of graduate classes. I was eating poorly, sleeping poorly, treating my body poorly, and basically teetering on the brink of collapse. After staring blankly for a few seconds, I muttered something about how I would try to eat breakfast more often.
Yeah… I didn’t solve any problems that day.
Good self-care includes the basics of eating well, exercising, and getting good sleep. But it can take time to establish those habits and begin to feel their effects. What can be done today? Where can we begin if we have gotten in the habit of neglecting ourselves? What can we do when collapse seems imminent?
If you’re struggling just to keep it together, the time for rational self-reflection has likely passed. That’s why it pays to have a running list of self-care strategies ready to go whenever needed.
We shouldn’t wait until someone actually chokes to learn how to do the Heimlich maneuver. Neither should we wait until we’re in crisis to learn how to self-care.
To help you get a list started, I’ve put together some self-care strategies targeting the various aspects of self – body, mind, and spirit. These categories are somewhat arbitrary. Each one of us is a complex and interconnected system. Body, mind, and spirit can’t really be separated. What you do in one area will benefit the others, just as stress or neglect in one area will negatively impact the others.
Self-Care For The Body
It’s lovely to pamper yourself with a massage or a manicure, but there is more to physical self-care than the occasional spa day. If you struggle with rumination or disassociation, physical self-care can help you get grounded in your body. If you are depressed, physical self-care might mean attending to such seemingly simple tasks as taking a shower, brushing your hair, or eating a meal – tasks that, at times, can feel insurmountable.
The key to effective self-care for the body is to deeply engage your senses.
- Take a bath. Bubblebaths are the quintessential self-care stereotype, but for a good reason – there is something healing about water. Warm water relaxes tense muscles and “washes away” the stress of the day. Add epsom salts for a calming boost – you’ll absorb magnesium sulfate through your skin. Try engaging all five senses by lighting a candle or two, playing some music, and/or sipping some tea.
- Take a nap. Sometimes you just need a break. If you are tired, it’s okay to sleep. I promise that everything will still be here when you wake up.
- Take a walk. It’s no secret – I love walking. Walking boosts your endorphins, gets you outside, and allows you the opportunity to shift focus.
- Assess your basic needs. Have you eaten lately? Do you need a glass of water? Have you showered or changed your clothes? They aren’t trivial questions. When we are struggling, we sometimes forget to attend to our basic needs. It can be therapeutic simply to get dressed and eat.
- Practice mindfulness over a warm drink. As you sip your tea or coffee, hold the cup in your two hands and feel it warm your skin. Listen to the sound of the spoon stirring the cup or the crinkling of the tea bag. Inhale the aroma. Savor the taste. Drink slowly. Focus on the experience. You’ll be giving yourself a treat, engaging all of your senses, and practicing mindfulness at the same time. And if you’re not a tea or coffee drinker, use a square of chocolate, a piece of fruit, or whatever suits your fancy.
- Consider gentle exercise. Activities like yoga and stretching relax our muscles and minds while grounding us in our bodies. When paired with deep breathing, the effects are even more pronounced.
- Consider vigorous exercise. It’s probably not the best idea for all people in all circumstances, but vigorous exercise stimulates the release of endorphins and can lead to feelings of strength and confidence. Personally, I find that shutting the door and doing a few sets of kettlebell swings often helps me blow off steam.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation. PMR simply involves systematically tensing and then relaxing muscle groups throughout the body. Here is an introduction to the basic technique.
Self-Care For The Mind
Negative self-talk. Poor self-esteem. Racing thoughts. Anxiety. Pessimism. Trauma. Fear. Rumination. Interpersonal conflict. Media overload. We lead increasingly stressful lives. Now more than ever, good mental self-care is an imperative.
Chronic stress negatively impacts the mind and the body, and contributes to both mental and physical illnesses. For the sake of your health, find ways to be gentle with yourself.
- Breathe. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, sending your brain the message that you are safe and it is okay to relax. Sometimes, this can be accomplished through just a few deep belly breaths. For maximum benefit, try to keep your exhales slightly longer than your inhales.
- Try distraction. This is not to say you should bury your head in the sand and ignore all of your problems. Engaging in enjoyable and personally meaningful activities can put us in a flow state, otherwise known as “being in the zone.” And hey, if it turns out that all you need is sweatpants and some mindless television, that’s okay too!
- Meditate. A lot of people think they can’t meditate – they don’t know how, or they just can’t concentrate. But meditation is a practice, not a perfection. It’s when it feels hard that you probably need it the most. In the beginning, you may find that a minute or two is all you can manage. That’s perfectly fine. Try downloading an app such as Headspace or Calm to make it easier.
- Repeat a positive affirmation. We all get in the habit of thinking certain thoughts. Unfortunately, these thoughts are often negative and self-critical. Affirmations are all about developing healthier mental habits. Use them to replace negative thoughts with empowering ones. “I-statements” are a good place to start: “I am strong,” “I am peaceful,” “I am brave,” or “I am growing and learning.” Repeat your affirmations to yourself. Write them on sticky notes and put them where they will be seen often, like on your bathroom mirror.
- Listen to music or read an inspirational book. Music is powerful therapy. We tend to connect deeply with certain styles or pieces of music. You can use your voice to sing, or your body to dance. Inspirational books provide a source of hope and motivation. Spiritual literature, autobiographies, and even escapist fiction can all help us shift away from a negative mindset.
- Write or journal. Putting our thoughts on paper helps us process and understand them. You don’t have to share your writing, or even keep it. In fact, I sometimes find it therapeutic to write out my negative thoughts, then crumple up and discard the paper – it helps me “release” the negativity.
- Try a tech disconnect. We are not designed for the constant onslaught of information, entertainment, and news to which we are exposed. Whether it’s for one day or one hour, consider unplugging from all of your devices. In all likelihood, you’ll find it easier to fully engage in activities and connect with your loved ones.
Self-Care For The Spirit
The concept of spirit, to me, is not necessarily religious. It’s about connection with something bigger than ourselves, such as family, friends, community, God, or nature. What resonates with you?
Part of that connection is understanding that it is okay to reach out for help, whether from a loved one or a trained professional. There’s a tendency to feel shame if we’re unable to “go it alone.” But the fact is, no one can truly go it alone – connection is one of our most basic human needs.
- Call a friend or loved one. Do you have a voice in your head telling you that you’ll just be a burden, or that no one has time for you? Push back on it – that voice lies. If you are in emotional distress and you don’t have anyone to call, there are free hotlines available 24 hours per day, such as the national Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-800-273-TALK). Not a phone talker? Text with a mental health counselor through the Crisis Text Line at 741741. (If you are outside of the US, check this page or use Google to find local resources.)
- Connect in person, if possible. These days, a lot of our relationships are confined to social media. Social media is useful, but it can never replace proximity, eye contact, and body language. We are not designed to be isolated. Even if only for a quick coffee or a 15-minute walk, try to connect with someone in person.
- Just go to a public place, like a coffeeshop or library. Sometimes just getting dressed, going out, and being around other people can help us feel more connected. You might benefit from the change in scenery, or from treating yourself to a coffee or snack.
- Find a beautiful spot and connect with your surroundings. Find peace in your yard, a park, the city, a garden, or even in beautiful photos. I love to look at photos that I took on a solo road trip through the desert. They remind me of a time and place that I felt spiritually invigorated.
- If you are religious, pray. Many people turn to a higher power for strength and peace in trying times. Studies show that people who pray experience certain physiological benefits, such as increased dopamine levels, decreased blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and improved immunity.
Assemble Your Toolkit
Of course, no one self-care strategy is a panacea. Try a few out and determine which ones bring the most benefit. Then think of them as tools in your toolbox – keep them handy, and put them to work for you. But stick with them. One bath, one walk, or one meditation is a start, not a solution.
Next week, I will share some tips and tricks for building a self-care kit. Think of these as a first aid kit for bad days.
Do you struggle to find the time for self-care? What kinds of things do you do to take care of yourself? Let us know in a comment!