"Self-care." What does that even mean? It’s a buzzword that has been increasing in popularity over the last several years, particularly since the stigma of talking about mental health and wellness has begun to decrease (thank goodness!). But really, what does “self-care” mean?
Well, that’s totally up to you. Self-care is a pretty general and all-encompassing term that represents all of the things you do to look after yourself. These can be ways of thinking, hobbies or activities you do by yourself or with others, or simple basic necessities like eating and bathing. Almost anything can be "self-care" if it's something you enjoy and it is good for your wellbeing.
Self-care is something that is highly personal and unique to each person. I could write a list of 100 different strategies for self-care, but even a long list may not work for each person reading this (for instance, while one person may find that going to a party and being with friends is helpful, someone else may find it takes away from their sense of wellbeing.) As such, I’ve decided to write some categories to help you begin thinking about what “self-care” means to you as well as a short list of self-care ideas so you can begin thinking about what you can do to nourish and care for yourself.
Ways of Thinking
Each of us has a unique way of thinking, and sometimes what we think and what we say to ourselves is helpful and sometimes it can be quite the opposite. When you need to take care of yourself, what is it most that you need to hear? Do you need positive affirmations? Do you need to give yourself loving reminders of how you are worthy and loved? Do you need some tough-love, no nonsense motivation? What style of speaking and thinking do you need in order to feel better right now?
When you’re feeling mentally or emotionally unwell, what types of activities make you feel the best? Is it something solitary like reading? Something where you are surrounded by other people like volunteering or playing a group sport? When you think about spending time doing something that makes you feel well and rejuvenated, what is the best use of your time? Keep in mind, that these activities may change from day to day or depending on your circumstance. Personally, some days a long bath with a good book is what I call “self-care.” On other days, it’s making sure that I’ve spent some time talking with my close friends or family and feeling that social connection. What you need may vary and is not stagnant.
When we are feeling anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, or just stressed in general, sometimes “self-care” is as simple as making sure that our basic needs are being met. Have you you had any water today? Have you eaten something? Have you showered and brushed your teeth? It’s far too easy for us to forget that the most basic tasks can have a powerful healing effect, and it’s even easier for us to forget this when we are not well.
Although I mentioned several times that self-care is something that is personal, and a list might not work for every person, I’ve still decided to give a brief list of things as a jumping off point. Do not consider this the be-all and end-all of self-care; it’s simply a starting point for you to begin brainstorming what will be best for YOU, on this day and at this moment. You may also want to consider starting your own list with a wide variety of strategies in order to have it in your back pocket if/when you may need it. Even if you aren't in dire need right now it can be helpful to have thought about your most helpful strategies before you need to use them.
As promised, here are 11 Self-Care Strategies to get you started:
1. Eat and drink something healthy and wholesome. If healthy is not possible, just make sure you eat and drink something if you have not done so today.
2. Rest. Get to bed at a decent time. Sleeping is not only important for your body but also for your mind. Lack of sleep can make coping with stress very difficult. On the other hand, if you’re finding that you are oversleeping, set an alarm or make a commitment so that you get out of bed without oversleeping and feeling groggy.
3. Take care of your personal hygiene – shower, brush your hair and teeth (maybe even floss?) These simple tasks can remind us that we are important and worthy of taking care of. If you have the basic personal hygiene down, you may consider something a little more extravagant; paint your nails, shave your beard, whatever makes you feel good.
4. Take a relaxing bath.There’s something calming about being in a warm relaxing bath, shutting out the noise and to-do lists and simply relaxing. If this isn't your thing, maybe a hot shower or trip to the sauna at your local gym would be nice.
5. Read. Reading can take your mind away to somewhere else, rather than ruminating over depressive thoughts or having anxious future-oriented thoughts. It doesn't matter what you read as long as you enjoy it (fiction, biographies, newspaper, comics, tabloid magazines.)
6. Get outside. Research has shown that being connected to nature is directly related to happiness (take a look at this brief article for more information). Try getting outside, even if it's only for 5 minutes. Go for a walk, do some gardening, or simply sit outside and listen to the birds.
7. Exercise. Take some time to take care of your physical health by exercising. It's no secret that exercising is not only helpful for the body but also for the mind. Doing some exercise triggers the release of hormones that make us feel happy, helps us sleep, helps us to cope with anxiety and depression, and overall can improve our mood. Of course, you should always check with your doctor prior to starting any new exercise regime.
8. Get creative. Try getting back into an old hobby that got your creative juices flowing. Maybe it's sewing, painting, creating mixed CD's. Anything!
9. Tidy up your space. I'm not talking about being Martha Stewart organized. What I mean is to do something to your space that makes you feel good and not overwhelmed. Maybe it's finally taking the trash out, or maybe it is organizing the pile of clothes beside your bed. Just do something that feels satisfying and makes you feel happy to be in your space.
10. Write down some encouraging statements.Think about what you need to hear today. Do you need to hear "You're awesome!", "Keep going" or "Get your butt out of bed and finish that assignment"? Whatever it is that you need to hear, say it to yourself. Write it out and re-read it as you need.
11. Talk with people who are supportive. This doesn’t mean you have to tell them about what you are thinking or feeling or how you may be struggling. Instead, it might be about talking about something totally unrelated that is most helpful (like that great new band you just heard on the radio.) If you have a tendency to isolate yourself when you're not well, try to do the opposite and reach out and connect with others.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, or really much of a list at all. Take some time to think about it, and I strongly encourage you to begin making yourself your own “Self-Care” list. Think about your personality and your needs and what is most useful to you when you are unwell.
If you, or someone you know is struggling with a sense of being overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or depressed, and using self-care just doesn’t seem to be enough, feel free to reach out and book an appointment with me. If you’re outside of the Ottawa area, check out listings on Psychology Today or Theravive for a therapist near you.
Courtney Smyth is a Registered Psychotherapist and Certified Canadian Counsellor in private practice in Ottawa, Ontario. Courtney takes a very client-centred approach to counselling and works collaboratively with clients to move towards their goals for therapy. If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to contact her to book an appointment.