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Several years ago I was the unfortunate recipient of multiple kidney stones over the course of two years. When you hear someone say that a kidney stone is more painful than childbirth, they aren’t exaggerating. It was one of the most excruciating pains I have ever experienced.
It wasn’t my fault, so I didn’t blame myself. If I was in pain, I cancelled plans or called into work and never thought twice about it. When the aches began to intensify, I took prescribed medication, rested, and tried to take care of myself. And I made some life changes as well, all in an effort to heal my body. I took care of myself through it all, without feeling guilty or ashamed.
I was struggling with something I couldn’t help, something chronic, and something that impacted many areas of my life.Aren’t our mental health struggles similar?
We don’t ask for an addiction, or do something to cause BipolarDisorder. We don’t wake up one day and decide to have a personality disorder. Sometimes these issues are genetics, or responses to trauma, sometimes they are situational, and sometimes there is no reason.
Yet we blame ourselves for our depression. We feel guilty if we cancel plans because of anxiety. We often don’t make taking our medications a priority. We hide our struggles, sometimes overcome with guilt and shame, and we agonize over asking for help. When we are in the throes of a mental health struggle, we often don’t carve out time to rest, take care of ourselves, give ourselves space to heal.
We owe it to ourselves to take care of our minds as much as our bodies, particularly when something is challenging. We owe it to ourselves to establish a solid self-care routine.
Picture sitting in an airplane. As the plane is taxiing on the runway, the flight attendant stands in the aisle and goes over safety precautions and instructions. The people on the flight are told that if the oxygen masks drop down, you have to put yours on first before you can help others. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help.
That’s what self-care is: you are putting on your oxygen mask so you can breathe.
Self-care is a term used often in therapy. Ask any one of my clients and they will tell you I end the session by asking how they can take care of themselves in the coming week. But what exactly does self-care look like?
The truth is, self-care is subjective. We are all unique individuals, with our perspectives, experiences, and ways of life. How one takes care of themselves truly depends on the person implementing it. It can be something big or significant, or something small and simple. These are some helpful parameters to determine what self-care actually means:
• Does not harm self or others
• Is not an obligation or a chore
• Does not cause additional stress (financial, relationship, etc.)
• Is relaxing and brings peace, comfort, or joy
• Is something realistic and doable
Daily activities of living should be prioritized every day. These are the expected tasks we complete to take care of ourselves in a physical sense. Bathing, brushing teeth, and combing our hair are all things that help us to maintain our bodies. Taking our medications and eating properly are also things that we should be doing without question.
It can be challenging to do even the simplest tasks when not feeling motivated, so if you need to, set small goals to help you achieve those. An example may be aiming for brushing your teeth and taking a shower by noon on any given day, and if that’s all you accomplish it’s okay to be proud of yourself for doing that. That counts as self-care!
But there are so many additional ways to implement realistic self-care to help you feel good about yourself.
Going to the spa, having a massage or a pedicure, or going on a week-long vacation to the beach are all fantastic ways to care for yourself, if you’ve got the time and money. But self-care doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to require weeks of planning, or time off work. And it doesn’t have to be time-consuming either.
Self-care can be whatever it needs to be in our daily lives. What really matters is DOING it and doing it consistently.
So what are some simple ways to practice self-care? Here are some practical ideas:
• Go for a walk around the block, or the building at work
• Call or message an old friend
• Take a 30-minute nap
• Eat something yummy
• Watch silly videos on YouTube that make you smile or laugh
• Play or cuddle with your pet
• Read a couple chapters of an interesting book
• Journal or write, whatever comes to mind
• Do some stretches or yoga poses for 10-15 minutes
• Draw or sketch on a scratch piece of paper
• Go to the park or lunch with a friend
• Throw on some good music and dance
• Do something creative like art or a craft
• Play a game on your phone or computer
The important thing to remember is to be mindful of what you are doing. You are accomplishing self-care and it can be helpful to remind yourself of that. Ideally, self-care is non-negotiable, something you do each day no matter what the circumstances. Taking time for you needs to be a priority, so if you have to, pencil it into your schedule.
Much like we would be gentle and kind to ourselves if we were facing a physical ailment, mental health struggles require the same tenderness and care. Self-love through self-care is a beautiful thing and can make a huge difference in how you feel about yourself. And remember, you deserve and are worth putting on your oxygen mask!
Written by: Maya Braden, LPC