Important, not self-indulgent
Work demands, family responsibilities, bills to pay, cramped quarters and pandemic concerns: It’s hard to find time, space or motivation to take good care of yourself. Even so, self-care is essential, now more than ever.
But which self-care habits are worth your too-fragmented time? And what does self-care actually mean?
First, it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept. “One challenge with self-care is that it means different things to different people,” says Dr. Erica Wollerman, a clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive Therapy Studio in San Diego. “To engage in self-care you really have to know what you need in a very human way — like what fills your cup up.”
Experts agree on certain broad self-care categories — see which possibilities appeal most to you.
Breathing with intention is a self-care basic. “Breath or breath work is one of the most underutilized tools of medicine that we have at our disposal,” says Dr. Gregory Scott Brown, a psychiatrist, wellness advocate and founder of the Center for Green Psychiatry in Austin, Texas. “Each of us takes between 20,000 and 30,000 breaths a day, mostly without even realizing it. But when we bring attention to our breath, that can help reduce anxiety.”
Doing deep-breathing exercises can increase alpha brain waves. A rise in alpha waves indicates a state of heightened awareness combined with mental and physical relaxation. Meditation induces deep breathing whether you get there through tai chi, qi gong, yoga or a guided meditation app on your smartphone.
“Adaptable and healthy ways of recharging both our body and our mind: That’s probably self-care in a nutshell,” Brown says. “Recently, self-care has kind of taken on this watered-down meaning. It’s kind of like telling someone to relax.”
But it’s much more than a buzzword, he adds: “There’s so much evidence dating back really thousands of years supporting self-care strategies like breath work, nutrition, movement, spirituality. These are all things that can really support both physical health and also emotional and mental well-being.”
Walking, running, dancing, whatever — physical movement is a form of self-care. “It’s not just about exercise, but also going outside for a gentle walk to the mailbox or doing some yoga in a chair at home,” Brown says. “We know that moving our body can help with mental health as well.”
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is a natural growth hormone involved in learning and memory. “Unique to exercise, we’ve learned that it can help with BDNF,” Brown says. “It’s one of the ways that the brain can actually protect itself from emotional stress.”
You don’t have to do self-care by yourself. For many people, self-care means connecting with others. Going out for an evening with friends can provide much-needed grownup time for mothers of young kids to recharge, for instance.
“Put that time in, if you can, and it’s really going to make your life richer and more meaningful,” says Dr. Avanti Bergquist, a child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist at the Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center in Bellevue, Washington. “And then you’re going to be such a better mom, or a better parent, because you’re not constantly doing things for other people and never taking care of yourself.”
When you’re busy and stressed, solitude can be solacing. Finding a place to be alone, whether that’s inside a quiet room or on a park bench, will help you reset your mind and gather your thoughts to face the rest of your day.
And no, self-care isn’t selfish. It’s a common misconception that focusing on your own needs is self-indulgent, Wollerman says. “We have an interesting relationship with people needing things and expressing those needs,” she says. “It’s very uncomfortable because most of us have been taught not to do that and to ignore needs in favor of work, or other people or whatever it might be.”
It’s OK not to always be stoic or continuously plowing full-speed ahead.
‘Chicken soup for the soul’ can actually mean eating, well, chicken soup. The importance of good nutrition for emotional health is becoming increasingly apparent.
“Nutritional psychiatry is an emerging field,” Brown says. “So focusing on things like getting enough omega-3s in our diet from tuna, salmon, certain types of nuts like walnuts — focusing on eating anti-inflammatory foods.“
Looking for a two-for-one benefit? “One of the ways vitamin D is converted to its active form is through sunlight,” Brown says. “If you’re spending time outside moving your body, then you’re also getting some exposure to sunlight. That can help with vitamin D levels.”
Nourish yourself with nature. “For a lot of people, spending time in nature can be self-care and almost a spiritual practice,” Wollerman says.
Connecting with nature could mean anything from taking a Grand Canyon vacation to strolling through nearby woods. Gardening or caring for houseplants lets you commune with nature at your own convenience without having to leave home.
Remember, you don’t have to “earn” self-care points.
“A lot of people are under this idea that self-care is more of a reward: So, if we work really, really hard, then self-care is like going for that massage at the end of a really difficult week,” Brown says. “Or burning yourself out for six months and then finally taking that vacation. So I spend a lot of time telling my patients that self-care really is the little things that we can do every day.”
Lack of sleep makes everything worse: You become more irritable, distractible, cranky and error-prone. Getting a good night’s sleep definitely falls under self-care.
Try these tactics to improve your sleep:
— Use your bedroom only for sleep (not Zoom meetings).
— Find a comfortable mattress.
— Maintain consistent sleep-wake patterns.
— Avoid stimulants like caffeine later in the day.
— Consider a weighted blanket.
— Unwind with a warm bath or soothing music before bed.
— See a sleep specialist if problems persist.
Better sleep will help you and others around you. “I know if I get more sleep I’m just a nicer person to my kids and co-workers,” Bergquist says.
Taking your mind off your troubles isn’t trivial. “Healthy kinds of distractions can be self-care — shows, books or maybe video games for some people,” Wollerman says.
When daily news is stress-inducing, it’s OK to change the channel to explore a new drama series or enjoy a much-loved sitcom. You don’t necessarily have to binge-watch — a single, engrossing episode could help you feel better.
“Self-care is really important because we live in such — especially in the past year and a half — an unsustainable world in so many ways,” Wollerman says. “We’re inundated with so much information. There are so many bids for our time and our attention. And then work seems to follow us everywhere, parenting is so much more intense. Things are so much more challenging.”
Creativity and fun
Writing, baking, cooking, music, carpentry, art — creative outlets can be both fulfilling and stress-relieving. Or just find ways to have fun. Sharing a laugh with colleagues, playing silly games with partners or kids can actually constitute serious self-care.
“Finding somewhere to have fun and joy in your life is really important,” Wollerman says. To find your personal self-care practices, she suggests, “Think about the things that really leave you feeling energized.”
Curling up with a good book is a self-care classic. It’s one way to put guilt-inducing, internal messages on mute. Bergquist often reminds patients in emotional distress to take time out for pleasures like reading.
“If reading helps it’s a great thing to do, instead of constantly being on yourself about all the things that you should be doing,” Bergquist says. “There are so many ‘shoulds’ I hear all the time from people I work with. Well, who’s telling you what you should be doing? Who defines that for you? And it’s usually nobody — just their anxious brains telling them: You need to be doing all these things to be a good person.”
Take stock of what’s really important to you and what you really do need to be doing, Bergquist recommends. “And sometimes it’s taking time to read a book or take a walk around the block.”
Slipping away and sipping a warm beverage like coffee, herbal tea or hot chocolate is undeniably comforting. Even taking a water break — preferably away from your workspace — can provide an oasis of calm.
Somehow, the busiest people can usually find enough time for self-care with a cup of Joe. “If you have just five minutes in the morning — before the rest of your family wakes up — and you have your coffee, so many people say it’s just this beautiful time of their day,” Bergquist says.
Yes, taking a spa day or getting your nails done can really be a form of self-care. After all, you can’t churn out emails while getting a manicure, and it’s harder to multitask from a hot tub. Of course, you can choose your own type of pampering, or turn to more active forms of self-care like strenuous exercise if that puts your head in a better place.
“Self-care really is what’s going to be beneficial for you,” Bergquist says. “It’s not like a standardized prescription that I can write for everybody.” What’s important is not feeling guilty about taking steps to improve your life and environment, she adds.
Sometimes you may need a little help to jump-start your self-care practice. Talking to a therapist can allow you to not only find techniques that work for you, but also truly accept that it’s OK to take care of yourself.
“Seeing a therapist is great self-care, and I always want to recommend that to anybody,” Bergquist says. “You don’t have to be sick, you don’t have to have lots of problems. We can all use that time to talk. We can all use the ability to learn new skills, to help our lives be better, to have a richer life.”
Extend yourself the same grace that you do to those around you. “Self-compassion doesn’t always make the list, but it’s one of the most important things people can do for self-care,” Wollerman says. “It’s learning to treat yourself the way you would treat another person, like maybe your child.”
Imagine if a loved one comes home after having a rough day. “You’re not often going to shout at them: Of course you’ve had a bad day — you did X, Y and Z wrong,” Wollerman says. “You would be kind to them.” Show yourself the same kindness, she suggests.
Self-care is a survival and mental-health tool. Experts recommend these self-care essentials:
— Coffee breaks.
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Update 04/11/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.