It can be easy to assume self-care is just bath bombs and spa days, but as lovely as they may be, they’re just a small part of a much bigger picture.
Let’s start with a couple of definitions for self-care from Google Dictionary:
- “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health”
- “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress”
Self-care doesn’t require self-love, or even a lot of self-like. Part of being human is needing to take care of ourselves, or, if we’re unable, have someone else take care of. When we’re kids, we needed adults to take care of us until we learn to do it ourselves. As adults, we don’t stop needing to take care of ourselves, but that doesn’t stop it from getting pushed down to the bottom of the priority list. All the popular fluffy connotations probably don’t help with that.
The World Health Organization has defined self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” This includes fundamentals like hygiene, nutrition, living conditions, social connections, and lifestyle.
Basic self-care to maintain health can include:
- nutritious food
- clean water and adequate hydration
- physical activity
- avoiding harmful substances
- hygiene (e.g. handwashing)
- being informed about your health
- getting adequate sleep
- taking medications or other treatments as appropriate
No bath bombs there, but it’s super-important for your health.
The International Self-Care Foundation has come up with this fancy little diagram to illustrate health-related self-care.
This can include attending to your thoughts and emotions, stress and relaxation, and spiritual wellbeing, as well as nurturing important relationships.
Different forms of therapy have lots of different tools to help you keep your head healthy; my previous post on therapy tools has some ideas.
Mindfulness matters for self-care. Half-watching Netflix while scrolling social media, worrying about something you have to do tomorrow, ruminating on how you screwed something up yesterday, and mindlessly popping Cheetos into your mouth isn’t very mindful, but if you curl up with a furry friend, put on something to watch that’s likely to evoke emotions you need some more of, and savouring every bite of a yummy snack, that’s probably going to be a much more restorative experience. And on a side note, you people in non-Canadian countries that don’t have access to Hawkins Cheezies are seriously missing out.
Relaxation may seem low-priority in the grand scheme of things, but it’s really important to get the stress flowing out, not just in. Some ideas of relaxation strategies:
- restorative yoga
- massage (a favourite of mine)
- progressive muscle relaxation: Anxiety Canada has tips on this; I like a variation involving tensing the muscles of the entire body starting from the toes and moving all the way up to scrunching up the face, then releasing tension from the head back down to the toes
- deep breathing
- listening to music
- doing artwork or other creative activities
- reading a good book
- watching with intention things that make you laugh or inspire you
Self-care isn’t all about feeling good. Sometimes it’s making changes to make your life more manageable moving forward. Saying no can be a powerful self-care strategy to limit what you take on. Same with being assertive about your needs. Boundaries may not be high in short-term feel-good value, but in the medium- to longer-term, it can cut down your stress significantly.
Setting boundaries with yourself around social media use can be a great way to cut down on unnecessary stress. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but things don’t have to be comfortable to be self-care. And if you feel like you don’t have time for self-care, taking a social media break just might create that time.
News consumption is also a good thing to have boundaries around. Our world is a fucked up place, but setting boundaries around seeking out news can limit the exposure.
Boundaries can also be applied to the clutter that you allow into your life, whether that be physical or mental. If clutter is stressing you out, decluttering may feel more like work than self-core in the short term, but in the longer term, it’s absolutely self-care.
Adaptive vs. maladaptive coping
In the stress bucket model, self-care in the form of healthy coping strategies releases stress from the bucket. Maladaptive coping strategies, on the other hand, seem to release stress, but only end up siphoning it back up to the top of the bucket to create more stress. They create a bit of short-term ease, but it will come back to bite you in the butt.
The School of Social Work at the University of Buffalo has a list of positive and negative coping behaviours. The Working Mind also has a stress coping self-assessment to help you figure out if the strategies you’re using are indicative of psychological health, reacting, injury, or illness.
Self-care can involve indulgences and pampering, but that’s not necessary. Indulgences may even be maladaptive coping strategies in disguise. If a spa day is going to break the bank, that’s probably going to create ongoing stress that outweighs the temporary benefit of the spa time. Indulging in some amazing cheesecake can be fabulous if you enjoy it and then move on, but it can become maladaptive if it’s going to be followed by significant guilt or unhealthy compensatory strategies.
Self-care is not selfish
A common concern/criticism is that self-care is selfish. In fact, western society seems to have a hate-on for doing anything to meet your own needs rather than doing what other people expect of you. But when you’re flying, in the safety demo you’re always told to put on your own mask first before trying to help others. If you’re passed out from lack of oxygen, not only can you not help others, but others have to step in to help you. If you have a car and you don’t do maintenance work or even just put gas in it, it’s not going to be your friend for very long.
Self-care enables you to function at your best. If your best is already pretty impaired by something like mental illness, self-care becomes even more important. Neglecting self-care isn’t a no-consequences non-action; it can make your situation worse, and decrease your ability to meet the obligations you have to other people and the various roles you fulfill in the world.
If we consider mental illness cutlery, self-care can help to build up your spoon supply so you have more resources available to do other things. It can also help to minimize the fork cost of external stressors.
If self-care seems hard to add in, boundaries around news and social media might free up some extra time. You can try making a list of things to do so it’s not vague and airy-fairy and it’s easier to be intentional rather than default to the Netflix/scrolling/worrying/ruminating/Cheetos-popping combo. Making a plan can be a reminder that self-care should be taken seriously, and it deserves to be a priority. I’ve created a self-care ideas worksheet here.
These days, I’m pretty low-functioning overall, so I keep life pretty basic, which is good for me. I don’t like people, much less care what they think I should be doing, so I do what works for me and the guinea pigs, and self-care is pretty high on the priority list.
How do you fit self-care into your life, and where does it fit on your priority list?
- My Maintenance Self-Care Plan Worksheet from the University of Buffalo
- Relaxation Skills for Anxiety from the University of Michigan
- Self-Care Starter Kit from the University of Buffalo School of Social Work
- This TED Talks playlist includes talks emphasizing the importance of self-care.
- You Really Need to Relax: Effective Methods
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.