Self-care is a buzzword that has been around for a while, and as a result, many of us may have an idea in our minds about what it means. For some, it sounds like a really girly, pampering, bubble-baths and face masks type of thing, but while self-care can include those things, it also encompasses a lot more than that too. Most of us do some self-care actions every day without even realising that’s what we are doing, because its just part of our daily routine. However, those are the things that can become hard to maintain when we are struggling with our mental health, or that can impact our mental health if we stop doing them, and that’s why self-care is so important. Everybody needs to engage in self-care to keep ourselves healthy, both mentally and physically.
Self-care is empowering. An act of self-care is something we can take control of. It’s accessible – everyone can do some kind of self-care.
When undertaking self-care, especially if you haven’t done any for a while, it’s important to not overload yourself – take time to figure out what works for you and go at your own pace. Try one or two things at first and try to have them as established habits before you move on to something else. Habit stacking can help when introducing new acts of self-care – this is where you add something new onto an already established habit. For example, if you want to start making your bed every morning and you’ve never done it before, but you make a cup of tea or coffee every morning, try making your bed while the water is boiling, or the coffee is brewing. Your brain will link the old habit and the new one and help make it easier for you to keep the new one going.
What is self-care?
Self-care is how you take care of yourself – your diet, exercise, daily routine, relationships, and how you are feeling. It can be hard to do self-care when our mental health is bad – we can feel like we don’t deserve it, like we are unable to do it, or that it is selfish or indulgent. It can also be hard to do when we are feeling good because we can feel like we don’t need it. However, self-care is essential – a vital act of self-kindness – allowing us to take care of ourselves. Instead of using it relative to how we are feeling, we should view it as the fuel to keep up going.
Self-care includes essential acts of care, but it also includes things that nourish, comfort, calm and make us feel good. Self-care can vary from person to person, and it’s important to find out what it looks like for you. Sometimes self-care acts aren’t things we enjoy doing – this is known as boring self-care and can include things like taking medication or paying a bill. It doesn’t really matter what self-care is, what matters is how it makes us feel. Doing the action itself (like making a phone call) might not feel good in the moment while we are doing it (for example making a phone call to make an appointment), but maybe we feel better after it’s done, or maybe the action itself did help you to feel better (for example if the phone call was to a friend).
Self-care doesn’t need to cost a lot (or any) money. It can be hard sometimes to keep all of our acts of self-care going. It’s important to remember that trying, or doing a bit of something, still counts – we aren’t striving for perfection. When we engage in self-care, it signals to ourselves and others what our standards our for ourselves.
Why is self-care important?
Self-care is important because a lot of the acts are aimed at keeping ourselves either mentally or physically healthy, or both. It can help us to learn when we are becoming unwell (either because we feel unwell despite doing our self-care, or because we notice our self-care is getting harder), and it can help us to identify any triggers for becoming unwell. Some acts of self-care can have direct impacts on our health. For example, exercise triggers endorphins which help us to feel happier; nutrition and hydration help nourish us physically and mentally, and comforting acts can help us rest and destress. Self-care can help to reduce burnout, and increase resilience, too. Some acts of self-care can directly impact our mental health by boosting our self-esteem and sense of worth. Even really small tasks can make us feel like we are making progress and achieving something (have you ever noticed how much better you sometimes feel after taking a shower, or even brushing your teeth?) – because we are achieving something.
Mental illness can make us believe that we don’t matter, and self-care counters that because it involves taking time to do something just for our own good. This shows us that we are worthy of attention and care (which everyone is).
Examples of self-care:Physical self-care
Cleaning/ tidying/ decluttering:
We often feel better in a clear and clean space. Our environment can have a direct impact on how we feel. Facing into a cluttered space can feel overwhelming initially, so targeting small areas, or small amounts of time to work on this can help reduce feelings of overwhelm. Building habits around putting things away as we finish using them can also help – it can stop things building up. Similarly, setting some time aside to delete or unsubscribe from emails that don’t serve you anymore can be helpful. Consider decluttering your computer files as well. If you are really struggling with keeping your space clean, things like wipes can help make things feel easier.
It can feel like a waste of time and energy if we are staying at home for the day, but putting on clean, fresh clothes can help us feel more human. That said, it is perfectly ok to have a pyjama day sometimes too!
This can help us to build a morning or evening routine and can help us to feel better not just physically, but mentally too – it can feel like you’re washing the day off, or help you to wake up, and the temperature of the shower can help to regulate our bodies. If you’re really struggling, using things like wet wipes, dry shampoo, and mouthwash/ chewing gum is better than nothing, and still worth doing.
If you take any medications, its important to keep taking them, at the time that you are meant to take them. Skipping doses can be dangerous for many medications, and while you might not feel that a particular medication is helping you, stopping suddenly or without medical guidance can actually make you feel worse. Setting alarms or sorting the pills into pillboxes with the days/ times marked on them can help you to keep on top of this if you need help with that.
Open blinds/ windows:
Letting light and/ or air in can help things feel cleaner and easier, and it can make a difference to how we feel even if we aren’t able to leave the house.
Allowing our boundaries to be breached can cause interpersonal difficulties, and resentment, among other negative feelings. Setting and maintaining personal boundaries can be hard, but it can protect our personal and psychological space. This can be tough if we struggle with things such as low self-esteem, and that’s ok. Remember – you are the most important person in your life, and you can’t pour from an empty cup, so your needs must take priority. Learn your limits and stick to them as much as possible.
This is related to boundary setting, and it can be really tough, because we don’t want to disappoint or worry other people, and sometimes we don’t value ourselves or our time enough. This is part of setting and maintaining boundaries – if you say yes too much, you could end up with too much on your plate and risk burning out. It can feel like you are letting other people down if you say no, but really, if you are saying yes too much, it might be that you end up letting them down anyway if you can’t fulfil what you said yes to.
Quiet/ alone time:
If we spend too much time ‘switched on’ (even if we identify as being more extroverted), we can end up feeling overtired, and sometimes we can end up overstimulated and hypersensitive to noise, etc. As a result, we need to take quiet, solitary downtime to recharge. Taking time to involve ourselves in things that we enjoy such as our hobbies can also help with this. Sometimes the kind of alone time we need is to allow ourselves to escape from the world for a while, and that’s ok.
There are two sets of expectations – those that others set for us, and those that we set for ourselves. Both can feel hard to meet at times, but it is often the case that the expectations we set ourselves can be unrealistically high. As a result, when we inevitably don’t meet those expectations, we can be hard on ourselves, particularly if we have perfectionistic tendencies. Try setting two expectations – one which you know that you can meet; and a ‘stretch goal’ – one that you can try to meet, but for which it will be ok if you don’t. While in certain circumstances it might be necessary to work to expectations of others (such as meeting college deadlines, or certain standards in our jobs), sometimes we can lose sight of who we are in trying to meet the expectations (real or perceived) of others. It’s also important to make sure we maintain balance. While college and grades are important, they are not more important than your health and wellbeing.
Some people don’t love routine; other people really thrive on them. What routine does is enable our bodies to learn what to do and when, so that if we are struggling, we can switch into autopilot, and our bodies will pretty much know what to do next. Routine can also help with developing better self-care if it’s something you’re new to. We tend to stick to a new habit better if we add it to an old one that’s already a solid part of our day. For example, if you drink tea or coffee every morning, why not take any medication while the water is heating up? Or if you shower every evening, while not clear up your bedroom as you’re getting dressed afterwards? Some other elements of routine are vital to our mental and physical health such as eating regularly and having a good sleep routine. If we are really struggling with our mental health, our memory can get a bit foggy, so it might help to write the steps of a routine down, so you don’t even need to try to remember them.
At times we will feel different emotions, from stress to anger to worry and beyond. It might be that for various reasons we can’t express that emotion in our regular life, or to the cause of the emotion. But it is healthier for us in the long term is we can find a way to release built-up emotions (even positive ones too!). There are different ways to do this that work for different people – from journaling to running and lots more in between. Its important to experiment with different healthy ways of doing this to find one that works for you.
It can help us to identify times when we know we might find things harder – such as around exam time, or in the summer when our routine changes because classes are finished. Building consistent self-care habits can be protective against this but being aware of when it might become more difficult can help us to take steps to keep on track. For example, if you know that your workload is going to build up just before Christmas, then schedule a non-negotiable piece of time in each day for self-care. Similarly, if we can learn to recognise the early signs of when we are starting to not do so well (such as not sleeping as well, or noticing we can’t concentrate like usual), we can double down on our self-care to help mitigate the issue (of a drop in self-care can be a warning sign in and of itself). Create plans in advance for this so you don’t have to think about them.
This can be hard when we have brain fog or are stressed or tired and our focus is off. And the deadlines for some life admin can make it feel stressful. Doing a small bit at a time can help things to feel more manageable. Setting aside specific time in your calendar, such as setting a time each week to check if there’s any banking to be done. Doing some things as soon as it becomes needed, such as when the light comes on to let you know that your car needs fuel, or when you spend the last credit on your travel card (if you can afford it in that moment), can also help. If you are struggling, there are supports for many different things that might be able to help.
It can be hard to show up for things when we are feeling low, or when we have a lot of other things on. But attending appointments might help to make you feel better if they are providing help or support. It can feel sometimes like maybe you aren’t ‘bad enough’ to need the appointment, or like you are taking that spot from someone else, but that is not true, you are just as deserving of help as anyone else, even if it doesn’t feel true in the moment.
Sometimes it can feel like there is too much to do to ever get it done. Setting aside specific times to do certain things, such as deciding to do laundry every Saturday, and writing to-do lists where things are broken down into what feel like achievable tasks can help. It can feel like a small action, but step by step, things get taken care of.
Mental health maintenance:
As well as general self-care, taking specific actions if you struggle with your mental health can help. These can include staying on top of your medication, having check-ups with your mental health professional or GP, and attending therapy even when things don’t feel terrible. Telling others what helps you to stay in a good headspace (and what doesn’t help), keeping a mood diary, and learning any triggers that you have can also help here.
When we struggle with our mental health, or even if life gets busy, or social lives are often the first thing to suffer. We can struggle to find the time, desire, or energy to interact with other people. We also might find that since the pandemic, our ability to socialise is reduced – we might get tired more easily or find it harder to make small talk. That’s ok. There are different ways to maintain social contact with people – through the online options we used during lockdown, by messaging apps, or phone calls (using video or not as you feel comfortable to), or doing things together but alone if you’re really not feeling up to engaging – this is where you and a friend agree to do the same thing at the same time, like watch a tv show, or play a game online together. If you really feel like you can’t engage, just being where other people are can help – going for a walk in a park, or shopping centre, even if you don’t interact with anyone. Allow those who care about you to support you when you need it – some people even have an accountability buddy for self-care, and they check in on each other to make sure they’re taking care of themselves. Other people can help us to feel valued even when we can’t value ourselves.
Join a group:
Finding people similar to you can help to reduce loneliness and feelings of isolation. It can also provide a way to be social in a way that feels comfortable to you.
This can be a non-expensive and fun way to engage in mindfulness and self-care. Examples can include writing, knitting, gardening, crafts, make-up, singing, coding, and many more.
Sometimes we can get stuck in a cycle of feeling we need to be productive and achieve things in order to be deserving of rewards. But it’s important to celebrate the smaller wins, and it’s also ok to treat yourself occasionally ‘just because’. This doesn’t need to be extravagant – it can be allowing yourself time to do something that you haven’t been allowing yourself to do but that you really like, such as browsing the shops without looking for something in particular or having something nice to eat after your dinner.
There is a developing body of research called ecotherapy that is finding increasing evidence that nature can have a positive impact on our mental health. It can feel hard to get out into nature sometimes, because of how we’re feeling, the weather, or maybe we are in a very urban setting that doesn’t have a lot of nature around. Making sure you get some natural daylight (and opening the window when you can), having houseplants, or even pictures of nature in your space can still help. Spending time with animals can also help.