What is self-care?
Do you care about self-care?
Should you care more about self-care?
The World Health Organization’s latest definition of self-care” is:
Self-Care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication. (1998 )
Self-care can be physical in nature, going to the dentist on time, taking our prescriptions, brushing our teeth, exercising regularly or even going for our annual physical.
But it can and should really also include strategies aimed at improving and sustaining our emotional mental health as well — we can do this in many ways — through active self-awareness, mindfulness, performing stress reducing activities like meditating or other engaging and therapeutic activities, learning how to manage our emotions and feelings, going to therapy or using self-help books or online tools.
That is a mouthful to say, let alone to do, and of course, no one is perfect — no one has a handle on everything in their emotional life — and sometimes, for many people, the expectations from others and even from ourselves to be emotionally healthy all the time, can be overwhelming.
But really… maybe it’s not about being perfect right now? Maybe it’s just about trying?
Maybe it’s really more about realizing that something important and human — something deep inside ourselves actually grows from making the effort to care for ourselves and by authentically caring for others? If we really try to be mentally healthy we are also then pointed in the direction of learning and growing and improving in so many other ways.
Another perspective is to see that we can maintain our mental health much akin to sharpening a saw as Stephen Covey put it in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Suppose you came upon someone in the woods working to saw down a tree. They are exhausted from working for hours. You suggest they take a break to sharpen the saw. They might reply, ” I didn’t have time to sharpen the saw, I’m busy sawing!”
Habit 7 is taking the time to sharpen the saw. By renewing the four dimensions of your nature – physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional, you can work more quickly and effortlessly. To do this, we must be proactive.
So from the Covey perspective, sharpening our saw is necessary to be able to perform well and to “feel good”.
How do we start “sharpening our saw”?
Here are Seven Ways to get started…
Getting sleep is crucial to our mental healthiness. How do we feel in the morning after staying up most of the night? Often we can feel emotional or sad and maybe even a wee bit unhinged or as my mom used to say “frazzled”? Cranky, bitchy, wobbly? A low tolerance for frustration or for “stupid” people with stupid questions? Oh my!
Without a doubt a lack of good sleep can affect us emotionally and cognitively or in other words, how we feel and how well we can think. In fact not getting enough and “proper” sleep may increase the risk for developing particular mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression.
“Patients with persistent and untreated insomnia are at between 2 and 10 times the risk for new onset or recurrent episodes of major depression. There is also good evidence that insomnia is a risk factor for the development and/or recurrence of anxiety disorders and substance abuse”. (National Sleep Foundation)
Here’s a really cute and helpful Youtube video that can help you improve your sleep.
(or why does green tea tastes like fresh cut hay?)
Eating healthy and in moderation is crucially important. There are millions of diets in the popular media — but it’s not about a short term solution like most of them — it’s about picking a diet that’s balanced, moderate and healthy. One that is about long term health. Not the fad diet “flavor of the day”, but about eating well, based on good reasonable guidelines like these in this link from the American Heart Association.
3. Attitude and Optimism
This is more than just thinking positively. It’s really about adjusting and tweaking our perspectives as to how we see the world — And making an effort to relate to our world and the people around us with a sense of hope, honesty, optimism and constructive thinking is really crucial to our own mental healthiness.
“Truth is, I’ll never know all there is to know about you just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour”.
Just like any habit that we can get good at — whether it’s a yo-yo, a wicked golf swing or memorization of a part in a play or a song — we get better through practice. Optimism and a positive attitude can be practiced, cultivated and grown. It’s just about starting and making an effort.
4. Kindness to Self:
This is the one where many of us “bomb”. But what does it mean to be kind to ourselves?
It’s about treating ourselves gently and fairly. Realizing that sometimes, unfortunately, we can be our own worst critic. Not listening to our own inner voice when it is overly negative or hypercritical. One way that I often suggest for my therapy clients to be kinder to themselves is to ask them to imagine:
What if your best friend was suffering and they had the same life problems that you are having right now
What would you tell them?
How would you treat them differently?
Often clients readily admit they would treat their imaginary BFF much better than they are treating themselves! Try this strategy on yourself — treat yourself like you would treat your best friend and maybe just see what happens?
Here is an excellent article by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. about some things to try to be kinder to ourselves.
5. Physical Exercise
Physical exercise helps us to effectively balance our energy and emotions and to some degree, it allows our mind-body connection to find its own homeostasis or balance. In fact, much research shows that people who engage in regular physical activity experience fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms! So perhaps exercise even has a “prophylactic” or a protective effect against the development of mental disorders (Anderson & Shivakumar, 2013).
How huge is that!
How much or when or how we exercise isn’t important. What is important, is starting and doing something. Get some movement happening! Here is a link re: how to get started in relieving stress and get moving.
6. Connection to Others
Human beings are social animals. We all have a need for connection to others on some level. Even if you are a comfortable as an introvert, a very popular concept in the media lately, you still have some need for connection to others.
According to Brene Brown, a Social Work Professor at the University of Houston who specializes in social connection”
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” We are profoundly social creatures. We may think we want money, power, fame, beauty, eternal youth or a new car, but at the root of most of these desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others, to be loved. We pride ourselves on our independence, on pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, having a successful career and above all not depending on anyone. But, as psychologists Maslow to Baumeister have repeatedly stressed, the truth of the matter is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs” (Quoted in Seppala, 2012).
So make connections! Call old friends, make plans with new ones, join community groups, find new hobbies, join book clubs or team sports, do some volunteering and maybe even try www.meetup.com a website for people with common interests to connect with each other — all great ways to begin to increase your social connections. And then really try to take an active and constructive role in all of your human relationships, new and old!
And then maybe most importantly, really try to take an active, present and constructive role in all of your human relationships, new and old!
7. Make a plan
(or it’s really hard to get somewhere new without a map)
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to make a plan to improve your self-care & mental healthiness. Start by starting small and work your way up the ladder, learning new habits along the way.
Pick what you think is the most important of the seven areas. If you sleep well but your diet sucks? Start there.
If you feel better when you exercise? Make a plan and start to exercise regularly and challenge yourself — after checking with your family doctor of course!
If you exercise regularly and eat well? Then maybe work on improving the way you see the world? Try a more optimistic lens?
Or maybe try making new friendships or nurturing old ones?
Good luck finding how to improve your mental healthiness.
And please comment with the ways you take care of yourself.
Anderson, E., & Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 27. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027Covey, S. R. (2004).
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.
Perlis M. (2004) National Sleep FoundationWinter 2004 issue of sleepmatters. (https://sleepfoundation.org/ask-the-expert/sleep-hygiene-insomnia-and-mental-health
Seppala, Emma, (2012). Connect To Thrive | Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201208/connect-thrive
WHO. The role of the pharmacists in self-care and self medication: report of the 4th WHO consultative group on the role of the pharmacist. Geneva, 1998.