Does anyone else feel like they’ve been hearing the term “self-care” thrown around a lot lately? Up until pretty recently, it was one of those things that I knew I should be doing, but I had no idea where to start. Kind of like “budgeting” or “saving for retirement” (it’s possible I’m not great with money). I think a lot of people (myself included), avoid self-care because it’s too expensive, or too time-consuming, or too selfish. After my experiences this last year, it became pretty clear that self-care needed to take a front seat to everything else while I tried to get my life back on track.
Whether you struggle with mental illness or not, self-care is hugely important to living a happy, healthy life. It doesn’t have to be something big or extravagant or complicated. It’s just about getting to know your body and taking care of it on a daily basis. And if you’re worried about being selfish, remember: you can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.
My first few attempts at establishing a daily self-care routine were unsuccessful, to say the least. I have this problem where I tend to go all or nothing. I would come up with about two dozen things I wanted to do in the three and a half hours between getting home and going to bed. Then I would get so overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I wanted to do that I wouldn’t know where to start and I would end up just sitting on the couch until it was time to go to bed. Not super helpful in the self-care department.
Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, and I certainly didn’t invent this approach. This is just the method that helped me figure out self-care, and I hope it can help you too.
- Establish a baseline, a.k.a. stop putting poison in your body. If you smoke, quit. Stop drinking alcohol, at least for a little while. This one may hurt, but cut out caffeine. Unless it’s prescribed by a doctor, cut out all the addictive stuff. Even if you only cut out alcohol and caffeine for a couple of weeks, it will help you establish a baseline for what “normal” feels like. I used to drink two or three cups of coffee a day. After cutting it out for a month, I learned that if I have even one cup of caffeinated tea, my anxiety goes through the roof and I get a migraine. I learned that if I have more than two alcoholic drinks in a sitting, my anxiety and depression are completely overwhelming the next day. You might be surprised what you’ll learn about yourself.
- Make a self-care list. Write down everything you do (or could do) on a daily basis to care for your physical, mental, and emotional health. Start with the really easy stuff, like brushing your teeth, and go from there. Here’s my list to get you started:
I added giving myself a five-minute foot massage to my list after reading this post about foot massages, and I love it! If you’re having trouble coming up with things, go through your day from beginning to end. What makes you feel better, physically or mentally?
- Figure out your priorities and make it manageable. This was the step that made a huge difference for me. Take your list and break it into three smaller lists: need, want, and bonus. The needs are things that are absolutely non-negotiable. The wants are things that you would really, really like to do, but you won’t be completely derailed if they don’t get done. The bonuses are things that you know will help you, but aren’t a priority. Here’s my breakdown:
- Don’t be afraid of trial and error. It took me some time to figure out my three lists. Originally exercise was a need and eight hours of sleep was a want. Then I started to notice that on days when I sacrificed my sleep to get a workout in, I almost always had a bad mental health day. I flipped them, and it was a world of difference. I don’t feel as good when I don’t work out, but I don’t have the massive meltdowns I have when I miss my sleep. If you’re anything like me and you’ve spent years mistreating your body and mind, you might have no idea where to start, and that’s okay. Listen to your body, pay attention to what makes a difference, and make changes accordingly.
- Make your needs non-negotiable. No more binging Downton Abbey until one in the morning because it’ll be okay just this once. No more slipping up and forgetting to take your meds. No more working through lunch and figuring that two meals will be fine. Make your needs, and your health, your first priority.
- Use your energy wisely. If you finish all yours needs and you still have time and energy to start working on your wants, try to pick things in order of what will take the least effort and help you the most. I know my morning will be infinitely easier if I take the five minutes to pack my lunch, so that’s usually the first thing I do when I still have the energy. Mindfulness is pretty easy too. If you’re new to mindfulness, I highly recommend the app “Headspace.” A soothing voice walks you through ten minutes of mindfulness, and you won’t believe how quickly you’re able to relax into the practice. (I’m not sponsored by them or anything, I just really like the app.)
- Be ambitious, but don’t overwhelm yourself. My bonus column is pretty short because honestly, it’s pretty rare that I get to it. If you find yourself getting through all three lists and you still have time and energy, add more things! Even if it’s just an extra half hour of TV or reading, add it to the list. That being said, if you find yourself barely getting through the needs, don’t beat yourself up. You’re on the road to self-care, and that’s the important thing.
Breaking it into these steps has made a huge difference for me, and I hope it can help you too. I’m still pretty new to the self-care game, and it’s not always easy. Some days I can get everything from every list done and still feel great. Some days it’s a struggle to get all of my “needs” done before collapsing into bed. I think (and hope) it’s one of those things that will get easier with time. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Comment and let me know how it’s going for you!