Let’s have an honest talk about self-care. You know you need it, you know it’s helpful, and you even encourage your friends to do it. All the while, your self-care consists of putting the kids to bed early, then eating pizza while watching a true-crime documentary. No, there is nothing wrong with it, but the pizza-TV combo should not be your only self-care plan.
There has been a lot of talk about self-care in recent years. As researchers take a closer look at issues like burn-out among teachers, compassion fatigue among health care providers, and a decline in the mental health of the American population since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the topic of self-care has made its way to the front pages of magazines, and new companies have taken full advantage of this new billion-dollar industry. Well-intentioned coaches and so-called experts have been pushing for self-care routines that involve expensive massages and weekend trips that many people can’t afford, crating this unrealistic expectation that in order to take good care of ourselves, we need to have to burn a hole in our bank accounts.
Truth is that in order for self-care to actually work, it needs
to meet these four basic standards:
Yes, massages are great but if you can’t afford to get one every week, or if you are not comfortable with someone touching your body, it doesn’t work. This is true for many traditional forms of self-care. Instead, your self-care routine needs to be realistic for your lifestyle, preferences, and financial situation. Speaking of routine…
In order for us to really experience a decrease in stress levels and stay in the green zone, rather than running on empty most of the time, our self-care routine has to be, well, routine. The practice of self-care is a routine-based set of activities that you engage in and which are also sustainable. In other words, the activities that you choose need to be accessible to you on a regular basis and for a long time, so that you never fall get past a certain threshold of exhaustion, patience, irritability, or burnout. If you have a simple set of go-to activities that can improve your wellbeing, and engage in them regularly without depleting other resources, like money for example, then your self-care routine will be sustainable.
The idea of self-care can be difficult for many people. Taking the time to care for one’s self often makes people feel selfish for taking the time away from their responsibilities, children, spouse, or even work. So instead of actually engaging in self-care, many people just take whatever time is left over - for example, a few minutes after the kids are in bed, or an hour on a Sunday. Self-care only works when you commit to taking care of yourself. Sounds simple, but it isn't. It seems simple, but it isn’t always simple because of the stories we tell ourselves, like “I don’t have the time” or “there is always something else I need to do”. In order to really practice self-care, you will need to give yourself permission to take some of the time you give everyone else and reallocate it to yourself. Because you deserve it.
This is where the water gets muddy. What exactly counts as self-care? The answer may surprise you, but it is simple: whatever it is that actually works for you and meets all of the above criteria. So, if taking bubble baths is not your thing, but a coffee date with your friends refills your proverbial cup and leaves you feeling loved, happy, and energized, then your self-care routine should include more coffee dates and fewer “traditional” self-care activities.
For me, yoga fits the bill as an effective way to care for my mind and body, while also helping me to connect with myself and stay centered while I care for other people's mental health needs. Hobbies also count as self-care practices, because they are effective in bringing us joy and satisfaction.
As holistic mental health professionals and integrative medicine providers, at Thrivemind, we believe in caring for the mind, body, and spirit. When I work with my clients on developing a self-care routine, I make sure to consider their emotional needs, physical health, and social life, as well as how they affect each other. For instance, I work with them to consider if taking too long between meals or skipping meals may be causing drops in their blood sugar or hormonal levels and causing them to feel irritable and tense. I also consider the quality of their sleep and how it may be affecting their mood, their social media use habits, quality and frequency of social engagement, and personal preferences, such as whether they like to journal to help process emotions and thoughts, or whether going for a walk or yoga class may be a better way to do so.
Who you are as a person and the type and source of stress you experience in your life should help define which activities you select when building your self-care routine. If you already work with a therapist or mental health counselor, ask them to help you build a customized self-care plan and to help keep you accountable by asking you about your ability to stick to it during your therapy sessions.
If you would like to start a self-care plan but is unsure what types of activities you should include, start by including something that you would do occasionally, monthly, weekly, and daily. For example, occasional activities may include a vacation or weekend getaway. Lunch dates with friends, a massage, or a spa day are great monthly self-care activities, while yoga class, therapy appointments, and a trip to your favorite coffee shop are great weekly practices. It’s also good to remember that effective self-care with lasting results should also include proper nutrition, exercise, and quality time both with yourself and your loved ones.
As you can see, developing a self-care practice does not have to cause you financial ruin. It is also not a selfish practice, but a necessary part of living a full and healthy life.
Priscila Norris, MS, MSW, LCSW, RYT
Psychotherapist, Yoga Teacher.