My husband and I often joke that it's a relief we didn't know each other when I was at uni doing my doctoral thesis. Just think: 7-8 cups of coffee a day, almost no time out, stressed to the max, anxious, grumpy, constantly sick in the stomach and perpetually sleep deprived....... it wasn't pretty. Needless to say, I've experienced the effects of not looking after myself properly and I've sworn to never go back there. I know this now but back then, it was just a normal way of functioning for me. I had a goal to finish uni while still earning enough income to eat and keep a roof over my head........ so I never thought to even question it. Oh how my life has changed, and for the better. I now look after myself a lot better and try to practice healthy self-care practices as much as I can. Am I a pro at this? No way. I forget often, and I'm constantly changing what works for me. But I've improved.
But so many of us throw around the term "self-care" and yet what does that actually mean? Is it the bubble bath that we have at the end of a hard day at work? Is it the meditation we do at night? Is it the boundaries we set at work, or with a difficult family member? Is it getting our 8 hours of sleep every night? Or is it the mental health day that we took from work last week because we were just so damn exhausted? And if it's all of this.... you might find yourself asking...."sorry, but how the hell do I fit that all in?!”
As much as we try to define self-care and offer advice on how to achieve it, the truth is, there is no instruction booklet that is applicable to every individual. Effective self-care for each of us is as unique as our fingerprints- what works depends on who you are, your circumstances, and how you are functioning at any given time- I.e., what is important for you one month might be different to what you need the next month. So I'm not going to write here about what you can do to practice self-care, just google it and you will find thousands of suggestions. More so, I'm writing here on some initial ideas on how to tailor your self-care plan so that it works for you.
To try to encompass everything that self-care can involve, we could define the practice of self-care simply as the conscious engagement in behaviors or activities which serve to improve or optimise our physical and mental health. This is so vague, I know. But that's the point. Even though there are some evidence-based approaches to self-care, no one person, including me, can tell you what will work for you- it's a matter of trialling different things and developing self-care routines that are your own.
Learning to understand yourself better and how you individually react to stress is, in my opinion, a crucial first step to developing an effective and tailored self-care plan. Of course, the sooner we become aware that our bodies and minds are stressed, the sooner we act and the more effective our attempts at avoiding unwanted consequences of stress and low mood will be.
Now for those of you who say "I don't get stressed"- no offense, but I laugh at this statement. If you are human, it's almost 100% likely that you do. You might not be consciously aware that you are stressed, or you might not be worrying, but if you have adrenal glands, a human brain with an amygdala (a very small structure which acts as an alarm bell), and cortisol (which we all do) then your body does indeed have a stress response.
For example, several people I know who are in high paced jobs love their job, they thrive on the adrenaline, they feel happy- and good for them, that's awesome! But for some, they might perhaps suggest because they enjoy their job that they aren't stressed. They cope really well. They are good at what they do. But despite this, the high paced work, and being on the go constantly, does indeed mean that their bodies are still releasing higher than normal levels of adrenaline and cortisol. All of those stress hormones- if left unmanaged, might be ok short-term, but they can take their toll on mental and physical health over time. Think- high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, headaches, burnout, anxiety, depression. Sorry to be morbid but hey- it's true. It's not only high paced jobs that cause this either, but it's the obvious example.
Now in terms of understanding what your self-care needs are and effectively meeting these needs, monitoring your "early warning signs" of stress and low mood can be helpful. Once again- these differ for each individual. For instance, when I'm in the early stages of stress I start to feel tired a bit more frequently, probably because I stay up slightly later at night. I find it a tad more difficult and less pleasurable to exercise, even though I might still be able to push myself to do it. I have slightly more difficulty getting up in the morning, even though I still do. I experience more thoughts of "maybe I could call in sick today" even though I don't end up doing so. I lack some motivation in completing some of the less favourable aspects of my work (paperwork) even though I still do it. I might have urges to buy takeout instead of cooking a healthy meal, even though most of the time I manage to talk myself out of it. Notice the pattern here??? They are all feelings or thoughts I'm having but they haven't yet eventuated into anything too damaging. Are these things individually a cause for alarm? Absolutely not. But that's the point of self-care- we don't want it to get to the point of alarm. If we can reflect regularly and think "hm I'm a bit more tired" or "my motivation hasn't been great this week" and then use that as a reason to practice self-care, we can help to prevent the more alarming or damaging levels of stress, low mood or the dreaded burnout. Even better, once we understand the self-care practices that tend to work for us, carrying these out regularly, just because we can and not just because theres been a warning sign- well then that's even better.
So what are some of these signs to monitor? I'll suggest three different areas of which to take note: thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. You might ask yourself "How do I think when things are just starting to get on top of me? How do I feel, both emotionally and physically? Do I act differently, perhaps a bit more withdrawn or snappy, sleeping less, that extra glass of wine?" Now if you can answer these questions right away, what I would suggest is assuming that your answers are in fact NOT your earliest warning signs. We most often will notice some signs but usually there will be even earlier ones that have gone unnoticed. If your answer was "I drink more regularly", ok, but what happens before it gets to that? The earlier the signs you notice, the better.
Once you think you have a hold on this (and that can take time), think about how you can counteract these things. If you're tired, would an earlier bedtime and better sleep practices be important? If you feel frequently frustrated towards others, is it possible that either more regular relaxation practices or setting some clear, healthy boundaries with people in your life could be in need? If you are having negative thoughts, is it possible that trying to practice different ways of thinking or gratitude could benefit? If you have tension in your shoulders, is a massage or ergonomical changes required? If your head won't slow down, perhaps meditation and reduced stimulation (e.g reduced screen time) might be of use. If you feel negative towards yourself, perhaps practicing self-compassion will be helpful.
As I said earlier, I won't use this forum to list everything you could try because we are all different. All I will say, is keep an open mind and be willing to give things a go. A lot of people find scheduling their week in a slightly different way to allow time for self-care can make it easier to maintain. Alternatively, you might tie some self-care practices into your existing routine. If you know you do nothing on a Tuesday night, schedule a hot bath, or an early night, whatever it is that is helpful for you. I personally have chosen to work 4 longer days each week so that I have 3 days off, because I find my work quite taxing. I also try to exercise or walk the dog several days each week, but for me- good sleep and a cup of tea are really the things that seem to go a long way.
In terms of keeping an open mind- I had a conversation this week with someone who is perpetually stressed at work. A while ago she started practicing mindfulness- just whilst walking the dog because this was something she did daily anyway. This practice then started spilling over into other areas of her life and she was noticing improved focus and energy. Interestingly, she's coping really well at present and looking after herself a lot better. Upon reflection she said to me "you know, I really thought slowing down and self-care was a load of crap, but it's actually really helped me”.
So guys, get to know yourself a bit better, take the time to listen to your body and watch the mind, and try to be open minded to changing the way you do things and trying new ways of unwinding. With some practice and patience and a healthy habit of listening out for early signs of stress, you will find your own unique combination of self-care strategies to make up your own self-care fingerprint.
There might be so many other seemingly more important things on your list than looking after yourself, but try to remember that you are your greatest tool and if you're not healthy and happy and working properly..... then those other things will suffer.
If you are looking for more specific self-care strategies, try google or a previous blog of mine at:
You can also follow my Instagram @misspsychlife for daily self-care inspiration.
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