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Self-care is a concept that has been gaining further momentum over the past decade. However, it is a term that has gained new meaning in 2020; a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of our lives, disrupting how we live and work on a day-to-day basis, while also impacting on how we perceive the future. In combination, these circumstances have brought a unique set of challenges to our mental health and wellbeing.
One of the best ways to start thinking about self-care is to think about the words literally, because in essence self-care is about thinking about and taking care of the ‘self’, in other words taking care of you!Whether you know it or not, you already engage in a range of self-care practices that are designed to protect your physical health. For example, one of the most common self-care routines that we all should have is the twice-daily brushing of our teeth to help protect them against tooth decay. In relation to mental health, it is a term that originally emerged in the academic literature in relation to social workers, therapists and other professionals who work in environments where they were exposed to emotionally taxing work. Here, it was used as a way to encourage these workers to develop practices that would help them to protect their mental health and wellbeing, allowing them to avoid emotional exhaustion and burn-out. Over time, knowledge gained from these professions, combined with broader shifts in our understanding of mental ill health, have meant that self-care practices have become widely acknowledged as being critical to all of us, helping to protect us from mental ill health.
But what exactly do we mean by self-care and what does it look like in practice? Although this may seem obvious for maintaining mental health, it is something we can all be prone to forgetting to do, especially as we struggle to cope with the changes and uncertainties of life, including caring responsibilities or work demands which make time for ourselves limited.
Self-care activities allow us to take time out of our usual routine to nurture ourselves, to comfort ourselves, and to provide space to reflect on our own thoughts, all of which will allow us to maintain a sense of equilibrium that will ensure we stay well enough to take care of others. Or to put it another way, self-care activities can allow us to find a balance between the demands that are placed on us, such as taking care of children, keeping up with the food shopping, actively listening to a friend who is upset and managing a stressful situation at work. In short, all the things that may cause us suffering or stress, and the actions we take to ensure that we don’t burn out or over stretch ourselves in ways that may make us unwell.
As we are all individuals, the things that offer us moments of calm and psychological nourishment vary, and as a result our self-care practices will vary. The most important thing is to think about the things that help you to find balance and to think about what the goals and objectives are for your self-care routine, as this will help you to select those activities that will be most beneficial to you.
Here are some top tips for things that may help get you started.
Plan to do one activity a day that makes you feel joyful. This might be watching a comedy, singing an uplifting song, going for a walk or having a bath. Whatever it is, however small, make time for it every day. Make planning this small piece of joy as routine to you as cleaning your teeth, brushing your hair or washing your face.
Stay active: daily exercise, even very mild exercise such as an outdoor walk, has been linked to improved mental health. Movement in your body can stimulate the senses and help to shift your thoughts away from repetitive or negative patterns and can also dissipate stress hormones.
Seek out new experiences, new knowledge or new activities that can give you a renewed sense of confidence or accomplishment. You might think this will be hard to achieve in a global pandemic, but it could be as easy as exploring a new podcast, for instance.
At the end of each day check in with yourself, ask yourself what you did today that helped you feel a sense of balance and those that impacted negatively on your mood. Then reflect on how you might make this different tomorrow. If it helps do this in a written journal format.
Keep an eye on the nature and tone of your internal dialogue; although we don’t often acknowledge it, the way we ‘talk’ to ourselves can add to our stress and contribute to us feeling that we don’t have a sense of control over what is happening to us. Instead, support yourself through positive self-talk. For example, if you notice that the way you talk to yourself is harsh in terms of tone or words, try instead to be more positive, saying things like ‘I can do this’, ‘I am enough’, ‘ I will get through this’, ‘this time will pass’.
Don’t forget that self-care doesn't have to be complicated. It is simply best understood as activities that offer moments in which your sense of self can be restored, rejuvenated or nourished. At the very core of ‘self-care’ is an acknowledgement that regardless of what is going on in our lives, we have a relationship with ourselves and in order to maintain good mental health, we need to look after this relationship.
This resource is part of the 'Wellbeing and Mental Health Collection' created by the Open University in Wales. You can learn more and find courses, articles and other activities on the collection's homepage.