Beyond 101: Self Care
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
I’m having a stressful week and also having a hormonally compromised week, so I figure now is a good time to talk about self care.
We talk a lot about self care as an important practice, but I think sometimes there’s a struggle to understand what self care really means. I know I have spent many years suffering because I didn’t know there was a kinder way to do something for myself. For example: I was taught growing up that you should shave your legs with soap because it saves money. I did that for most of my life and then somehow decided to try shaving cream. Shaving with shaving cream is so much better for my legs—they are less dry, and I get cut less, too. Plus, it smells nice. Shaving cream is a self care tool I didn’t even know I could use.
This time of the month, I use many things as self care. I employ a plug-in heating pad for cramps and sore muscles. I give myself permission to go to bed even earlier than usual because I’m physically exhausted by the whole menstruation thing. I acknowledge my eating cycles change and allow them to fall to their own rhythm rather than trying to force them where they normally are. I notice when I’m cranky and let the people around me know that they haven’t done anything wrong but to please be gentle with me or just avoid me altogether for a couple days. When I become weepy, I know I’m not losing my mind, just my hormonal calm. I push myself to get to the gym because I feel very run down, but I know light exercise can help me feel more energetic and less moody.
There are lots of different ways to do self care. We usually think of the bath bomb, candlelight, and book variety of self care. Take a lot of time for yourself! Do something nice for yourself! People often disdain the whole idea of self care as a classist, self-indulgent behavior. If we only define self care as buying yourself a treat or taking a day off, then I can see the argument. But self care is so, so much more than an indulgence. I think self care is vital.
Part of self care is looking after your physical needs. Eating enough, getting enough rest, and moving the body around are important self care tools. Drinking enough liquids can also be important to good self care. Physical need care can also include things like not pushing too hard to overachieve at the gym, using a conveyance like an escalator or elevator, or having proper clothes and footwear that don’t stress the body out. My 11-year-old refuses to wear anything but elastic-waist pants. He tells me he doesn’t like to be constricted by jeans or tight pants. Fine by me—I mostly gave up jeans myself in favor of skirts and dresses, which are cooler and less constricting.
Another important and overlooked part of self care is the bit where we notice what we need at all. Being self aware is vital to self care. If we don’t know what is happening with our body and mind, how can we attend to it? When I feel angry, I have different needs than when I’m anxious, and again different ones when I’m sad or lonely. If these feelings all seem the same to me, or I don’t notice them at all, how can I provide any self care? Sometimes alone time is the worst thing for me, even though it is my go-to self care practice because mostly it’s very helpful. Self care, therefore, must contain elements of mindful practice and a good habit of knowing what our behaviors and inner signals are trying to tell us.
There’s also the difference between ongoing self care and acute care. A bath might help me relax from a stressful day, but I also probably need to be aware of how much stress I’m under on a regular basis. Sometimes, self care looks like paring down stress overall. If my kitchen is always messy because it’s hard to put things away, taking the extra time to revamp and get rid of things may help lower stress in the long run more than a bath would. Acute stress may go up as the kitchen cleanout happens, but overall stress is greatly relieved. Finding a balance between these two states is difficult but necessary. Seeing doctors, taking medications, and doing dishes can all fall under the umbrella of “hard now, worth it later” type of self care.
It sounds like I’m harping on baths. I’m not; I love baths. It is just one tool in a vast toolbox.
Sometimes, we need to look at the hidden causes of our stress, such as a need to perform and achieve as a path to self worth. If we can alleviate the need to achieve as a marker of our value, our ongoing stress and anxiety may relax as well. That self work can be hard and scary, but it can be a tool of self care. This is a tough one.
I cannot tell you how many people have shame because they struggle to do hygiene-related tasks like take a shower, brush their teeth, or put on clean clothes. Many people struggle with these seemingly simply self care tasks at times, and for many reasons. Self care can be examining the barriers to these tasks and figuring out ways to avoid them. For example: I hate it when my hair drips all over me, so I wrap it up in a T-shirt right out of the shower (also good for curls). Showering gets easier when I know I won’t be uncomfortable when I get out. You’re allowed to acknowledge that these things can be hard without shame.
One way to improve your own self care is to check out the five senses. If you’re in need of an acute care moment, find things that soothe each of your sensory organs. I keep things that smell good on hand, as well as things that taste good and feel good to touch. (Ever run your hand through a tub of beads? It’s the best thing ever.) I try to stock up my music players with playlists for different mood states, or you can go online and find some already curated for you. I’ve only recently started doing this myself; I find these small practices to be very soothing and, if nothing else, a reminder that someone is looking out for me. Sometimes, that’s the most comforting thing of all.
Self care is important, and it’s complicated. Wherever you are, I hope you’ll join me in doing a thing or two for self care today.