In today’s America, the rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise. An estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States experience at least one major depressive episode per year. In addition to symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health disorders Americans face. An approximate 40 million adults report having an anxiety related disorder each year in the United States. So, with numbers like this, there has to be something than can help Americans tackle their symptoms and improve levels of functioning. Over the last decade, countless studies have been done on self-care and its effects on physical, emotional, and mental health concerns. Results of this research show that when we implement specific self-care strategies like mindfulness or exercise, symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression decrease. Concurrently when self-care strategies are implemented, accounts of self-awareness, compassion, and overall well-being increase. So, what is self-care exactly? And how can we use it to start feeling better?
Self-care can be defined as, “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health,” which makes the point that self-care is imperative for maintaining physical, as well as mental, health. In light of the recent pandemic in our world, self-care is crucial to keeping ourselves stable, even when the world feels anything but. As with most strategies, creating routine helps prevent symptoms from worsening, especially during periods of high stress. Self-care is best thought of as a prevention strategy, instead of a reaction to circumstances.
There is a distinct difference between true self-care and “treating yourself,”—that phrase we often hear in today’s culture. Treating yourself could be getting your nails done or doing something special for yourself that you enjoy. This is what the colloquial meaning of self-care has transformed into. Self-care in the lens of “treating yourself” typically sounds pleasurable and also potentially expensive once all of those treats add up. You may think you really need a break and deserve to get a massage—treat yourself, right? Yes, treat yourself! But what about keeping up with the dishes…do you also deserve that? Yes, you do. Self-care is not always fun. Sometimes what we need to feel our best is engaging in mundane tasks that we don’t pay much attention to, other than the simple acknowledgement of having to do it.
Self-care is about striking a balance that works best for you. There is room in your self-care journey for treats along the way, but it’s also important to really focus on what you’re doing to get what you need in order to be happy, healthy, and continue to function. Self-care may look a number of different ways:
Go Back to the Basics: When we are young, we learn the importance of healthy eating, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Life gets in the way sometimes, but it’s up to us to make time to focus on our basic needs. This is essential! Research has shown that moderate exercise, several times per week, can be as effective against mild-to-moderate depression as medication. Be intentional about meeting your needs and listening to your body. Self-care is a process; it’s okay to struggle one day and try again the next.
Let it Out: Everyone gets stressed at different times in our lives. How do you cope with it? One of the most therapeutic things you can do is to let it out. This could look like talking with a friend or counselor about how you feel, or letting a boss know that you’re overwhelmed and need a break. If talking isn’t your style, try journaling, music, physical exercise, even drawing. We’re all human and most of us understand we can’t do it all, all the time.
Tackle Your To-Do List: We are all busy. We have work, school, activities, and endless obligations. The last thing some of us want to do after a long day is to come home and do the dishes, pick up trash, or do the laundry. But, once those tasks are finished, we feel accomplished and happy that they’re off the list. The key, however, is to keep the list down to prevent feeling overwhelmed. Maybe you feel too tired to wash the dishes and will just do it tomorrow. Do it today and thank yourself later when you wake up to a clean kitchen.
Check Your Social Meter: Are you an extrovert, introvert, or somewhere in between? Maybe you enjoy your alone time and aren’t getting enough of it. Or maybe you’ve been swamped with obligations and haven’t had time to see your friends as often as you like – whether in-person, online, or on the phone. Check in with yourself about your need to be with others, or not, and adjust accordingly. We feel a better balance when we acknowledge the needs of our temperament.
Cope with Crisis: We can’t always prepare for what’s to come, although we do try our best. Sometimes we are left in a situation where we aren’t sure of how to continue taking care of ourselves when life is somewhat unordinary and jumbled for the time being.
Get grounded: What can we control during this time? Grasp tangible aspects of the situation that you can control, and let the others go. (E.g. we can control working on a positive attitude versus not being able to control how long the crisis will last).
Practice gratitude: During times of crisis or panic, sometimes it feels impossible to think about what is going well in our lives. Take a minute and think about what you’re thankful for. It could be having the ability to work from home, being able to spend more time with your children, or having enough food in the fridge to last this week—shift your focus to what is going well at this time.
Connect with loved ones: Having to separate yourself from those you care about is no easy feat. If you are physically isolated from others for the time being, make the effort to reach out virtually. Stay connected with family, friends, and even colleagues through phone calls or video chat. It’s feels a little less lonesome when we talk with others and find they might be going through the same things.
Create a new routine: Chances are, during unprecedented times in life, our typical routines become difficult to maintain. This is the time for intentional adaptation – find the new normal that works best for you. This could be switching from working out three times per week at the gym to following a workout tutorial online or taking walks in the neighborhood. Make changes deliberately and accordingly, and find ways to fulfill your needs as best you can.
Remember perspective: Real, rational worries are bound to bubble up for us during a time of crisis. It is important to remind ourselves about the temporariness of the situation and believe in our ability to see out the other side. Lean on others for support and think of how strong you will be when it is all over.
Self-care is a journey and it is not easy. It’s important to listen to your needs and be honest with yourself to prevent burnout. Self-care is more than giving yourself a break—it’s about intentionally attending to the body’s physical, emotional, and mental needs to ensure it is performing at its best. Finding a self-care routine that works for you will be essential in maintaining stability through day to day stressors, as well as during times of crisis. There’s no right or wrong way to engage in self-care—it’s all about striking a balance to function as the happiest, healthiest version of you. “Treat yourself” to that.