The term “self-care,” like mindfulness, is so ubiquitous in our vocabulary nowadays that it has almost lost its meaning. A survey of recently published articles on managing holiday stress sports such headlines as “Take Care of Yourself: Self-Care, the Gift that Keeps on Giving,” and “This Christmas, Don’t Forget to Treat Yourself along with Others.” What does self-care really mean? Is it doing nice things for yourself, like getting a manicure, treating yourself to a spa day, taking a bubble bath, or indulging in a Netflix binge? Many of the self-care suggestions in these articles essentially involved taking a break from the responsibilities of daily life, even checking out from reality for awhile. But what happens when you re-surface from your escape back to real life? Do the effects of these types of self-care actually last beyond their duration?
The latest research on self-care seems to indicate that what is good for you doesn’t always feel good while you are doing it. A lot of effective self-care involves taking responsibility and essentially “adulting,” rather than “escaping.”
1. Take care of your body
This often means moving that body, by throwing off the blanket you are hiding under on the couch, turning off the t.v., and walking around the block. It may also mean scheduling that mammogram, or pap smear, or lab work that you have been putting off. Denial and minimization are popular coping mechanism but delays in addressing potential health issues allow them to worsen and create larger problems down the road. Taking care of your body may also involve more pleasurable activities like getting a massage or a gentle yoga/stretching session, but sometimes it is downright inconvenient or unpleasant. Eating nutritious food, exercising, and taking vitamins/supplements/medicines prescribed for certain health conditions are all examples of self-care that might take some effort but are a worthwhile investment in greater well-being.
2. Take care of your relationships
Isolation and lack of social support consistently correlate with poorer mental, emotional, and physical health. Staying connected to supportive relationships is essential to our need for belonging and affirmation. Reaching out for support requires vulnerability and humility but brings rich rewards in terms of building intimacy and connection. Depression and anxiety make it very difficult to move towards other people. This kind of self-care is hard but necessary.
3. Take care of your mind
Our brains are barraged with over-stimulating input constantly. Put down your smart device, turn off social media and television, and go outside to observe the slower rhythms of nature. Practicing presence, or mindfulness, gives the brain a chance to re-charge and re-set. Sufficient sleep is also essential for the brain to repair and re-organize.
4. Take care of your emotions
Self-care is not about stuffing, avoiding or escaping negative emotions. Rather, it is about identifying and expressing them in ways that are not damaging to self or others. The more we avoid painful feelings, the more we have to pull in coping mechanisms that ultimately separate us from our true selves and incur more cost than just feeling the pain in the first place. Confrontation and conflict resolution are difficult skills to exercise, but the cost of not pursuing honesty damages our relationships with others, as well as ultimately ourselves. Resentment and un-forgiveness are corrosive and damaging to our own health and the health of our friendships.
5. Take care of your soul
Whatever your views on spirituality, we are more than a body with a brain. Soul care is increasingly recognized as a vital part of self-care. Be diligent about seeking that which nurtures your soul, whether that be finding a like-minded community of people who share your spiritual beliefs, creating routines that put you in nature or other environments where you experience peace and joy, developing a meditation practice, discovering authors who stimulate your thinking and challenge you to be more true to your beliefs and values, and finding ways to share your resources with those less fortunate than yourself, whether that involves material goods, money, acts of service, or the gift of your time and presence.
Sometimes self-care feels easy, but often true self-care is actually quite challenging and requires commitment and discipline. When practiced well, it will yield rich dividends!