The concept of ‘self care’ is one you hear a lot about — particularly if you’ve been through any kind of therapy, or self-help reading binge. The idea of taking the time to tend to yourself, to your emotional needs, is central to this concept, and it can feel a little self-indulgent or airy-fairy. But what is airy fairy about making sure you exist as a whole, functioning person? Your ability to be more productive (I hate this word, but I know it gets many people excited!), hinges on you being able to do things at your best capacity. So how do we integrate ‘self care’ into the everyday?
Start with a list of what you know for sure
What are the things that immediately make a positive impact? I try to keep an updated list of these things, and it’s quite a random list — things like watching certain YouTubers, cuddling my partner, crochet, meditating, going for a walk… I have this list visible, and I’m always adding to it.
But then the bigger question: what activities, when I do them, are really valuable to me? This is in the bigger sense — the sense that they contribute to something really essential to who you are. These kinds of bigger values can be harder to tease out. For me, this would be writing my novel. I tend to track the more confusing emotions that come with the bigger picture in my journal, to help become more aware of what is really going on in my head.
How to Keep a Journal for Better Mental Health
A guide from 20 years (and counting) of journaling and therapeutic writing…
Develop your own morning practice
I have found the biggest impact to my morning has come from one change: Keeping the screens out of the morning and particularly out of bed. It makes a huge difference to how I start my day — I get straight up instead of dithering online. I practice meditation more readily, I write. But whether you’re up at the crack of dawn or sleep in until the last moment and run out the door, it is very much about starting the day the way you and your body work best.
I happen to be an early riser, so an early alarm works pretty well for me. My first little routine item is important: I make a coffee and drink it with my partner. It’s a small thing and he’s generally running out the door quite quickly afterwards, but it gives us a chance to say hello, enjoy each other’s company, and set a warm glow around everything else that comes later in the day. With coffee done, I write. I feel excited and invigorated to write second thing in the morning — it helps prevent excuses to put it off for later.
Finding small sacred routine items does feed the idea that self care comes even in the little things — in the in-between moments, and before the rush hits us, of everything else in the world that we have to do.
Your body is a temple: nourish it
Food isn’t just about nutrition, it fulfils a variety of other functions too. It’s social, cultural and it can be spiritual. What we feed ourselves matters, and the way we look after and treat our body often affects how we think and feel about it too. If you’re finding yourself lying back and ordering delivery most nights a week, chances are you aren’t really feeding yourself the best way possible.
While I would never tell anyone to ‘be a vegetarian’ (I’m not one), plant-based eating is important. The average British or American doesn’t have enough fruit and veg in their diet. Reduce red meat, reduce processed foods, eat things that are from a good source. It can get a lot more complicated, but it can also be made quite simple. Is a pound of cheese for dinner healthy? Obviously not.
We all know what people say about food and exercise, how important it is to integrate good habits for a healthy life. So here’s something else I’d say: exercise is also not just about health. When you exercise, it can also be social, it can give you time to reflect, it can foster community spirit or connection. Exercise serves a variety of other functions, other than merely moving you. I am always looking for activities that I find interesting, that give me time for myself (I’m a yoga person, not a team sports person), and finding what works helps develop other practices. Like body scanning and emotional reflection — by doing exercise, I become more aware of my body, what it feels, and what it needs.
It’s about constructively saying, ‘On this day, at this time, I’m going to feed my values.’
Recalibrate the value of your time
One of the big reasons I’ve gone off social media these days is that #ScrollFreeSeptember really showed me what a time suck those apps are. Without them, I read more, wrote more, and used my time in a way that generally better reflected my actual values. Take a moment to reconsider what you actually enjoy and value doing.
Our time is not infinite, and it’s my firm belief that the best use of our time should go to the things we highly value doing, the responsibilities we must uphold, then the extra things. The extra activities, the people who aren’t always great — know what you can let go of when you’re practicing self care. Have and make plans with those who are good to you, doing things that matter to you. Respect your time — you can’t get it back.
Schedule in the “Me Time”
Similarly to respecting your time, it can be easy to forget to schedule in time for yourself. This isn’t the same as promising to do things or needing to do things, then just cancelling them to sit on the couch and binge Netflix. It’s not about letting people down, skirting responsibilities or acting out on the advice of a depressive thought-cycle. It’s about constructively saying, ‘On this day, at this time, I’m going to feed my values.’
“Me Time” can mean a lot of things, but it’s better if it means doing something you know really nourishes you as a person, rather than sitting back to evaporate all thought and feeling in the face of an endless video playlist. Of course we all need to vegetate sometimes, but I think it is easy to conflate vegetation with self care, when they aren’t the same thing. Treat self care as sacred; an active decision to recuperate, relax and engage with what’s important to you.
- What works immediately to feel ‘better’ versus what works to help you feel more ‘whole’?
- How can you start your day in the best way for you? How can you set the tone for self care to underpin everything else that you’re doing?
- How do you practically take care of yourself?
- When do you spend time on what is really valuable?
- Do you give yourself enough time, just for yourself?
We all lead busy lives and self care can feel like it’s a selfish way to carve time up, but the reality is that a happier you is better to be around — it affects those around you. We are called on to balance a lot in modern life. But by integrating self care into the fabric of actions that are necessary anyway (e.g. the meals you eat, or the way you do exercise, or what choices you make when you do get free time), you’re able to practice self care in the in-between, as well as when you make solid time for it.