The real importance of self-care

The first time I paid any real attention to the term ‘self-care’ it was because a therapist told me I had very little of it in my life.

What about my bi-weekly bath? I wanted to yell. Or my Sunday afternoon naps! I washed, I slept, I brushed my teeth and ate my greens. Wasn’t that enough to be getting on with? Wasn’t that the definition of self nurture?

Uh-uh. No way; it seemed I had a huge amount to learn, yet as soon as my therapists’ comment entered my ears I knew on some level that she was right. After all, I was still exercising my way through injury. Still working much of every weekend, still setting standards I couldn’t reach. Put simply, I was still filling the majority of my time (leisure or otherwise) with what I thought I should be doing instead of what I wanted to do. I found it hard enough to rest, let alone accept that rest was an important (and healthy) part of being a human. As for those two words – ‘self care’? They seemed excessively frivolous, belonging to lazier, richer types than me.

Fast forward a month. My therapist went on maternity leave but her words remained, embryonic, inside my heart. Something small started to shift and I began to notice the ways in which I stopped myself from experiencing joy, freedom and pleasure, just for the sake of it. Previously I had worn my lack of self regard like a medal around my neck – I was going to live fast and die young. Yet suddenly, aged 33 (now 34) I wasn’t so young. Speed didn’t satisfy the way it had. In fact, it hurt. I was often ill and frequently panicky. The winter arrived and stayed (too long) and, after a particularly aggressive succession of colds, coughs and other winter viruses – not to mention a stress switch that now flicked on with minimal provocation as well as the ongoing painful, negative self-talk – I succumbed. Something about the way I lived needed to change; I decided to get me some self-care, and fast, before I flipped.

First things first, I did some research. If it wasn’t about basic hygiene or expensive spa holidays, just what, exactly, was this self care thing I’d heard psychotherapists, psychologists and even some (forwarding-thinking) personal trainers touting as the ultimate wellbeing tool?

“Self care is anything that inspires you and makes you happy – any activity that’s like making a deposit in your energy bank so that you can cope better when life forces us to make those inevitable withdrawals.”

“We all have an energy bank,” says psychologist Suzy Reading, who runs sell-out monthly workshops on self care for her clients (http://suzyreading.co.uk/). “Self care is anything that inspires you and makes you happy – any activity that’s like making a deposit in your energy bank so that you can cope better when life forces us to make those inevitable withdrawals. If you’re experiencing fatigue, loss of mental clarity, reactiveness, issues with sleep, mood disturbances, you know your energy bank is low.”

The traditional definition of self care follows the Western disease model of medicine, designed to create an absence of ill health. It refers to obvious ‘good’ choices, such as taking prescribed medication, eating vegetables and not letting your gammy leg go septic. The contemporary, trendy version that my therapist spoke of however, is more layered. This kind of self care is about valuing oneself and actively promoting wellbeing. It is more in alignment with the field of positive psychology, which concerns itself with helping uncover the specific conditions that help us flourish as human beings.

“I see self-care as connected to preventative medicine,” says psychologist, Reading. “It’s about helping people whilst they are in the midst of stress; helping them get back on their feet after they’ve been through a period of stress, loss or change, and also; providing a buffer from the effects of stress. It requires us to figure out what conditions are required for us to become the very best version of ourselves.”

So what are those magic ‘conditions’ I wondered? Like most lifestyle choices, I discovered they are largely subjective and can take up as much or as little space and cash as you have available.

My own definition is that self-care involves anything that feeds my soul and / or combats my demons. For me, for example, self care might mean seeing my nieces and nephew more regularly (because they rock my world), or allowing myself to eat some junk food once a week (because I have a tendency to behave punitively around food). For others however it could mean attending weekly yoga classes and visiting more art galleries. The main point is simply this: whatever floats your boat will keep you bobbing, not to mention help those around you stay upright too.

FIVE SIMPLE OPTIONS FOR ENHANCING SEF-CARE
• Observe the breath. Yes, it sounds obvious and yes, it’s all part and parcel of mindfulness, but allowing yourself a minute or two to just ‘watch’ your breathing is the most portable stress reduction tool there is.
• Be curious about your posture. If you’re an office worker and you’re feeling overwhelmed then it’s not always feasible to get up, walk around and maybe scream some profanities at a wall. (Though if, like me, you work from home, I’d highly recommend it as a fantastic cathartic release.) Another, quieter, option is to develop an awareness of where you’re holding tension in your body and systematically let it go.
• Take ambition breaks. This means to make time, even two minutes here and there will help, to remove anything that involves striving (including posting on social media, hanging the washing out and other seemingly innocuous tasks). This isn’t just relaxing, it’s a way of caring for your brain.
• Take a Digital Sabbath. Carve time out to step away from technology completely. Don’t think of it as punitive, think of it as restorative. If you know you’ll be anxious about not getting back to people, warn them in advance.
• Plan your downtime! It sounds counter intuitive but mapping out how you’re going to spend time to yourself ensures it doesn’t get filled with other (or other people’s) ‘stuff’. If you struggle to take downtime in the first place then literally make an appointment with yourself. In the diary. In ink. No arguments.

– By Lucy Fry

First appeared in The Pool (www.the-pool.com).

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