Find out what self-care is. What can happen when it doesn’t work. Why it doesn’t work. And what to watch out for.
If asked the question “do you self-care?” you might give it some thought before answering “Yes, I do”.
You might be thinking of the run you had yesterday. That you’ve been easing off the vino. The book you read in the park. Or that you’re not eating as much junk these days.
Fitter, happier. More productive.
I found myself in an exciting new job. I cycled every week. Met new people. Tried new things. Gained new skills. Got healthier. Spent time with the kids, family and friends. Things were good. I’d never been healthier.
I didn’t do any of it in the name of self-care. But if asked if I practiced it, I would have replied “YES! look at all these marvellous things I’m doing”.
But I soon discovered I wasn’t really caring for myself.
Eventually, a part of me didn’t have any more to give. So it stopped giving.
I found myself admitting that I wasn’t ok. That I needed to get help to sort myself out. And I realised that I’d probably needed to for years.
So why didn’t the things that everyone considers to be self-care work for me?
What is self-care?
There are 1000’s of articles about self-care. But you don’t need them. They are good for inspiration, but they don't tell you what self-care is.
The answer is in the question.
Self-care is the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health – Oxford Dictionary
Or you could say.
Self-care is doing something that makes YOU feel better.
When it comes to mental health, it might be helpful to think of your brain as only having limited energy. Which is used up figuring out your life.
Self-care recharges your mental energy. You are self-caring right when it leaves you feeling content, calm and in control.
Self-care is not a medicine. It’s a preventative measure, like drinking water or eating your five a day.
What is the key to self-care?
To benefit from self-care you have to want to do it, whatever ‘it’ is. And it has to make you feel better.
But the one thing you must know before you can self-care is your Self.
You must be self-aware before you can self-care
Maybe you’re lucky and Self-awareness comes naturally to you. You know what your body is telling you and it’s easy to understand your feelings.
That’s great. All you need to do is make sure you give yourself time to listen and understand what you’re being told. Take it seriously and make time for it.
Maybe Self-awareness doesn’t come easy.
You weren’t taught it at school. Your parents didn’t show you how, they had no idea. It wasn’t a conversation that happened in the society you grew up in.
The truth is you have to invest the time and effort to understand what you need to do for your Self. Others might be able to help you, but only you truly know when your body is trying to tell you something.
To be blunt, if you don’t know your Self you can’t care for it.
The reason all the things I did to look after myself didn’t really help me?
I wasn’t present. I was using them as a distraction. I wasn’t using them as an opportunity to recharge. There is a difference. And it comes down to your mindset. Mindfulness.
Before now, I’d go for a run. Then get on with what I was doing before. I was mindlessly running to be healthier, to lose weight.
Now, I’ll go for a run if I sense I’m running low on mental energy. Or if I need to figure something out. Being present of mind enough to know I need to do something makes the difference. I can’t explain why, but it does.
Tell tell signs
It may not be obvious your body is telling you something is wrong. Mental stress can manifest itself in many ways. From a dull headache to an actual pain in the neck.
Do you suffer from physical grumbles that you can’t explain, or that you explain away?
Do some situations get your heckles up, or make you want to punch someone in the face?
Do you find yourself wanting to avoid certain situations or people?
Do you ever get stopped dead in your tracks, unable to think clearly enough to react?
Do you find your breath shallows and you roll your eyes when you get an email from you know who?
Do you feel heat, pressure or stinging sensations at the back of your eyes when someone asks you if you are ok? You’re not going to cry, but your eyes have gone a bit shinier than normal.
These things are happening because something isn’t right. You need to give yourself some time to recharge. And try to understand why you feel this way.
If you find that you don’t feel better after trying lots of things, it might be time to ask for help.
Speak to someone you can open up to. Your doctor is always a good place to start. Or check out one of the many organisations that are there to help like Mind, the Mental Health Foundation or Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA England).