Updated: Sep 16
If you Google the term "self-care," you'd find a definition like the following, "Self-care has been defined as the process of establishing behaviors to ensure holistic well-being of oneself, to promote health, and to actively management of illness when it occurs" courtesy of Wikipedia. While this definition is a fabulous start to thinking about what self-care is, it misses a key component: when self-care should happen!
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as therapy, nor is it a replacement for mental health treatment. It should not be considered professional, medical advice for any one individual and is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health condition, and does not create a clinician/client relationship. If in crisis, call 911 or go to local ER. See full disclosure statement here.
Most of us humans have a tendency of using self-care as follows: work, work, work, until we notice our physical, mental, or emotional health start to suffer (aka: we start burning out), and then we take a bubble bath or two and hope that self-care combats the burnout.
Self-care lessons from the COVID Pandemic
The problem with how we generally think of self-care is that we employ it too late. The pandemic illustrated this habit of ours perfectly. The vast majority of the population who were able to continue working throughout the pandemic eventually found themselves struggling with symptoms of burnout. It wasn't until much of the population was struggling with burnout that we all realized how long it takes to recover from being burnt out! As people tried to nap more, walk more, and relax more, we quickly discovered that one extra nap wasn't going to cut it.
What does this mean for you?
Self-care is designed to create a buffer when we face stress. It allows us to better cope with the situation and prevent burnout. But in order for it to function as such, we need to be using it before we face the stress and burnout.
This means that delightful bubble bath needs to be happening consistently in order for it to genuinely be self-care. Otherwise we end up using self-care as after-care, and it takes far longer for the impact to truly kick in.
How to effectively practice self-care
So what does this look like in practice?
The most important piece to take away from this is the need for self-care to be a consistent part of your daily life. That means the afternoon walks, reading, calls to support people, eating nutrient dense foods, and boundary setting need to happen as frequently as possible.
If I were to guess what you're thinking, it's probably along the lines of, "Good one, but no one has time for that." If that's what's in your brain at this moment, I'd encourage you to think back to a time when you felt burnt out. How long did it take you to recover? Did that one bubble bath fix it? (If it did, please let us know what kind of bubbles you used as they must be magic!).
While yes, self-care is something of a commitment, if you can start the practice before you're burning out, you may find it actually takes less time than you'd expect. A little does go a long way if you're not burnt out.
For example, research shows that reading a book for just 7 minutes can reduce stress levels by over fifty percent! And taking just a 10 minute walk does wonders for your mood.
If you're interested in starting a self-care practice, I'd encourage you to keep an open mind. You may find some things you thought would be a good fit for your actually are not, while others you may have laughed off as not for you may actually do wonders.
And it is okay to not jump on certain bandwagons if they don't work for you. Personally, I hate journaling, and I wish I'd given myself permission to not journal before I'd purchased countless pretty journals I've never written in.
And of course, remember to start small (aka: manageable). You don't want to be stressing about your self-care! If you haven't done any in years, it's probably not realistic to expect yourself to start daily walks, morning yoga, nightly bubble baths, and reading a book per week. Instead, focus on making one small change. Start eating breakfast. Walk to the mailbox on your lunch break. Reach out to a friend you haven't spoken to in a while. See how you feel, and keep building off of that momentum.
Therapy is arguably the best kind of self-care. Having a therapist help you set achievable goals, brainstorm self-care that works for your schedule and personality, and help you set boundaries can make the whole process feel healing.
If you're interested in starting the therapy process, reach out for a consultation call today!
All my best,
Lauren Spencer, MS, LMFT