When I recently I told my husband I was feeling anxious about writing an article on self-care, he immediately exclaimed, “That’s because you don’t practice self-care!” I smiled and took comfort in how well he knows me—he is right! How can I write about what I don’t practice!? In reflecting on this interaction as I prepared to write, I realized he was only partially accurate. I do practice self-care, but my version is not the same as his. And, there is certainly room for improvement! For him, self-care is connected to exercise and enjoying the outdoors, but my self-care involves meaningful conversations with a dear friend over a good cup of coffee. Talking with him eased my anxiety and helped me get unstuck as I considered what to write about. It also reminded me that self-care is a basic necessity.
How Can I Practice Self Care?
Self-care is often associated with activities that only those privileged with time and money can do, like extravagant vacations or frequent trips to the spa. Some consider self-care frivolous, “trendy,” or too self-indulgent. In my own culture, self-care was frowned upon because putting others first was far more important than taking care of personal needs. The truth is, we can not offer what we do not have. Self-care is not a luxury, but a crucial and necessary part of physiological, relational, and psychological flourishing. In my profession, I am ethically required to “engage in self care activities to maintain and promote (my) emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet (my) professional responsibilities” (American Counseling Association, 2014, Section C., Introduction, p. 8).
Research shows that some forms of self-care, such as mindfulness practices, increase one’s capacity to regulate emotions and recover quickly from negative interactions (Siegel, 2007, p. 32). Clients whose therapists practice mindfulness report better therapeutic outcomes, such as “making progress in overcoming their difficulties and symptoms and in developing new adaptive behaviors they could apply in daily life (Shapiro & Carlson, 2009, p. 27).
If there was ever a time to practice self-care, it is now. The pandemic has surfaced and created an immense degree of stress, isolation, anger and grief that we are collectively experiencing on a global level. Tending to this reality is not an option, but essential, and begins by caring for our own bodies and minds. Many types of self-care activities are now unavailable, like group fitness classes, gathering with friends, or date nights at a favorite restaurant. Nevertheless, there are many simple and small ways we can still practice getting our self-care needs met which do not require money, a huge time commitment, or involve others outside of our social distancing circles.
It’s much easier to practice self-care when you have a broader definition of what it is, and by honoring that what works for you might not work for someone else. I think of self-care as that which promotes flourishing from both a practical and relational viewpoint. Practically speaking, self-care could be taking an extra walk with the dog; sitting down for 10 minutes while focusing on your breathing; scheduling a zoom date with a friend; going for a 20 minute run; meditating for 15 minutes to relaxing music; reading a novel; taking an extra long shower or bath; asking someone you love and trust for an extra long hug. Relational self-care is more difficult, not because we don’t have the time, but because it requires us to love and value ourselves, which for many, is hard to do. The rewards are vast, however, and build upon themselves–kindness begets kindness.
Relational self-care might mean saying “no” to the next zoom game night; spending much needed alone time with your partner; expressing a need without guilt; no longer tolerating and confronting a coworker’s racist, classist, sexist, or homophobic jokes–the list goes on. Many of these relational practices may not feel like self-care in the moment, but they are critical, long-term “investments” that benefit all aspects of our lives.
Keep A Daily Journal
If you struggle with self-care, my challenge to you is to keep a daily journal where you start to note the small things you already do that bring joy, peace, satisfaction, and connection with yourself and others. Add something new each week, like “walked for 20 minutes, up from 10” or “had a hard conversation without yelling.” Marking your successes will feel good, providing needed fuel for continuing self-care practices. Finally, share your practices with someone who will encourage and support you, or who will notice and challenge you when you need more care. You will feel less alone and empowered in whatever it is you face.
Self Care Resources
American Counseling Association. (2014). 2014 ACA code of ethics. https://www.counseling.org/
Shapiro, S., & Carlson, L. (2009). “The mindful therapist.” In The art and science ofmindfulness: Integrating mindfulness into psychology and the helping professions.
Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Siegel, D. (2007). “Brain basics.” In The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
About the author – Therapists and counselors at Pacific Mental Health have shared their experiences and expertise about a variety of mental health topics on our blog.