SELF CARE – LOOKING AFTER YOURSELF
Written by Jane Anastasios. Psychologist & Family Therapist
Some conversations we have with people stick with us. Many years back, I was chatting with a colleague talking through my concerns about a close friend who was very unwell and had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I was wondering how I could be there for my friend and at the same time be attending to, let alone enjoying, the usual raft of things I had unwittingly managed to pile up on my plate (work, study, my new found love for yoga, social and family commitments). At the end of our conversation she very gently said “Take care, take very good care of yourself”. I immediately felt cared for, understood, and I also knew what I needed to do – such simple and wise words.
Sometimes we really need to take extra care of ourselves to cope with what life throws our way. We need to look after ourselves and tend to our own needs, as we can quickly or ever so gradually end up exhausted, stressed out, overwhelmed, physically unwell, being grouchy with people, and not terribly happy, all stopping us from enjoying life and being available to those we care about. And when we are tracking pretty well in life and haven’t had too much extra thrown our way, looking after ourselves can help us keep enjoying life, feel satisfied, be productive, and contribute in meaningful ways.
People often have pretty good ideas about what they need to do to take care of others or what others could do to look after themselves, and we even know what might be good for us. Yet we don’t always heed our own advice and put these very things into place in our own lives, especially when we need to the most. The New Year and other pivotal times (e.g. having kids, facing a crisis, being seriously injured) in our lives often lead us to reflect and consider what else we could be doing towards leading more fulfilling lives and/or looking after ourselves a whole lot better. I am tipping that for those of you who made New Year’s resolutions, that some aspects related to looking after yourself a little better probably made it onto your list (e.g.: exercising more, eating more healthily, learning a new skill, spending more time with friends and family, going out). This series of brief articles on SELF-CARE offer up some ideas, information and research findings to ponder, as you take stock and consider the ways that you look after yourself.
What is Self-Care
Helping people to take steps towards improving their general well-being is an area central to a psychologist’s work. We work with people as they take stock of their lives and the situations they find themselves in and help them to find ways to take care of themselves whilst contending with and coping with difficult life situations and circumstances. Taking care of yourself or self-care might best be thought of as a set of strategies or practices that people can use and actions they take on a fairly regular basis to improve, maintain or enhance their general, physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Self-care is also an attitude toward yourself that you and your needs matter. It can help when dealing with stress and stop the cascade into burnout, with coping when struggling with anxiety and depression, and also contribute to and enhanced sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction
Why Self Care Matters
There is truckload of psychological research and related literature that focuses on understanding the links among people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction and a number of practices and factors (physical, social, psychological and emotional) that can contribute to, enhance or hamper our wellbeing. This research and information has found some interesting links that are worth considering when thinking about the value of self-care:
- Looking after our physical (e.g. exercising, sleeping well) and mental health (e.g. meditation), engaging in enjoyable and meaningful activities, contributing to society through work and other purposeful activities, and connecting with other people have been linked to an enhanced sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction. (Genetics, biology and some other social and psychological factors such as personality and life events also come into play).
- Many of these factors/areas are inter-related and can influence one another –it seems that if we make some small shifts and improvements in one area it can have a flow on effect to the other areas of our life and therefore to our overall wellbeing. The flip side is also often the case – when we neglect too many of these areas in an ongoing way, we tend to fair worse physically and/or psychologically.
- Active engagement in self- care practices have been found to be helpful for people who have experienced anxiety, stress, depression, chronic pain, and some other psychological and mental health difficulties
- When we are faced with stressful life events and situations the ways we go about coping seems to matter to our physical and mental health
- Looking after ourselves by actively attending to some or all of these areas of our lives does not guarantee our wellbeing, life satisfaction, or improved quality of life, nor does it protect us from experiencing difficult times and circumstances in our lives but when these things do happen, we may be just a little bit better equipped to cope and deal with adversity and stressful situations when they inevitably arise.
Research aside, working out why looking after yourself matters to you, seems important. How and in what ways might self-care enhance your life and well-being?
What else you might like to consider when thinking about about self-care:
- It is possible to learn and put into practice a range of self-care strategies and make some lifestyle changes, that can contribute to our wellbeing. Some are hard yakka and take patience and persistence, others more simple and a little easier to add into our lives. Making lasting changes can take time and effort.
- Sometimes it is not about adding more things into our lives, but might instead involve making small changes to what is already or has already worked well, or it might mean taking out some things that are not working so well for us.
- Sometimes making sweeping or even small changes is not the way to go, as tempting as it can be. Taking time to pause and consider if now is the right time is important – in my mind this is self-care, listening carefully to your needs and acting upon them accordingly. It may be that you have other pressing things that need our attention and adding something extra into the mix just adds to the stress. You might be better off holding off for a short spell until things subside a little. If you are in doubt about this, talk it over with a professional.
- If you are wanting to make some changes and find new or additional ways to take care of yourself, goal setting and planning can help. You may find it helpful to talk it over with your GP, a psychologist or other allied health care professional.
- If you are already working with a psychologist or other mental healthcare professional, it would be worthwhile talking about self -care strategies and how they might be helpful to you.
- This business of self-care and looking after yourself can all sound a bit on the serious side. Some of it is, and yet building in time, space and activities just for fun and pleasure is equally important. Leaving space for spontaneity or doing not much at all – allowing things to just unfold holds value too.
- Self-care strategies whilst all share some core components will look very different for each of us, depending on who we are, what’s going on in our lives, what life stage we are at, and what our needs, preferences, strengths and limitations are. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way or one set of strategies to use. The ‘self’ in self-care is important to keep in mind.
- The ‘self’ in self -care, doesn’t mean you are on your own in all of this. In fact, the research strongly suggests that connecting with others, having meaningful relationships and supportive people (friends, family, acquaintances, work colleagues, professionals) in our our lives is very important to our wellbeing. Spending time with people we like and asking for help from others when we need it are important self-care strategies.
Want to know some more about all of this research:
In the following couple of blog articles we’ll take a look at some more specific strategies and techniques for you to consider. The focus is more on the practice or doing self-care. To simplify things I have clustered these into three core and inter- related areas and will tackle each one in turn.
- Physical Self Care Practices: (eg. sleep, healthy eating, exercise, stress management and ways to calm the body and mind)
- Psychological Self Care Practices: (e.g. self -compassion, self-awareness, and understanding our emotions – finding ways to respond rather than be reactive)
- Social Self Care Practices: (e.g.: engaging with people, activities, and society in ways that are meaningful, bring fulfilment, a sense of accomplishment and/or enjoyment)
Until next time, take care.