Tuesday, July 17, 2018

How I Practice Self-Care: What Self-Care Means to Me

My life revolves around taking care of myself.

I don't think you need to have a chronic illness for self-care to be your highest priority, but managing my mental health symptoms has forced and encouraged me to put such high stock in it.

I tried for over a month to write this post, but kept finding myself overwhelmed with the seemingly impossible task of summing up every aspect of self-care that keeps me going. So, I'm breaking it into a couple different posts. This first post will detail how I define self-care for myself. I'll follow up with two more posts further elaborating on how I specifically practice self-care.

A disclosure: I am not a mental health professional. I cannot advise what will help with mental health symptoms beyond sharing what has helped with mine. Everyone is different and experiences their symptoms differently. What I have to say about self-care comes from my personal and academic experiences, but not professional by any means. If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health symptoms that poorly affect their lives, please seek professional help.

Self-care, for me, has four main dimensions. The first is unconscious, the second is conscious, the third is daily, and the fourth is as needed. For me, self-care looks like one of those graphics that rates the cross of two separate scales. I have unconscious daily habits, like checking in with myself; unconscious as-needed actions, like meditative exercises; conscious daily habits, like feeding myself; and conscious as-needed actions, like dunking my head in a bowl of ice water (I swear it works).

Unconscious habits:

In the eight years that I've been in regular treatment for depressive and anxious symptoms, I've been learning and adopting healthy coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms replace the approach to life that I'd developed in desperate self-preservation. My habit of eating sugar developed when I didn't have the energy to plan/shop for/cook good meals but still needed the energy to get through the day, but it only serves to make me more tired and less likely to eat well in the future. Other unhealthy coping mechanisms include toxic thought patterns and isolating social behavior.

When I first learn these unconscious, healthy coping mechanisms, they take attention and effort to practice. It can be difficult and even annoying to institute these coping mechanisms into my life, no matter how small. But the more I practice them, the less attention and effort I need to put into them. These coping mechanisms have largely become habits that my brain leans on without my prompting.

Conscious actions:

When I'm learning new coping mechanisms or I'm in a particularly emotional/triggering situation, I have to sit down and think about how to utilize this kind of self-care.

They can be as little as reminding myself to floss or as big as developing an emergency plan to keep myself going when I don't feel safe.

This includes the kind of activities I think people usually think of when they think of self-care. Going out of your way to incorporate a nice bath, a shopping spree, etc. into your day is absolutely a valuable conscious form of self-care. But that is a slim percentage of what self-care actually is. I'm going to keep bringing that point up throughout this series. I don't mean to rain on spa days or curling up with a good book. I simply mean to expand on our understanding of what it means to develop lifestyles that allow us to take care of ourselves.


Whether once or dozens of times a day, I practice these self-care habits regularly. This is the self-care that gets me through life without just feeling like I'm barely keeping my head above water.

Sometimes, though, it does enable me to just barely keep my head above water. This is less-than-ideal, but still ok. Sometimes, I have a lot of days like this. Sometimes, I have very few. I am doing what I need to to stay alive, I think, and working on finding even better ways to stay alive in the future.

As needed:

In all honesty, there's a lot of overlap between conscious self-care and as-needed self-care. Most of the as-needed self-care I engage in IS conscious. It has to be conscious, or I wouldn't know to just do it occasionally.

Engaging in as-needed self-care requires me to do a lot of routine work to stay in touch with myself. How am I feeling at any given moment? What are my 5 senses experiencing? Am I hungry? What are the words I can put to the emotional state I'm in? How long have I been feeling this way? 

Being aware of how I'm doing all the time does take a lot of energy, but the benefits (including the energy I gain by addressing any negative feelings) absolutely make the work worth it.

Now that I've shared what self-care means to me, I'm going to write an additional two posts detailing the daily and as-needed forms of self-care that make up my routines. Will you have to wait another 3 months to read the follow ups? Quite possibly. 

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