Have you got in place the five building blocks that underpin optimum mental health? Each day, do you: Eat Right, Sleep Right, Exercise, Socialise and Self-Care?
Self what? Most people understand what the first four tasks involve, whether or not they actually do them on a regular basis. But the fifth, self-care, leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. What is self-care and why does it matter?
Self-care involves engaging in any activity where you want to be present in the moment, because you enjoy that activity. It makes you feel good. It may have no other purpose than to make you feel good, or it may be useful. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is something that you like to do, and that you focus on it enough to enjoy it as you do it.
What differentiates self-care from just another activity is the intention and/ or the amount of the activity, which makes it hard to say ‘this activity is self-care’ and this one isn’t.
Gardening. If you enjoy being in your garden, and take pleasure in the flowers, in being outside, in contemplating your day while you water, gardening is self-care for you. But if gardening is just another chore to get done, it’s not self-care.
Watching TV. If you sit down with an intent to watch a particular show, and you’re engaged in the show and enjoying it (no matter how trashy, maybe even the trashier the better), then its self-care. But if you’re channel surfing because you’re bored, or to drown out worries about work, it’s not self-care.
Cooking. If you love the process, and gain satisfaction from cooking, its self-care. If it’s just another chore, it’s not.
Showering – Using products you enjoy, staying in a bit longer just to experience the sensation of water? Self-care. Another thing to rush through as you head to work? Not self-care.
Eating ‘junk’ food. I count this as self-care if done in moderation. Eating a dessert that you savour, where you really pay attention to the taste and how much you’re enjoying it, is self-care. Eating three desserts to numb your emotions, with little enjoyment and more than a little pathological mania, is not self-care. Also: eating a whole meal without realising because you were surfing the net/ watching tv/ on the phone? Not self-care, even if it was healthy food (but does fit into the ‘eat right’ category).
I’ve purposely used quite mundane examples here, because a lot of time self-care is characterised through activities which are costly or time consuming. Massages and holidays are great self-care too, but unsustainable as everyday activities for most of us. Other examples of simple self-care include reading, playing with your children, doing crossword puzzles, listening to or playing music, journaling, meditation, playing sport, walking, spending time in nature, playing with your dog.
At a minimum, you want to be engaging in at least one activity a day that counts as self-care. Generally, the more the better, particularly as it is possible to make a lot of everyday activities into acts of caring for ourselves simply by paying attention to our enjoyment of the activity. Also, it helps to have a variety of activities, because when we do something daily it becomes a habit, which makes it harder (but not impossible) to gain the same level of enjoyment from it.
Short term, you can live without self-care (but you shouldn’t want to!). Long term, not taking pleasure in any daily activities or scheduling time that is just for you can lead to low self-esteem, feeling resentful towards others and increased levels of stress. Try it out! When you wake up tomorrow, do something that makes you feel good, before you attend to the things that have to be done. Focus on the feelings of enjoyment you get from the activity. Notice how you feel afterwards. Keep it up, and it’ll soon become clear that taking time for yourself is as important for your mental wellbeing as taking care of your physical and social needs.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.