18 May Mental Health Awareness Week Series: My Journey With… Self Care
Self-care is a lot more than what you see in the media. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years especially, it’s this:
Self-care is effing boring.
At least, it is for most of us.
Ben, being a PT, takes insanely good care of himself. While many people I know, including me, spend most of the time thinking about what we’d like to eat, he has something weirdly wrong in his brain where he doesn’t care if what he eats is boring or not that nice – he eats it because it’s good for him, and that’s that.
He thinks less about what he wants to eat and more about what he should eat because it’s a good choice, and then just… does it. He’s a freak of nature.
But I guess he’s on to something.
At one point, I never even considered it.
There was a time when doing things like taking care of myself on a day to day basis were not only boring but really unnecessary. I just didn’t have the energy or the inclination to actually do the things I needed to do that made me a functional human being.
There were times when I’d eat absolutely nothing because I just couldn’t fathom the thought of putting anything in my mouth – my stomach was empty and I felt hungry but I didn’t have anything in me to actually make anything, and if I had I wouldn’t be able to put it in my mouth.
That’s really one end of the scale (you know, like actually doing stuff to keep yourself alive).
But the other end of the scale is dealing with stuff day to day that keeps you health mentally and physically. Being active, relieving stress – they were pretty low down on my to do list until I realised how much it was impacting me to NOT do them.
These days, self-care is so glamorised, especially on social media. We make out like it’s having a long, hot bath after a hard day, or relaxing with a glass of wine and a book.
Which it is, sometimes. Sometimes those are the things that help keep the stress and the overwhelm at bay, they’re just the thing you need to keep you sane. So by all means, keep doing them (I’m going to).
The thing is though, self-care is a lot more than that.
And sometimes if we have a hot bath and a glass of wine and don’t feel better, we wonder where we’ve gone wrong.
Because that’s not what it’s about.
Self-care is getting enough sleep every night.
(Oh my gosh, sleep is so important. Listen to or read anything neuroscientist Matt Walker has ever said about sleep and you’ll understand why.) But aside from the physical impacts of sleep deprivation, we all know how hard things are to handle emotionally and mentally after a poor night’s sleep.
It’s adding that extra portion of veg to your meal, even if you don’t really fancy it.
(Ben’s mum asked me if I’d ever eaten so much spinach before he and I got together. The answer was a resounding no.)
Staying active, even though you’d rather sit in front of Netflix.
(Starting is hardest because you’re fine once you get going but the concept is just a bit rubbish sometimes.)
Actually opening and answering that WhatsApp to go for a catch up with a friend instead of holing up and hiding away from the world.
(Avoiding it is obviously easy but it only works short term because you still feel rubbish!)
Practising healthy, positive emotional thoughts instead of letting the bad ones take over.
(And it does take practice.)
Sitting and meditating in silence for a few minutes to practise mindfulness, even though you’re busy and can’t be arsed.
(Headspace is a good app to get you started.)
And sometimes, those things are boring. Those things can even be really hard, especially when you’re time poor or have other things on your mind – and including when you’re stressed! Then, the hardest thing to do is have a healthy meal rather than an easy one, or sit down and meditate when you want to scream instead.
(Also those things all become much harder when you have a demanding job, children, or any sort of busy household.)
But the problem is, despite whatever else we’ve got going on (or probably because of it) we don’t prioritise doing the good things. They just don’t seem important, especially if we don’t want to do them.
Self-care isn’t fun all the time. We can’t spend 24/7 having relaxing baths and weekends away to cope with the world (as much as I’d like to). What we need is to take actions every single day, because those actions add up over time.
Sometimes self-care is just acknowledging that you’re doing your best and being okay with it. When I don’t feel good and can’t deal with eating a protein-rich, good fats, added veg lunch, I accept the fact that eating a sandwich is better than nothing.
And actually, I think that’s true for most self-care – it helps to do something every day, and something is always better than nothing. A ten minute walk is better than none at all. One portion of veg is better than zero.
And because those actions do add up over time, what happens in the long run is that you feel happier and healthier more often. You can’t pin it down to one single piece of broccoli you had three days ago or a particular 30-minute stretch of sleep during your eight-hour night, because it’s not one of those things; it’s the sum of all the things you put together that make you feel good and get you healthier physically and mentally.
It’s just that getting there is boring sometimes.