Self-care is essential for mental and emotional well-being. If you are one of the millions of Americans struggling with depression and/or anxiety, developing a strategy to improve your mental health is even more critical to your well-being. Almost every one of us could take better care of ourselves, and yet we often don't. In today's fast-paced world, self-care is often neglected. Our lives are often so full of distractions from waking to sleeping, that unless we consciously make time for self-care, we never actually get around to it. Planning ahead and deliberately developing self-care habits increases the likelihood that you will actually care for yourself. By taking advantage of your brain's natural tendency to create routines, you can make self-care as effortless as putting on your shoes. This week's Mental Health Monday post will walk you through the steps of developing your own personal self-care strategy.
As with all of my self-improvement posts, I recommend you write this down. If you haven't already started a notebook or journal for this purpose, now would be a good time to start. Writing your plan down gives it multiple access points into your neural network. It also provides you with a resource to refer back to when you feel challenged and allows you to monitor your progress.
Commit to Making a Change
You can be interested in changing all you want, but until you are committed, you won't actually show up for yourself. So the first step of creating a self-care plan is making the decision that your mental and emotional health are important to you. As the flight attendant says, "put on your own oxygen mask first." Many of us have so many responsibilities that we suffer from a perpetual state of burnout. Trying to care for others without first caring for ourselves is like trying to water plants from a broken well. Until you fix the plumbing, you just don't have the water to give. At the top of your self-care plan, create a statement of intent for yourself. It might look something like, "I commit to taking better care of myself" or "I intend to care for myself more fully."
Assess Your Current Situation
Self-Care looks different for everyone. In order to determine what self-care looks like for you, the best way to begin is by assessing your current state of self-care. Think about your typical day and/or week. Are there times when you practice self-care? How often do you make time for yourself? Is it enough? Are your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs being met? Is there a noticeable lack of self-care? What are your current coping mechanisms? Which ones are beneficial and which ones are harmful? Is there a harmful coping mechanism you wish to overcome? By asking yourself these and similar questions, you can begin to get an idea of what your current self-care situation looks like. Notice any areas in which you tend to neglect yourself. Are you good at meeting your physical needs but tend to neglect your emotional needs? Do you neglect all of your needs in times of stress? Identify your behaviour patterns any changes and improvements you would like to make. Set goals for yourself. For example, if you realise you have a tendency to neglect your physical well-being, set a goal to care for your physical needs.
Develop Your Self-Care Plan
Once you have an idea of what your current self-care looks like and what your goals are, you can begin to create your plan. Identify what makes you feel good and what will meet your unmet needs. If you would like some ideas, look over my list of easy ways to improve your mood. Identify any self-care activities you currently use as well as ones you would like to add. Self-care is a personal adventure and will look completely different from person to person depending on which aspects of ourselves we tend to neglect. It's important that you identify what works best for you and be able to meet your own needs. For some people, going out with friends is self-care, for others, saying no to social obligations is self-care. Speaking of which, this is a good place to identify sources of stress in your life and limit them. For example, is there a regular social date that always leaves you feeling drained? If removing the obligation completely is too much for you to handle at the moment, consider cutting back from every week to every other week. Self-care includes not only saying yes to the things that make us feel better but also learning to say no to the things that make us feel worse.
As any recovering addict can tell you, change is easier when your support system is involved. The people we surround ourselves have a direct impact on our habits. For example, being a non-smoker is easier if you are surrounded by non-smokers and infinitely more challenging if you are surrounded by smokers. If you identified a negative habit you wish to change, tell your loved ones. Enlist their help in holding you accountable for your actions and lovingly pointing out areas that need improvement. If there are activities you wish to include, tell your loved ones what your plan is and why you're doing it. For example, in my life, I know that I need to do yoga daily as part of my self-care. And honestly, if I don't do it in the morning, I won't do it at all. Part of my support is that my sister knows I need to do yoga every day. In the beginning of developing this habit, she would often ask me if I had done my yoga. Even today, if we have plans to do something, she will ask if I have done my yoga yet.
Follow Your Self-Care Plan
Look at your goals and decide how often you would like to practice self-care based on your schedule, responsibilities, and personal needs. I recommend setting aside a little bit of time every morning at a minimum. Why mornings? Just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day, your morning routine is the most important part of your day. Ever notice how one bad thing in your morning, such as a stubbed toe or burnt toast, can ruin the rest of your day? This is because mornings set the tone for our entire day. By beginning your day with some self-care, you can establish a positive mindset that will help you function at a higher level and handle stress more easily. Even if you only have fifteen minutes to spare, setting aside fifteen minutes to meet your own needs helps you begin the day with a full cup. Also, establishing a daily practice is key to establishing new neural pathways. Once something has been repeated often enough, it will become part of your unconscious habits. If including a daily habit seems too daunting, start with a weekly self-care practice. No matter how often you do it, the key is repetition.
Monitor and Re-asses
Here's the place where I'm going to recommend you develop a journaling habit. Again. Whether you see it as an art project, a journal, an experiment log, or just a place to dump your thoughts, it's one of the most helpful things you can do for yourself. Think of your mental health journey as an experiment. You are hoping to discover what it takes to be your best you. By trying things out and keeping track of how you felt, you have valuable experimental data that will show you what is working and what isn't. Identifying strategies that work tells you what you need to do more of. Identifying what doesn't work allows you to make room for something new that can serve your highest good. Plus, keeping track of your progress can be a huge motivator when you hit a slump. One of the most powerful things for me has been the ability to chart the improvement of my bad days. Bad days for me used to involve a plethora of destructive behaviours and coping mechanisms that always left me feeling worse. Like snowballs rolling downhill, they had a nasty way of accumulating enough force to turn into emotional avalanches. Now, on my bad days, I am able to look at my journal and see the proof of how many good days I've had. I know I have the power to turn my thoughts and emotions around. I can also see the huge improvements I've made.
As with anything, repetition is the key to success. In order to really make self-care part of your life, it needs to be an unconscious habit. By creating a self-care plan and refining it into a routine that you follow, you set yourself up for success. I know, initially, the idea caring for yourself (much less every day) probably meets with a lot of resistance. We live in a culture that doesn't tend to value such things. And yet, the happiest people make caring for themselves a priority so much so that it is an unconscious habit. They simply live according to what makes them happiest. The truth is, when we try to do from a place of unhappiness, what little we manage to do is subpar at best. When we act from our happy place, we do simply amazing things. I know from my own life, that when I first encountered the concepts of self-care, I thought it sounded crazy, like something I didn't have time to do. I loved sleep too much to try such nonsense. Now, I plan to be up two hours before I need to leave to make sure I have time to follow my morning routine. I've discovered that the days that I didn't do my self-care were bad days. As a result, I crave my self-care in the morning. There's nothing likes starting your day off from your happy place. But as always, I don't expect you to take my word for it. Test it out. Take the time to discover what makes you happy. Deliberately include it in your day. See what happens. Everyone blossoms under love and care. And the only person who can truly give you what you need is you. You're worth it.
Committed to making a change in your life? Start at the beginning. Create an Emergency Self-Care Plan if you haven't already. And as always, tune in next week for How to Create a Morning Ritual to Supercharge Your Life.