By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, a weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin. This week we’re talking about self-care – why you need to make time for self-care every day, and how to choose self-care actions that are the right fit for your mental health and wellbeing. So, let’s talk!
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What things do you do every day to look after your physical, mental and spiritual health? What do you do to relax? And what things do you do to relax that might not be in your best interests? We all have control over what we do every day to look after our health and wellbeing, and it’s the choices we make and how highly we value the need for self-care that can determine what happens next in our life. Today I’m going to be talking about what self-care is (and isn’t), what effective self-care looks and feels like, why self-care plays such an important role in our lives, and some of the things you can do every day to maintain or improve your mental health and wellbeing.
Self-care is a funny old thing. Pick up pretty much any magazine or watch any TV commercial and you’ll be bombarded with messages telling you just how much this particular new fragrance will change your life, or why you should book that holiday to that all-inclusive resort in Bora Bora immediately if you don’t want to explode from unhappiness, or why you should take a break with this specific chocolate bar if you want to be happy. And those things are all well and good, but they’re not really going to change your life and they’re not particularly good examples of self-care – they’re more indulgences than self-care.
What is self-care? It’s not just some new-age term: it’s a serious part of health and wellbeing; even the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises it. The WHO identifies self-care as being related to both the individual and the broader community, incorporating things like hygiene, nutrition, lifestyle, environmental factors, socioeconomic factors, and self-medication – if you’re interested in reading more, the WHO article is located here.
I view self-care as being when you take proactive steps to maintain and improve your overall health and wellbeing. When I talk about ‘health and wellbeing’, I’m talking about a holistic view of health: your physical health, mental health, and spiritual health combined. Why? Because nothing exists in isolation – not even you. And if you focus on one element of your wellbeing over another, you’ll have less chance of creating good long-term health and wellbeing because you’re neglecting those other fundamental areas of your health. Which matters, because we’re all in it for the long haul, right?!
On that note, let me clarify what self-care is not. It’s not doing things or buying stuff today to treat yourself at the expense of your future happiness. It’s not staying up until 3am drinking when you have to be at work at 8am. ‘Treat yourself’ is a nice concept, but it needs to be balanced with a bit of personal responsibility so that you don’t screw yourself over in the long run – you might think going into debt to get that expensive car is a good idea because you’re treating yourself, but if you can’t afford it then you’re going to be making life difficult for yourself in the future. Trust me, I know: before I had my nervous breakdown back in 2011, I racked up a massive amount of debt and it ended up making the next few years (when I couldn’t work) a lot more challenging than they needed to be. I say all the time “do whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t do any harm,” and that means harm to yourself as well as to others.
Which brings me to self-care that comes in the form of a wine bottle or drugs or any other kind of activity that can lead to addiction. Look, I’m not here to judge anybody and I firmly believe ‘each to their own’ – but there’s a fine line between moderation and excess. I’ve been sober now for 16 months and it’s been the right choice for me because I just can’t do moderation – but what you put into your body is your choice. Let me just make the point that alcohol is actually a poison, and then do with that information what you will… what I’m saying is don’t come home from work and drink a bottle of wine or two in the name of self-care, because that’s not self-care – that’s either an indulgence or an addiction, depending on how often you do it!
The focus of this week’s article is on good self-care (I’d be doing a pretty shitty job if I were recommending bad self-care… just saying!). Some examples of good self-care could be meditation, mindfulness, healthy diet and exercise, spending time in nature, having a set routine for sleeping and waking (and sticking to it!), taking time regularly for reflection, reading a book, etc.
Self-care and mental health
Self-care is a massive part of your mental health and wellbeing, because it’s all about making time to look after yourself – and doing so in a thoughtful manner. If you choose to consciously do something for your overall wellbeing, and you make a choice to do those types of things on a regular basis, you’re not just investing in your health and wellbeing but you’re also sending a clear signal to yourself that reinforces just how important it is to treat yourself with kindness and care, and that can go a long way to building your sense of self-worth as well as your self-confidence.
You’ll notice that I have mentioned physical health, mental health and spiritual health a few times now. Why? Because they are all intertwined; there is no one component without the others. Self-care means caring for your mind, your body and your spirit – focus on all of it, because nothing exists in complete isolation in this world. When I talk about spiritual health, that is whatever works for you – i.e. Your spiritual beliefs. That might be religion for some, it might be alternative spiritualities for others, or it might be your own set of beliefs that feel right to you. Whatever it is, it’s up to you – and you entirely – to decide what feels right to you. ‘Spirituality’ simply means an awareness of something bigger than yourself, and given that we live in a universe filled with unimaginable wonders, it shouldn’t be too hard to find something that makes you go ‘wow!’. If you really can’t find something, go outside on a clear night and look up at the sky, then start from there!
Like a lot of what I talk about in Let’s Talk About Mental Health I have spent a lot of time researching and learning about all this stuff, and I know I’m good at talking about it and coaching other people on it, but for myself it’s been an ongoing battle to get to a point where I’m able to push past my demons and do the things every day that are the right things for me. I already mentioned my choice to become sober last year, and at the moment I’m resetting my physical health and fitness because I fell back into emotional eating while I was stressed out at work a few months ago and gained back a big chunk of the weight I lost a couple of years ago, so much so that I was having to buy new clothes nearly every month because I was rapidly getting bigger and bigger. I mean, I knew that eating a family-sized bag of potato chips or a block of chocolate wasn’t good for me, but I was just so miserable that I couldn’t stop. Then once I left my job I found it almost impossible to change my behaviour and continued eating my feelings. Two weeks ago I decided that enough was enough – I just don’t think it’s right to be talking about mental health and wellbeing if I can’t get my shit together, and I can’t sit here and talk about self-care with a cupcake in my hand. So it’s out with the crappy food and in with positive self-care activities – all the stuff that I know is the right thing for me to do, but which I often let go of when my anxiety and mood swings overwhelm me. Self-care is a choice, and for some of us it’s a choice that we have to consciously make and re-make every single day.
The term ‘self-care’ simply means anything that you do, on purpose, to look after your physical, mental and spiritual health and wellbeing. It’s the ‘on purpose’ bit we often overlook – often we get so caught up in our day-to-day lives that we forget to deliberately make time for our self-care, and we either wind up doing stuff by accident or because we’ve gotten so stressed out that we have to take some time out for ourselves before we explode. This is nothing new, either; George MacDonald, a British poet and novelist who lived in the 19th century, once wrote: “Work is not always required… there is such a thing as sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.” Which is basically just a Victorian way of saying that we all need to make time to relax and unwind.
Self-care means different things to different people. For some people, going to a gallery or museum might be relaxing while to others it could be their idea of hell on earth. It doesn’t have to be extravagant – sometimes just a relaxing cup of tea is exactly what you need; like Madonna once sang, “feels so good inside” [Like A Virgin, 1984], although something tells me she probably wasn’t singing about a soothing cup of chamomile… You know yourself better than anybody, so only you can tell you what feels right for you and what the goal of self-care is for you.
I believe that the goal of good self-care is to centre yourself; to find a moment or two of calm in this hectic world so that you can keep going and be your best self. It’s about taking care of your mind, body and spirit, both at home and at work, because the more calm you feel the more effective you will be.
I talk a lot in my work about the goal of good mental health and wellbeing as being satisfaction, and that’s what I’m talking about here. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be happy as well, but in taking time to deliberately look after your wellbeing you are more likely to feel calm, satisfied and carefree for longer than if you go out of your way to pursue a spike of happiness – those are longer-term feelings that in turn lead to longer-term happiness.
What you choose to put into your body, your mind and your spirit will have a big impact on how you feel. Healthy food = healthy body. Healthy thoughts = healthy mind. When it comes to spirituality, it doesn’t matter if you’re religious, spiritual or not even remotely spiritual, but instead what I’m referring to is a healthy awareness of the fact that you are part of something bigger than just you. I know I use the night sky example a lot, but seriously – you only need to go outside at night and look up into the sky to realise just how enormous this universe is, and that you are one piece of a very large puzzle. You’re a very important piece, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not the only piece, so think and act like it! I really do believe that if we all stopped thinking that we’re the most important thing in the known universe and thought more about how our thoughts and actions contribute to the bigger picture, then our world would be a very different place. It is entirely possible, and it starts with each of us choosing to think, act and speak in a way that respects that nothing and nobody exists in isolation, and that everything we think, say and do has an effect. That’s what I mean by health in terms of your spirituality – however that manifests for you, be it through organised religion or at-home new-age spirituality or joining a cat cult, go for it and do what feels right for you!
Self-care doesn’t have to be over-the-top or extravagant. I take myself to a cafe to work over breakfast and a coffee two or three times a week – I put my headphones on, do an hour of work (and get probably twice as much done than I would working in my home office because I have less distractions, even with all of the people around me in the cafe), and that has turned into a nice simple act of self-care that works for me. You just need to find the things that work for you and do those – and mix it up; don’t just do one thing and consider yourself all done on the self-care front, instead do lots of different things to keep it interesting and to reinforce the importance of looking after your mind, body and spirit.
Go and sit out in the sun and read a book for half an hour (just remember to wear a hat and sunblock!). Go to bed early. Take a nap on a Sunday afternoon. Do some writing. Watch an inspiring nature documentary in 4K high-definition. Snuggle up in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and a magazine or your eBook reader. Go out for a walk for half an hour and leave your phone at home (or take it with you but put it on flight mode). Whatever you choose to do, make time for you. There’s an anonymous quote that says, “Start treating yourself as if you are the most important asset you’ll ever have. After all, aren’t you?” and that makes a lot of sense when you think about it – it’s probably kind-of obvious, but if you don’t make time to look after you, who will do it for you?
Practical steps for self-care
Alright, let’s get into the practical bit of this week’s post: how exactly do you work through self-care? I love a good step-by-step process (you can take the boy out of the corporate world, but…!) so here are a few steps you can follow to improve your self-care, which will in turn go a long way towards improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing:
First, Ask yourself what ‘Self-Care’ looks like to you: What do you enjoy and, more importantly, what don’t you enjoy doing? Sometimes it can be especially helpful to be clear about what is a definite ‘no’ for you, so that you can ensure you’re focusing your energy on the things that feel right for you. Take some time to really think through what good self-care looks and feels like to you.
Brainstorm ideas: Actually, brainstorm lots of ideas – think of all the things you enjoy doing or want to do more of, and write them down. Be specific. I mentioned before that self-care means different things to different people, so feel free to gather ideas from friends, family, strangers on the internet, random writers and podcast hosts (hi!)… but only you can decide on what will be the right types of things for you. Factor those things into your list.
Create a plan: Plans work well because they give us structure, but you don’t need to be so plan-focused that you take the spontaneity out of self-care; it doesn’t need to be, “It is 5pm, fun will now commence for 45 minutes”! Rather, take a look at your schedule and then plan out at least one block per day of at least 20 minutes where you will focus on self-care and stick to it regardless of what happens (or if you really have to move it and it can’t be avoided, then make sure you find time for it elsewhere in your day without fail). Your flight attendant was correct: you need to put on your own oxygen mask first, people…! Have a rough idea what types of things you might do in your self-care time so that you can be prepared (e.g. Have enough herbal tea in the pantry if that’s what you’re probably going to want), and also so that you can be realistic about what will and won’t work depending on when you can spare the time – for example, when you get home from work might not be the time that you’re feeling up to going for a run for an hour (I don’t know, it might – but that’s up to you), so if you know you’re the type of person who is exhausted when you get home from work then plan something instead that’s more in line with how you’re likely to be feeling.
Do it daily: So you have a list of ideas and a plan? Great! Now, go ahead and do the damn thing! I don’t think we need to over-think this one, because it’s pretty straightforward. The main thing is this: do something every day, and make sure that you’re clear in your own mind that you are performing self-care activities deliberately for your health and wellbeing.
And finally here is an extra-special bonus step – Evaluate, Eliminate, Extend: Don’t just keep doing the same thing over and over again without taking the time to assess if it’s actually working for you. At least every few weeks, take a few moments to reflect on your self-care routine and evaluate what is working for you and what isn’t. If something isn’t working – eliminate it. If something is working well – extend it; in other words, do more of it or of that type of activity. Try new things and keep it feeling fresh so that you can avoid falling into a rut, because when that happens your self-care activities might be less effective.
It might seem challenging at first to make the time for self-care and stick to it, but it’s in your best interests and if you persevere it will become second-nature; remember, it takes a good two or three months before a repeated action turns into a habit (trust me, it’s not 21 days – ask anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking!), so keep going for at least three months. You might find it useful to share your plan with a friend, a family member or your partner and ask them to either keep you honest by checking in daily/weekly/monthly or to join you (but with a plan that is tailored to them as everyone’s needs and preferences are different!). Do whatever works for you – but do it. You are worth it!
Summary and three quick tips for self-care
To summarise: Self-care is all about making time to look after your health and wellbeing, and doing so deliberately. You have a choice, and so it’s up to you to choose to look after yourself and make yourself a priority. Just please make healthy choices so we don’t need to come back here and talk about consequences later on!
To wrap up, here are my three main tips for self-care:
- Self-care isn’t about being indulgent or lazy – it’s self-preservation. Nobody can run on empty, so make time to recharge those batteries!
- Create a self-care plan that works for you – identify stuff that you can do that has a positive impact on your mind, body and spirit and do it!
- Choose self-care activities that are healthy – that tenth glass of wine might make you feel relaxed, but it’s not exactly good for you. Sorry! Healthy choices = healthy outcomes. It’s boring but it’s true! Don’t make choices that are going to make your future self want to come back in time and slap the shit out of you 🙂
As always, let’s finish up with a quote. This is a quote from Dutch writer Etty Hillesum (1914-1943); take a moment to reflect on this quote in relation to the topic of self-care and consider what it means to you. The quote is:
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.”Etty Hillesum
So, that’s it for this week! Thanks for joining me again. New podcast episodes and blog posts are released every Monday morning (Australian time), and each Friday morning you can read the weekly Mental Health Talk newsletter which is full of general stuff about health and wellbeing (along with some fun stuff) so please subscribe via the website. For more content, go to:
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Next week I’ll be talking about baggage – what it is, why we can sometimes end up being weighed down by unresolved stuff in our past, and how to set it free (like a biodegradable balloon or a wayward insect trapped in your car). I hope you’ll join me again. Until then, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2019 Jeremy Godwin.