The topic or notion of self-care has sadly become one of the most cringe-worthy and illusive health and well-being buzzwords. Yet, it is, will be, and has always been crucial to our success and vitality. This post poses personal management in a new light serving as a permission slip to engage in self-care differently. I invite you to approach supporting yourself with curiosity, learn how to stack the deck in your favor, and facilitate your resilience and adaptation sustainably.
After all, self-care is truly only a gift that we can give ourselves. It is not a luxury good, but deeply personal and unique, and is where our magic is made. It is a process and journey and discovery about yourself. You are the expert of you and are the only one in your body and with yourself 100% of the time. We take care of ourselves so that we can take care of ourselves. That being said we each understand, think about, and view self-care differently.
Here are three offerings on how to reflect on self-care:
From the abrasiveness and tax of the daily grind in this highly stimulating world to personal trauma, vicarious trauma, and burnout, our allostatic loads collectively are at an all-time high. Individually, our allostatic load refers to the cumulative stress on our systems that we carry. This weight comes from the cards we were dealt, the experiences and hardships we have faced, and the burdens we feel and take on for others. Not to mention an increased load if we get sick, have a deadline, or get into a fight with a loved one.
Each of us has different factors that are modifiable and non-modifiable that make up the load that we hold each day. And, our systems respond adaptively or maladaptively to cope with such life events. The purpose of self-care is to manage what load you are taking on and help you carry the load with more ease. Self-care in essence refers to setting boundaries and resourcing yourself with behaviors that support you.
Visualize a pendulum. What swings one way will always swing back the other way. There may be times in our lives when we choose to or need to go hard in the paint – so to speak – and overdrive our systems. This is ok and we can do anything and everything, just not all the time and all at once. What goes up, must come down. Just like an off-season in training. The idea with self-care is to create more awareness of your energetic pendulum and to be able to recalibrate yourself more often. When we live at the margins, we are more prone to dis-ease or feeling unwell. Harmony and balance exist in the moderate middle.
Most people talk about self-care using one of two cup metaphors. One is that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Or, two, is the visual that you are a cup and your cup is filled with stressful things and overflows when you’ve reached your limit. My answer for either analogy - build a bigger cup. Your cup is your bandwidth, your resilience, your fuel. And you increase your cup size with self-care.
I find all three frameworks to be useful in reflecting upon what to give myself in the present moment to regulate my mood and energy. Whether you are thinking about managing your allostatic load, balancing your pendulum, or building a bigger cup, you need a menu of options to do such things. It is helpful to make this menu of self-care choices in a time of strength that way you are ready to go when your battery needs recharging. Then you can pick and choose, and trial and error in the moment, checking with yourself what is helpful and working. Remember, one size does not fit all.
When creating your menu, it can be helpful to break down self-care activities into ‘food’ for the heart, mind, body, and soul. Depending on the stress you are experiencing, you may need to tend to different aspects of yourself. Only you will know what you need, and you will develop this awareness in practice, each time asking yourself and guessing and checking what feels right. Think about how going for a run, talking to a friend, or taking a nap are each going to scratch a different itch. It may be helpful to ask yourself: do I need to sit with what’s going on (perhaps I will meditate), do I need to create with it (try art or journaling), do I need to move it (get active), do I need to soothe it (cry or shower/bath), or numb it or distract it (movie time)?
Note that some options will feel revolting in some situations and at other times they will feel great. That is normal and ok. For trauma survivors especially arriving back into the present moment with mindfulness and breath work can be scary and uncomfortable as you may not feel safe in your mind and body. A good rule of thumb or gut check to note is that a self-care activity should not leave you feeling worse. It may be tough in the moment, like a cold plunge or therapy session, but you feel better afterward. If you don’t feel a net gain, nix that activity and try a different one. The body will always give you feedback and not fail you.
Keep asking yourself and checking what you need. This strengthens your resolve, helps you foster contentment, and empowers your intuition. When we take care of ourselves, we are doing a huge service to ourselves and others. Self-care is not selfish, but rather essential and sustaining. It can be helpful to remind ourselves of these principles of self-care to speak to any guilt that we may be inclined to feel.
Ultimately as you build your self-care muscle, you will role model this for others. This is the best gift and blessing because if we each take care of ourselves that deeply helps the collective. When we each work to maintain our well-being, we experience and create less of a burden. When we set ourselves free, we set others free. And, when we engage in self-care, we are simultaneously building self-trust and self-esteem.
Lastly, for self-care lite or on the go, you can try to implement some bare necessities that are low-cost, low-time, and low profile, to charge your battery. For me, this looks like drinking a glass of water before my morning coffee, and taking a deep breath, grounding in my body every time I buckle or unbuckle my seat belt in the car. Others find it helpful to pair saying a mantra or affirmation while brushing their teeth, keeping snacks in their bag, or gentle soothing self-touch on their arm or leg. These minor things can become your self-care superpowers and have a huge return on investment for your daily well-being and productivity.
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether