I remember driving to work during a cloudy and grey morning. I was listening to a podcast and trying to prepare myself for another workday. As I continued to drive, I began to notice tiny raindrops appearing on my windshield. Suddenly, out of nowhere, rain was pouring down as if someone was dumping buckets of water on my windshield. My windshield wipers went as fast as possible, yet I could hardly see a few feet in front of me. I slowed down, sat up in my seat, turned off the radio, placed both of my hands on the steering wheel. All of my focus and concentration was on the road. By the time I got to work, I felt exhausted. I got to the office and took some time to just breathe and refocus.
What about it?
What does this story have anything to do with what we’re talking about? After reflecting on my experience, I began to realize the importance of self-care for our mind and body displayed in this analogy. We go through daily routines and tend to our responsibilities. These responsibilities include a wide variety of things such as work, children, relationships, etc. The more we add to our responsibilities, if we’re not careful, one of the first things we give up is self-care. For example, imagine you are working during one of your busy weeks at work. You may be preparing for a meeting or trying to accomplish tasks to meet your weekly goals. In addition to your work life, there are plenty of things going on in your personal life: doctor appointments, meeting with friends, maybe tending to children, etc… By the time you’re done with the day, you may feel exhausted and just ready to go to bed. Self-care is being placed on a back burner. We’re aware of it, but we may not have the time, energy, or it may not be convenient at the moment.
The challenge arises when we run into unexpected events and suddenly, lack of self-care begins to catch up. Just as I was driving the car, I wasn’t expecting heavy rain, but it happened. During challenging moments, self-care serves as windshield wipers. It’s hard to see because it’s storming outside, however, windshield wipers help with giving us perspective and vision for at least a few feet. We’re able to make sense of what is happening and how to navigate through the road. Similarly, self-care serves as a buffer because we invest into ourselves on a daily basis. When unexpected challenges happen, we are able to have perspective and navigate through challenges. When we ignore our needs, it’s almost as if we’re making a conscious decision to drive 60 mph in the heavy rain without windshield wipers. An accident is inevitable. Not only do we risk being injured, but we risk hurting other people as well.
One thing that happens when we ignore our needs is we begin to feel short with other people. We start to get irritated, and other people needs, requests, or even presence can become inconvenient. It’s almost as if someone took a vacuum and sucked out all of the colors, so when you look around all you see is a blurry grey. You may wonder, great! We’ve been talking about self-care and I still don’t know what it is! So, what is it?
It is what it is
Self-care includes various ways that we look after ourselves, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Self-care can look different from person to person and there are some types of self-care that are important for everyone such as good sleep, physical activity, and attending to your own nutritional needs. These are the foundations of basic physical and mental health. Without a proper foundation, you may find yourself more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, overwhelm, burnout, etc.
Self-care practice suggestions
- Exercise: We know that physical health directly affects our mental health. One suggestion is to engage in exercise. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve our mental health. Exercise and other physical activities produce endorphins in our brain that act as natural painkillers. Based on research, we know that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and raise self-esteem. You can start off with as little as 5 minutes of aerobic exercise per day.
- Sleep Hygiene: Lots of important things happen in your brain and body while you sleep. Research shows that while you sleep, your brain is hard at work forming pathways necessary for learning and consolidating information you’ve taken in during the day. Sleep deprivation will impact your mood, energy, memory, and concentration. It’s important to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night and practice good sleep hygiene habits.
- Social Supports: engaging in social interactions is important especially when we’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed. Oftentimes, when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we tend to isolate and withdraw from people. Some individuals stop interacting with their friends or partners, stop talking to family, and stop being around people in general. It feels like it takes too much energy to talk, even to people you love and typically enjoy being around. We know that being a part of a community and engaging in conversations, receiving physical contact such as a hug, or even just being around people can decrease symptoms of overwhelm.
- Engage in Pleasant Activities: engaging in pleasant activities gives us something to look forward to and it can help promote a more balanced and positive perspective to inform our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It can foster a more hopeful perspective and stressors can seem more manageable when we make time for ourselves. Being able to go out with your friends, or watch a movie you’ve been looking forward to, whichever activities bring you joy, satisfaction, or peace, can help with bringing more balance and maintaining perspective in your life.
It can be really frustrating when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and someone keeps banging the drum of “Self-Care!” In light of everything that is happening with COVID-19, there is a lot of uncertainty, loss, grief, overwhelm, stress, and the list may continue. Engaging in self-care will not remove the pain, loss, grief, etc. however, it can help with taking care of your basic needs. Sometimes, it may be challenging to identify next steps. If you find that this is true for you and you’re having a difficult time, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We, at Optimum Joy, will be glad to work with you and assist you through this process.
Written by therapist Viktor Terpay