Self-Care - What's That?

The truth is you can’t draw water from a dry well!

I first heard about burnout - the state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress - and self-care when getting my degree to be a counselor, but no worries! My family exercised daily, ate nutritiously, and did fun things. I was going to school, had supervision, and consulted with peers. Then why was there a need to take two long breaks from counseling in three years and why didn’t client problems ever leave my mind?

My husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and I became the primary care-provider, but no worries. I had a doctorate in Psychology, read articles online, was strong, and had family support. Then why did life no longer seem worth living?  One can only conclude something was missing.

A previous newsletter touched on the importance of self-care when aging well.

Articles suggest taking a bubble bath, drinking tea, writing in a journal, or going for a walk are ways to care for the self. The fact that such ideas are being mentioned is promising and they may be soothing for some people but not everyone.

The article also mentioned additional helpful tools such as self talk, self-compassion, and gratitude. Now, it’s time to take the topic further! Self-care is more than those small acts.

Because . . . the old adage “you can’t draw water from a dry well” is true. Particularly, if you are a parent, health care provider, or care-giver.

Most people are busy. They have stressful jobs, family demands, and huge “to-do” lists. Time for themselves is usually at the bottom of the list when it really belongs at the top and guilt bubbles up when they try to make it a priority. So, self-care can be a must and a challenge; you can’t give to others if you have nothing to give.

As a counselor and caregiver, I took care of my physical and mental health fairly well, but did very little to support my emotional and spiritual health. That approach was less than successful.

So, what is different now?  I have a plan that involves taking care of my mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional health. While no one can say what self-care looks like for you, I can offer some practical ideas and share my experience.

PHYSICAL SELF-CARE

Physical self-care includes how you fuel your body, how much sleep you get, how much physical activity you do, and how well you care for your physical needs. Attending appointments, taking medication as prescribed, and managing your health are all part of physical self-care, but there is more.

In terms of physical self-care, I ate nutritiously, and exercised; but didn’t smoke, drink a lot, or take prescription drugs. Now, I include daily stretching exercises, walking and hiking, drinking lots of water, and getting 8 hours of sleep each night. Click here for a host of other great ideas.

MENTAL SELF CARE

The way you think and the things you think about influence your psychological well-being. Mental self-care includes keeping your mind sharp by making puzzles or learning about an interesting subject. Reading books or watching inspiring movies fuel your mind, as well. Finally, practicing self-compassion and acceptance help you maintain a healthier sense of self.

My mental self-care included reading and taking courses, joining online groups, writing daily in a journal, and trying the ideas that I read about. Psych Central, however, lists many additional possibilities. Click here for more ideas.

Based on that list, I now make a daily schedule and try to slow down, begin and end each day with gratitude, and recall why certain goals remain important.

I am learning to challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs or change them into more helpful ones, trying new ways to expand my comfort zone, and finding new creative outlets like writing and art. The Serenity Prayer has become a great guide.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

Mental self care is also about keeping the brain healthy. A Harvard website suggests three steps for preventing the common brain disease known as dementia: exercise, follow a Mediterranean diet, and get enough sleep. The website also suggests learning new things and connecting socially.

My husband and I exercised regularly, followed the Mediterranean diet, got plenty of sleep, learned new things, connected socially, and drank very little. Still, he had memory loss which worsened after a hospital stay, anesthesia, and numerous medications. He was ultimately diagnosed with dementia, but perhaps we softened the symptoms and stretched the time frame of decline for him.

EMOTIONAL SELF CARE

When assessing your emotional health, consider two questions. The first question is do you have healthy ways to process your emotions? The second question is do you incorporate activities into your life that help you recharge?

Emotional self-care includes how you interact with other people, as well as, the boundaries that you set with them and with yourself. Emotional self-care means developing coping mechanisms that help you express feelings regularly and keep reserves from dipping too low.

So, the goal of self-care is to ensure that you don’t drain emotional reserves while trying to keep up with everything life throws at you. Parents, caregivers, social workers, and entrepreneurs tend to give exceptional amounts of emotional energy.

I didn’t use to say no or have strong boundaries, but did ask for help – that was a start. Now, I’m learning to accept myself, which means hearing the compliments and acknowledging my mistakes. Paying attention to the message my emotions are sending and acknowledging their needs also makes a difference.

SPIRITUAL SELF CARE

 In order to age well, your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health must be considered.

Nurturing your spirit helps you develop a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and connection with the universe. Whether you meditate, attend a religious service, or pray, spiritual self-care is important.

Perhaps, your concept of spirituality is experienced in nature, with another person, or within yourself. It can be experienced through art, music, or dance. Spirituality is something meaningful and purposeful, if only to you, ultimately.

Spiritual self-care practices connect you to your true self, the real you - the true expression of who you were meant to be and what you offer the world. It’s energizing, inspiring, and most of all, feels right. You may have experienced that feeling or had glimpses of what it is like.

Three possible ways to help develop spiritual self-care are to find a quiet place and spend time there daily, contemplate the meaning and purpose of your life, or spend time appreciating the natural world around you. A quiet place allows you a space to resolve deeper issues in your life. A purpose gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Appreciating the natural world can give you hope in the perfectness of life.

My purpose was to take care of my husband as the dementia took over. My primary spiritual self care tool was to write in a journal. In retrospect that wasn’t nearly enough.

Today, the journal writing continues. I am also writing articles and talking with others because my new purpose is to share my experience with others. Walks in the woods or along the ocean give me a quiet place to heal my spirit from the pain and loss of his death.

THE PLAN

Self-care isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy and no one can say what will work for you. You must develop a plan customized to meet your needs.

Think about it, a self-care plan for a busy college student who feels mentally stimulated all the time and has a bustling social life might need to emphasize physical self-care. A retired person might need to incorporate more spiritual self-care into their schedule as friends die and health issues arise. Care providers, as a profession or for a loved one, might need to include more emotional self-care to traverse the challenges.

You will find that as your situation changes, your self-care needs may shift, as well. So, take the time, to assess these four dimensions of your life and when you discover that you've been neglecting one of them, make changes.

You don't have to tackle everything at one time. Identify one small step you can take to care for yourself better - right now. My areas of self-care requiring additional work remain the same - emotional and spiritual.

Schedule time to focus on your needs. Even when you feel like you don't have time to squeeze in another thing, make self-care a priority. If you are feeling down, ask yourself “what can I do for myself right now?”

When you're caring for all aspects of yourself, you may find that you are able to operate more effectively and efficiently.

A review of this approach can be viewed by clicking here. Are you ready to get started? It’s a must!