What is self-care anyway?
When I was in graduate school to become a counselor, every course placed a great emphasis on self care. Our professors wanted to ensure we had practices already set up within our lifestyles to be able to handle the complexities of working with clients with mental health concerns. When I was in undergrad, studying musical theater, our instructors routinely touted the importance of being able to de-escalate from an emotional character, and ground ourselves after a performance. But in both of these programs, I was often left questioning what actually was self-care? How can we ground effectively? Is bubble baths and setting limits on my screen time enough? Or is there some other peer reviewed method of actually centering our nervous system? Well, I'm not sure that I have the answer to all of those questions, but I do have some ideas that are beyond the realm of pedicures and massages (although these are excellent ways to care for our bodies, don't get me wrong!)
Self-care, by definition courtesy of Webster dictionary, is simply to care for oneself. Often in my intake session with clients, I will ask what does self-care mean to them. Sometimes it takes a few minutes for people to identify even one thing they do for themselves. What I'm really asking for is there some practice that is apart of your life that you partake in simply because it brings you joy or peace. That could very much be therapy. That could be taking a walk, reading for a few minutes, stretching, washing your face, talking with someone you care about, cooking a meal that brings comfort, or petting an animal. Self-care can really be anything, if by definition means to care for oneself, can be as basic as showering and as established as a daily meditation practice.
After an intense or emotional session, I'll leave clients with some encouragement to do something for themselves that afternoon or evening. I recognize that this can be difficult with kids at home, a home to maintain, and meals to cook. Anxiety can also leave us feeling guilty for taking that 20 minute nap or walk around the block instead of doing one more thing on our to-do list.
I believe that part of my responsibility as a therapist is to educate clients on the effects of different mental concerns they may be facing, and how to combat them. SO what does this mean? Well let's take body dysregulation as an example. Self-care is often meant to help slow us down and relax from our regular pace. But when we experience anxiety that can create difficulty breathing, racing thoughts, increased heart rate, upset stomach, or sometimes jittery hands and muscles.
Breathework and other grounding exercises such as meditations and visualizations are excellent ways to practice self-care and nervous system regulation. But when we are in a heightened state, it can be really difficult for our brains to learn a new coping skill. Now I'm not saying that taking some deep breaths when we are feeling nervous is useless. And there are numerous call centers that can be utilized if you need medical attention or are having suicidal thoughts (see list below) But, what if we looked at self-care as a preventative tool? Not something to use only when we feel stressed out or in a full panic state, but something that we viewed as a vitamin to take daily, not only as needed.
My undergrad and graduate programs had the right idea. To become mentally healthy and resilient, we need to think about self care now. Before we are in a demanding career with student loans, a baby on the way, and whatever else life throws our way. But today, right now, what is one thing that you now recognize is a part of your self-care regimen? Or is there something that you are willing to try?
The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET.
Suicide hotline dial 988
Johnson County Mental Health Center 24/7 Crisis Line:913-268-0156