With work, family and relationship commitments often taking priority, it's easy to focus your energy on making sure everybody else is happy and forget about yourself.
However, with one in four people suffering with mental health problems each year, it's more important than ever to set aside some time to focus on number one.
We speak to Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma, a psychologist at the Nightingale Hospital and Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, about the importance of looking after yourself and how to practise self-care today and every day:
What is self-care?
At its most basic, self-care is simply identifying needs or desires and then taking steps – no matter how small – to meet those needs. This can range from something as quick and simple as a shower or drinking a glass of water, to more complex tasks, such as cooking and eating a meal or engaging in exercise.
Sounds pretty simple, right? If you're stable and not experiencing mental health issues, it can often be an intuitive experience – taking a shower or eating regularly are just normal parts of a daily routine. But what if you're going through a mental health crisis, and you can't meet those needs? What if you're unable to even identify them?
'People going through crisis can experience poor motivation, low energy and fatigue,' says Dr Chheda-Varma. 'Other signs can be withdrawal and isolation, and a lack of desire to socialise and do pleasurable things. More subtle signs can be poor focus, concentration or memory.'
In other words, a mental health crisis can actively prevent you from engaging in positive acts of self-care.
20 simple ways to practise self-care
Self-care doesn't have to mean spending vast sums of money on yourself or making drastic life changes. It can be as simple as remembering to eat well and get some fresh air. Here's how to practise self-care every day:
1. Develop a sleep routine
When you're busy, a good night's kip is often the first thing to go out of the window. But sleep is essential for your wellbeing. As well as boosting your athletic performance, regulating your appetite, and improving your focus and productivity, being well rested wards off diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Prioritise sleep over a late-night Netflix binge and the rest of your health will benefit.
2. Prepare a healthy meal
Eating well is one of the cornerstones of self-care. If you go a long time without eating – or without getting enough nutrients in your diet – your body and brain won't function at their best. Cooking is a good way to relax and unwind, as it demands your full attention in the present moment. Nourish your body and mind by learning to cook healthy, comforting foods that you enjoy. Munching seven portions of fruits and veggies per day has been shown to boost happiness and wellbeing.
3. Take lunch breaks
It's tempting to push through in order to get things done, but resist the urge to eat at your desk. Even 15 minutes of fresh air can work wonders for your mood, so take a walk around the block before you tuck into your lunch or eat outside the garden if you can. It's also important to consider how you eat – give yourself time to eat slowly, so you can pay attention and enjoy what you're eating.
4. Plan a mini-break
Get something in the diary, even if it's as simple as visiting a friend or family member, or taking a day trip to the nearest beach or nature reserve. Having something to look forward to can keep your eyes on the horizon and your spirits up. In a study published in Applied Research in Quality of Life, holiday-makers were found to be happier than non-holiday-makers in the lead up to their break. However, the trips don't have a prolonged effect on happiness – all the more reason to begin dreaming up your next vacay once you're back home.
People who exercise report having 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health a month, according to a study published in The Lancet. If running or strength training isn't your bag, that's okay. You don't have to be super sporty to benefit from exercise, just go for a walk or bike ride instead. Even 20 minutes of exercise will release important hormones like endorphins and serotonin that can dramatically improve your mood.
6. Indulge in essential oils
Inhaling essential oils stimulates the olfactory system – the part of the brain connected to smell – and influences the limbic system, which is involved in our behavioural and emotional responses. Citrus scents, orange in particular, have been shown to soothe stress and anxiety in this way. You could buy a diffuser bottle, try a spray, or add a few drops to a hot bath for a steaming effect.
7. Get to know yourself
Self-discovery is an important part of self-care. Learning more about your needs makes it easier to find genuinely useful, effective and enjoyable ways to take care of yourself. Remember that your needs will change over time, too – what seems helpful now might not seem so in a year's time when circumstances change. In a journal, evaluate your skills and values, identify your passions, and write a list of new things you'd love to try.
8. Try meditation
There's a reason meditation has become so popular. It can have a huge impact on your wellbeing – both while you're practising, and in your day-to-day life. You don't have to sit in a meditative trance for hours to reap the benefits. Just 10 minutes each day can relieve stress and boost emotional stability. The same goes for yoga; learn a few simple salutations and practice them each morning to ground you and prepare you for the day ahead.
9. Read a book
Reading changes your brain for the better. It increases your ability to empathise, reduces stress, alleviates symptoms of depression, builds your vocabulary, helps prevent age-related cognitive decline, fosters a solid night's kip, and may even help you live longer. Whether you escape into a fantasy world or get lost in historical happenings, setting time aside to read pays dividends.
10. Learn to say no
Constantly saying yes to loved ones or coworkers when you don't have the capacity to help them can lead to anxiety, stress and eventually burn-out. You can't pour from an empty cup, as they say. Once you practice politely declining, you won't just feel more empowered, but you'll also have more time for other acts of self-care.
11. Head outside
Spending at least two hours a week in nature is crucial for promoting health and wellbeing, according to research led by the University of Exeter. No green space nearby? Even just looking at pictures of nature can be beneficial, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found.
12. Pay it forward
When you help others, physiological changes linked with happiness occur in the brain. Volunteering helps you to feel a sense of belonging, connect with the community, and make new friends. It also increases feelings of happiness, optimism and satisfaction. You don't need to dedicate a lot of time or money to acts of kindness. It can be as simple as offering to pick up groceries for your elderly neighbour or buying a stranger coffee.
13. Hit the dance floor
Yep, shaking what your mumma gave you can give your mental health a bona-fide boost. Dancing reduces stress, decreases anxiety and depression, and improves your self-esteem. You don't have to learn a specific style of dance, although taking up tap-dancing and ballet can boost your cognitive performance. Just crank up your favourite tune and let loose.
14. Try being happy
This sounds like patronising advice, but it's scientifically sound. Becoming happier can be as easy as trying to become happier, research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology concluded. In the study, participants who actively tried to feel happier while listening to 'happy' music reported the highest level of positive mood afterwards.
15. Treat yourself
It's official: buying new clothes can boost your mood, says science. But you don't have to kit yourself out with a whole new wardrobe. Buying a new trinket in a charity shop, treating yourself to a fancy eye cream, or ordering a new book can all bring joy to your life. If money's tight, budget the treat into your finances – splurging on something you can't afford will only make you feel worse.
16. Crack a joke
They say laughter is the best medicine, and they're totally right. A good old-fashioned giggle boosts your immune system, triggers the release of endorphins – the body's feel-good chemicals – relieves physical tension and stress, and if shared, binds you closer with others, which can have a profound effect on your mental health. Try reading a joke every day or watching your favourite comedian on YouTube. You could also start a scrapbook of all the funny things your friends and family say.
17. Watch cute animal videos
Those hours spent scrolling through cute animal videos brings tangible benefits. Watching cat-related media boosts viewers' energy and positive emotions and decreases negative feelings such as anxiety, annoyance and sadness, according to Indiana University.
18. Get jiggy
It might not be the first thing you think of when someone mentions self-care, but sex has myriad health benefits. Sex relieves stress and anxiety, and cranks up your confidence and overall sense of well-being. It boosts your immune system, relieves pain, and can make you look younger and live longer. Solo sex sessions are equally beneficial – try an erotic audio book to spice things up.
19. Hug someone
Don't underestimate the power of touch – it's a basic human need. One of the easiest and most comforting ways to fulfil the need for physical touch is to hug your friends and family. On your own? You can hug yourself, too. Either way, you'll reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve your overall wellbeing. A good old cuddle can even have pain-relieving effects.
20. Take a digital break
Unplug from social media, emails and other 'online' activities to allow yourself to unwind. Endless scrolling has been shown to increase feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, so give your brain a break. You don't have to turn your phone off completely – even just turning off notifications and setting time limits can improve your mental health.
The importance of practising self-care
Practising self-care can also be an effective way to combat a period of instability, anxiety or low mood. 'Self-care is a crucial part of recovery and rehabilitation,' says Dr Chheda-Varma. 'It offers a skeletal framework of functioning, without which the other goals of mind and mood change become difficult.'
Buckley agrees: 'Managing your mental health isn't all about medication and therapy. There are lots of triggers that vary from person to person. If someone can find some everyday things to do which can help manage feelings of anxiety, paranoia, sadness or anger, then this can go a long way in helping people feel in control of their lives and their mental health.'
Practice these four tips to start loving yourself the way you deserve:
❤️ Start small
Starting small can be a big benefit – if you're unable to get out of bed, you're not likely to go for a run or cook a complex three course meal. Rather, focusing on the things you really need to do – washing, for example, or getting dressed – can be a positive, achievable place to start. 'Small acts portray a clear message of valuing oneself,' says Dr Chheda-Varma. 'It can really boost self-esteem.'
❤️ Stick to your routine
If your mood is unpredictable and you feel out of control, establishing a solid routine can really help. 'Waking up at a similar time, sleeping at a similar time and going outdoors in the day is really helpful,' says Dr Chheda-Varma. 'This can aid motivation and mood.'
❤️ Set daily goals
Being conscious of self-care in daily life can also help. Dr Chheda-Varma encourages patients to actively divide their day's tasks into three: achievement oriented, pleasure oriented and relaxation oriented. 'This can really help individuals achieve goals that matter to them,' he says.
❤️ Keep a mood diary
Buckley suggests keeping a diary to help you establish your routine and set your daily goals. 'If you write down what you eat, or make notes about how you're feeling, over time you might work out how particular things make you feel,' explains Buckley. 'It can be really reassuring to track improvements in your wellbeing.'
Self care and asking for help
If things get too much, don't be afraid to ask for help. While self-care can go a long way towards boosting your mood and maintaining a positive life balance, if you still feel depressed and you are really unwell, it is important to seek professional help.
'Self-care can fill some gaps, but not all,' says Dr Chheda-Varma. 'Sometimes mental health and psychiatric conditions require very specialist treatment and medication. This includes therapy, group therapy, building a support network or being monitored by a professional. So while self-care can prevent an individual from an intense relapse, it may not treat them.'
Mental health support
If you think you might be suffering from depression or any mental health concern your first port of call should be your GP. For additional support, try one of the following resources:
Shout: Text 'SHOUT' to 85258 if you are struggling and a crisis volunteer will text you back. It's completely free 24/7.
Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
Mind: making sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.
Papyrus: contact for help and advice around thoughts of suicide.
Last updated: 27-12-2020
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