If we think about it, looking after ourselves should be the most natural and understandable thing in the world. After all, studies have consistently shown that people who routinely practice self-care are happier and healthier – not only physically but also mentally. And yet, there’s a huge discrepancy between what we think and what we actually put into practice. According to a Birchbox study, 67% of Americans take better care of loved ones than of themselves, and one in three people feel guilty when they take time for themselves. The result? People are feeling more and more overwhelmed and burned out.
So, can’t we, as a modern society, seem to get self-care right? The chaos of everyday life is an important factor. After all, between job responsibilities, never-ending commutes, political instabilities, and global pandemics, it’s difficult to slow down to catch our breaths. However, there’s also a lot of confusion as to what self-care represents and how it can be done. Contrary to popular belief, practicing self-care doesn’t mean booking a two-month Yoga retreat to Vietnam to find yourself or buying a Chanel handbag. Well, self-care can be those things too, but the act itself doesn’t have a price tag, and it’s not selfish.
If you’re used to saying yes to others and no to yourself, here are some simple yet effective ways to get into self-care.
Load up on healthy food
While there’s nothing wrong with indulging in chocolate and comfort food occasionally, if your everyday menu consists only of fast food, takeout, and pre-cooked means, you might want to include a bit of variety into your diet. That doesn’t mean you have to become a food guru or spend hundreds on expensive organic meal subscriptions, but rather that you need to give your body healthier fuel to keep going. This means more fiber, vitamins, and protein from lean meats.
Unfortunately, many of the foods that are delicious, cheap, and convenient to eat also lack the right nutrients and provide empty calories: that means they give you enough energy to keep you going, but they don’t have enough nutrients to promote healthy living. In time, this leads to health issues (stomach aches, fatigue, heart, and liver disease, increased cancer risk), and also low mental wellbeing. Many times, the simple act of cooking a meal is a form of self-care because you take the time to do something yourself, and you know what goes into your food – as opposed to ordering takeout every night and eating it in a hurry over the keyboard.
No more junk sleep
If you don’t feel like yourself after a bad night’s sleep, you’re not exaggerating. When you don’t get enough sleep, or you wake up repeatedly during the night, your brain can’t rest properly, so the next day, you’re tired, groggy, irritable, and can’t focus properly. When this happens for more than a few weeks, your mental health starts to decline. You may find it harder to do your best at work, maintain relationships, and the smallest inconveniences will seem like major hurdles.
So, if 3am catches you at your desk, revising work tasks, or doomscrolling on Facebook, it’s time to make a change. If the issue is with your sleeping environment, getting a higher quality mattress and investing in bamboo comfortable loungewear could help you fall asleep faster. For extra relaxation, light a scented candle and do some yoga to release the tension gathered throughout the day. Turning off all electronic devices one hour before bedtime and reading a book instead also helps because you have more time to wind down.
Having a walk outside is the closest thing our brains can get to a universal quick fix for any issue. Studies have shown that breathing fresh air has tremendous benefits for the brain, and even looking at pictures of nature has a positive impact. Experts even talk about a condition called ‘nature deficit disorder’, where the absence of nature and living only surrounded by walls and polluted urban environments causes our mental health to deteriorate.
Going outside doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to book a city break every weekend or buy a vacation home (though kudos to you if you can do these things), but to let nature into your life, even in small doses. Having your lunch in the park instead of the office kitchen, taking the more scenic route to work, or spending a few hours at the weekend in a nearby forest can do wonders too.
Like healthy food, physical exercise is essential for good mental health. Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly are less likely to have anxiety and depression and have an easier time coping with stress. They also get better sleep, have increased self-esteem, and are more motivated.
If you’ve tried going to the gym and it didn’t work, don’t be discouraged. There’s a form of physical exercise for everyone, so don’t stop trying. Some people swear by doing Pilates at home. Others love yoga, jogging, or bouldering. Even walking and playing with your pets counts, as long as you do it consistently and it forces you to flex your muscles a bit.
Most importantly, self-care means finding time for what helps you be yourself.
Like happiness, self-care is subjective. What you understand by it depends on your personality, background, and things that are going on in your life. For some people, self-care means meeting up with friends on Friday night. For others, it’s cuddling with their favorite blanket and reading on the couch. Your definition of self-care doesn’t have to match someone else’s, so do the things that make you feel yourself the most and be unapologetic about it. Whether it’s hanging out with friends, reading, gardening, doing extreme sports, playing with your pets, or simply chilling in your PJs until noon, self-care means investing in your relationship with yourself and taking deliberate steps to improve your well-being.
Robert Haynes did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health and well-being.