We often hear self-care bandied around on social media and in the offline world, as something we should all think about and include in our lives. “It’s important to look after yourself” and “Make sure you take time out,” are phrases I’ve heard more often than usual and this has prompted reflection. The internet is full of articles about how we can look after ourselves, advice about diets, exercise and making the most of that all important “me time.” Everyone always seems to have advice to give about what we could do better. But what does this all mean? And how can we really look after our wellbeing?
For me hearing, “Take time off.” and “remember self care”, implies that I need to do the opposite of anything I am currently doing. That somehow, I’ve forgotten that all important walk, regular breaks or simple time away from it all. I’ve found it easier to write about self-care when I’m experiencing the opposite to how I’d like to feel, when I’m exhausted and not doing as well as I could be. I’ve learned more about self-care when I’m not quite okay.
Since I started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks in my early teens, I always considered “what can I do to make it better?” This included ways I could calm down, relax and make how I was feeling less dominating. It was hard when I didn’t have the language to describe wellbeing, how my self-care should look or indeed anxiety. I always used music to make me feel better, as many people do. Folk music became a way to deal with my mental health, a massive part of me that at the time I didn’t understand.
Several years down the line I feel well versed with anxiety, my brain makes more sense to the extent that I could write a book on it and I feel better equipped to deal with the bad days. But sometimes, despite understanding myself more, self care is always a work in progress and something I’m constantly trying to get right.
I’m four months into starting two new jobs, and despite the joy these new roles give me, I underestimated how exhausted the transition would make me feel. My diary over the next few weeks, just has work after work commitment written in it, and this is unhealthy for anyone, mental illness or not. We all need a break and sometimes it takes moments when you spend the day in tears, to realise you can’t go on constantly working without anything in between.
I’m starting to realise that time off doesn’t mean I need to be doing something or exploring far away lands on holiday (although that would be nice.) It can simply mean doing nothing all day or having a lie in.
So how, in the next few months can I make this self care situation look better?
Rests and early nights
When I don’t get a good nights sleep, I’m physically exhausted but it also effects me mentally too. If I’m already anxious, it heightens this and makes me appear more dyspraxic. My coordination goes down hill when I’m tired and I’m probably no fun to be around. Power naps are also brilliant for when things are getting too much. They need to feature more in all of our lives.
Sometimes a long bath is the best thing to relax you. When I’m feeling particularly anxious or exhausted, time away in the bath helps me to get to sleep and to feel calm.
Actually arranging to see friends and sticking to plans
Anxiety can often mean, looking forward to seeing friends but having to cancel at the last minute. Then dealing with the guilt that follows. I once spent the hours before I was due to catch a train to a friends party in tears and then the actual train journey dealing with an anxiety attack. It wasn’t great but at least the party was fun. Since work got busy, I’ve unintentionally forgotten that other people are around and would like to see me too, if I actually make time. It’s harder, as most of my friends are a fair distance away and it takes weeks of planning and comparing diaries to actually meet up, but sometimes all I need is a mate. Cats are great but they aren’t the best conversationalists in the world. Unless they’re hungry, they’ll talk for England then.
From a young age I’ve used music as a coping mechanism, something that I could always turn to when things became difficult. It’s still there but not in my life as much as I would like. I discovered folk music when I was 12, after joining the school ceilidh band, and since then fell in love with the tunes I could learn on fiddle and the friends I could make. I found a world that accepted me and to date, is probably one of the most inclusive environments I have ever known. Anyone, no matter your age, experience or ability can join in a session and are made to feel welcome, it’s easy to feel valued and part of something. When I was at school and I had a bad day, I would practice a tune we’d learned at ceilidh band rehearsals. It helped to forget about things and for a moment focus entirely on the music. In recent years music has featured less in my life. I should play fiddle more.
Cats are brilliant for their calming effects on anxiety. They can see me at my worst and still be there the next day.
Walks in the countryside
I love getting out in nature and exploring (as long as there are no cows or geese.) Walks are brilliant for mental health, especially if you can share them with other people. I’ve really valued going to my local Mental Health Mates walks for the last year and a half.
Allocate strict working hours
Working three jobs and occassionally volunteering has resulted in too many email accounts for one person, and subsequently I’ve found myself replying to emails when I shouldn’t be or at odd times of the day. We’re probably all guilty of this, especially if we work from home or aren’t in an office with clear working hours. Allocating times to stick to certain email accounts and work, has helped to prioritise my time and to not worry about not getting back to someone straight away. Setting alarms for the start and end of “email time” on my phone is also helpful. I’ve realised that I can’t have my “work head” on all of the time, nor should anyone expect me too.
I’m probably the worst at doing the opposite of this. I’m the kind of person who likes to be busy, I’m at my happiest when I’ve got a full diary and feel a sense of failure when I haven’t. Consequently I’ve found big adjustments harder to deal with than they should be, leaving school, graduating from uni and finishing my MA last year. I went from constantly having a purpose to having free time, and my brain didn’t quite know how to process it. I felt low, that I should be doing something and pretty lost. Throwing myself into applying for jobs seemed the logical step, and after a few setbacks I ended up with the full diary I’d longed to have again. I’ve realised, that I can’t be busy all of the time, no one can and sometimes I just need to pace myself and slow down. My job involves a lot of travelling, so one strategy has been to get an earlier train, so I’m not rushing around and to give me time to sit in a coffee shop, and just be, if I need to. Similarly blocking weekends out to just read a good book or trying to not fit too much into a day, helps. I’ve realised that contacting a friend, to explain I need to go home early to sleep, isn’t a bad thing. It never was. Its called trying to not do it all and learning when my body needs to stop. I’ve also realised that it’s okay to say no. I know I can’t do too much without feeling exhausted and drained, and saying no is a way to give myself clarity about what I can take on.
This feels harder achieve, mainly owing to the fact that a holiday on my own sounds more terrifying than fun. A taxi driver recently asking if I’m going on a holiday is a conversation reserved for a select few, and not taxi drivers. Seemingly innocent questions can often lead to awkward answers, giving away more information than you’re willing to share or shutting down the conversation abruptly. I’ve found this can happen a lot with mental health or dyspraxia. But it’s important for wellbeing to at least try and get away, to find a change of scene and to switch off for a bit. Even if this just means visiting a friend for the weekend.
Although, self-care alone isn’t going to make anxiety or depression go away, It can help. A combination of therapy, medication, self-care and support from those around you are often useful tools to positive wellbeing. It’s always the combination that’s key. Recently, after filling in a wellbeing action plan, I realised the value of support from people around you – when they recognise when you need time away, or a hug or sometimes a phone call – can be just as valuable (if not more) as practicing self-care yourself. Self awareness takes time, and I’m by no means there yet, but I have found starting to articulate my mental health needs to others to be one of the most empowering things I’ve learned this year.