Is self-care simply an indulgent buzz word, or is it perhaps the key to achieving success, whatever success, in fact, looks like to us as an individual? It is easy to forget to take care of ourselves in our busy lives. However, how much does this really matter?
The truth is that self-care and learning how to take care of yourself is actually the bedrock for success. It is the scaffolding for good mental wellbeing. It is the fuel in our tank that enables motivation, drive and ambition. It’s the cheer-leader which enables you to succeed in your career, personal life and every facet of what you do.
Indeed, central to emotional intelligence (EQ) is the fundamental need to learn how to take care of yourself emotionally, physically and mentally.
What is self-care?
Our first hurdle is to understand what self-care means. Simply being instructed to take care of yourself for better life success and wellbeing can feel too vague. What do our mind and body need? What mental and physical self-care techniques matter? How do we know we are spending time wisely (drawing on and developing our EQ) rather than being caught up in the psychological ‘trend’ of the moment?
Self-care is not actually a vague concept. It involves action. To take care of yourself, there are things you need to do.
Self-care can be defined as a deliberate activity to take care of our physical and emotional health. Self-care is a practice.
Why does self-care matter?
It is vital to understand why self-care matters so much. There are many different forms that self-care can take (such as healthy eating, mindfulness or getting enough sleep). The result is that the benefits of self-care are actually hugely wide-ranging:
- Boosts emotional self-regulation: Studies show that self-care through the form of physical exercise aids our ability to self-regulate our emotions. This is central to improving our EQ.
- Reduces stress: Research demonstrates that practising self-care reduces stress and the risk of burnout.
- Increases energy levels: Self-care can actually make you more productive. Think of self-care as putting fuel in the tank. It enables you to keep going. Furthermore, it helps us to focus which has positive repercussions on our motivation and drive.
- Powers our physical health: At its most basic form, self-care includes eating healthily and exercising. We are all familiar with the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise. Indeed, taking time for self-care can, therefore, help reduce our chances of heart disease and lower blood pressure to name just a few physical benefits.
- Fuels our mental health: Practicing good self-care reduces the symptoms of depression. Indeed mindfulness as a self-care tool has been shown through neuroscience to reduce anxiety and positively change the brain for the better.
Self-care isn’t, or shouldn’t be, negative
Before you rush off and start making a plan which ticks off every item on a self-care wishlist, you need to understand that self-care can look different for different people. What works for one may not work for another. This is an important aspect to grasp; self-care shouldn’t be something hard, or that you don’t enjoy. Indeed, it needs to be quite the opposite.
Therefore, when we come on to how you should take care of yourself shortly, it’s important to understand that these are suggestions, not a prescribed set of ‘must-do’ activities. Self-care is about filling up the tank, not introducing changes which help to deplete it further.
The practicalities of self-care
The practice of self-care is individualistic. It would be best if you found your own pattern and must-dos. However, there are some core concepts that you should aim to include:
- Getting enough sleep: Getting the right amount of hours of sleep each night is a basic tenet of self-care. Science shows us that getting enough sleep aids clearer thinking, boosts mood, helps your heart, improves performance, regulates your blood sugar, strengthens immunity and can even help you control your weight. The average adult needs 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Consider your sleep hygiene (such as switching off screens) and how to create a positive sleeping environment conducive to REM sleep.
- Physical activity: Exercise increases serotonin levels. It will improve your mood. The trick is to find a physical activity you enjoy, whether that’s walking the dog or taking up a new sport.
- Relaxation: Relaxation is the golden thread running through self-care and has been linked to reducing stress. Cultivating an open mind can help you here. Relaxation comes in many forms, and we should aim to ‘decompress’ several times throughout the day. We would strongly recommend mindfulness. Mindfulness is fascinating in terms of neuroscience which has demonstrated its positive effect on attention control, emotional regulation and self-awareness. It is also a remarkably easy practice to grow in your life. Aim to build relaxation, or mindfulness, into every day for at least 30 minutes.
- Healthy eating: Eating a healthy balanced diet is a fantastic self-care habit to embrace as it’s proven to be hugely beneficial, as you are likely aware. A diet focused on fresh vegetables and healthy sources of protein is a good start. You may also benefit from reducing your sugar and caffeine intake, or embarking on a gut-friendly diet which boosts digestive health and good bacteria.
- Follow medical advice: Following medical advice and ensuring we seek medical help when needed is a vital element of self-care. Whilst, of course, it is sensible to consider your options with your healthcare team, do follow their advice where it is beneficial to do so. For example, remember to take your medication on time, make that follow-up appointment or book in for that screening test.
- Build relationships: A core part of your self-care should be taking time to invest in and nurture relationships with your loved ones and friends. These people help you to feel valued, loved and worthwhile.
- Take pleasure: One of the simplest acts of self-care is to spend time doing what you love. Whether that’s indulging in a good read, a trip to the cinema, having a good laugh with friends, or stopping to smell the fresh blossom, taking time to build enjoyment in to daily life can help enormously.
What is important is that self-care doesn’t just happen. You need to find what works for you and actively build room for it in your life. Make commitments to the elements which matter to you and ensure they have space in your daily routine and diary.
Self-care also involves the things you don’t do
Often the biggest hurdle to successful self-care is our inability to stop doing things or to say ‘no’ to something. Active self-care therefore also involves active decisions about things you will stop doing. For example, self-care can involve not logging in to work emails over the weekend, or saying ‘no’ to another request to help when you are already spread thinly.
Indeed, reducing stress (an important facet of self-care) is only possible when we learn where to implement boundaries in our life. We need to become familiar with our own resources to gauge what is and isn’t possible for us.
Closely related to this is knowing when to stop. Through mindfulness, you can learn to ‘tune in’ to your body and mind so that you can identify when you’re not achieving enough self-care or are close to burnout. Once you recognise this, you are halfway there to being able to stop before you pass tipping point. This may be when you need to step away from your normal routine for a few days to recharge.
Self-care is not a selfish act
With increased EQ comes an increased awareness that self-care is in fact the opposite of selfish. It is only through taking good care of ourselves that we have the resources to take care of others. It’s only through self-care that we can be a good parent, partner, friend, colleague or leader.
However, self-care does take practice. It may feel odd and indulgent at first if you’ve not been skilled at it before. You may even feel guilty. This is normal and doesn’t mean you should abandon self-care! You may find it helpful to employ mindfulness here as it can help bring clarity to everyday life. It can also help you reflect on what is working for you.
Practising self-care isn’t always easy. It needs to be a conscious decision. Our busy lives and various stressors can make us easily neglect to practice self-care mental health. However, our professional advice as psychologists is that self-care is the springboard to so much else. It is the secret to success in life whether success is being a more attentive parent, building your career, or whatever success looks like to you. You will only achieve your goals when self-care takes pride of place in your toolkit.
It is important to remember that self-care includes the word ‘self’. This is something you have to do for yourself. No one else can do it for you. That doesn’t mean that it is selfish or indulgent. You need to be your own self-care advocate as part of your self-care!
However, if self-care is proving to be a stumbling block for you then don’t simply give up. At Mindowl we provide resources for helping you develop your EQ and central to this is support for developing self-care strategies. This is because core to self-care is knowledge of yourself. For example, if you are ‘highly sensitive’ (Aron, 1996) you will need to be even more diligent with your self-care.
Our online courses can help you take the steps forward you need. They will help you build the resilience you need to become skilled at self-care. Completing a course, in your own time, is in itself a way to take care of yourself whilst also helping you build the skills to go further.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.