Clinical psychologist DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI of MindNLife looks at the importance of self-care, and the different factors to consider in seeking to nourish our whole selves.
What is self-care?
Self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve your physical, mental, social and emotional health. It’s a conscious act a person takes in order to promote these areas in their day-to-day living.
The key thing to understand is that self-care is a concept that’s interdependent on the many different aspects of our lives. For example, if you only exercise occasionally, it won’t be helpful in relieving stress if your body is constantly being fuelled by processed food. If you practice meditation, it won’t be as effective if your sleep is inadequate.
Paying attention to the basics is important
In a 2017 study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, self-care is described as “a multidimensional, multifaceted process of purposeful engagement in strategies that promote healthy functioning and enhance wellbeing.”
Self-care is vital for building resilience toward the stressors in life that we can’t eliminate; one pertinent example is the uncertainty we’ve faced specifically due to pandemic quarantine travel restrictions, and all the loss and grief from missed family milestones, celebrations and funerals.
In addition to these unforeseen and prolonged circumstances, there are the other well-known stressors that can arise in our jobs or relationships, or from technology or social media. We too often ignore the impact of these things on our wellbeing. Indeed, there can be a resistance to the concept of self-care because we view it as a form of indulgence – being selfish – rather than as a priority.
The end result? Many people, particularly now in the pandemic, are feeling tired and overwhelmed on a daily basis, and emotionally and physically depleted.
How we should be looking after ourselves
It’s not enough simply to make self-care a priority. There has to be deliberate attention given to its various facets that make us function optimally. This is so we can ensure that we are taking care of the whole self – including the physical, mental, social and emotional parts.
I like to give the example of owning a car; your car needs a regular service for it to function well. It needs regular petrol, it needs to be cleaned and polished, and it needs the tyres changed at regular intervals. If any of those things aren’t well maintained regularly, one day it will stop.
Our bodies and minds are similar: we need to fuel, polish and prioritise the regular maintenance of ourselves – in the following four areas as a bare minimum.
Physical self-care includes paying attention to nourishing yourself, resting your mind and body with good sleep, and ensuring that activity and exercise are a regular part of your daily routine and that you are caring for your body’s physical needs proactively.
Your thinking patterns and the information your mind holds and pays attention to greatly influence psychological wellbeing. Reading books, creating space for new learning and actively seeking information all keep the mind engaged and sharp. Mindlessly scrolling through social media, on the other hand, is not part of psychological self-care.
It’s about creating a kinder internal self-dialogue – remember to ask yourself, “Would I speak to a friend like that?” Creating a space for self-compassion and acceptance is an important part of mental self-care.
Uncomfortable emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety and stress, a constant sense of uncertainty or a sense of lack or loneliness are not easy to manage, especially in a world going through a pandemic where we are constantly overwhelmed with high emotions.
It’s important to have healthy coping mechanisms to be able to manage your emotions in the ever-changing landscape of distress that we feel in these times. This involves creating allocated time and space to express our feelings in a safe environment. For most people, it helps to talk to a close friend or partner; at the same time, travel restrictions have made it difficult for many of us to see our families. This hasn’t been easy – and it makes it more important than ever to incorporate emotional self-care into our lives.
Do you have healthy ways to process your emotions? Do you incorporate activities into your life that help you feel recharged? If not, it’s time to start.
When life gets busy, it’s challenging to make time for friends and close relationships. Many research studies show that social relationships – both their quantity and quality – have an impact on mental health, health behaviour and physical health.
According to Dr Sue Johnson, a British clinical psychologist and the creator of emotionally focused therapy, there are three key factors in creating and maintaining healthy relationships: accessibility, responsiveness and emotional engagement (or “ARE”). All of these require focused attention and investment of quality time.
Everyone has slightly different social needs; you can choose the friendships or close relationships you want to invest in. The most important factor is to figure out what your social needs are and to build enough time to create a space for this.
Limit your time with social media as part of self-care and create time and space for spending eye-to-eye contact time with people who care about you. Part of social and emotional wellbeing is taking time off from digital devices and regularly incorporating a digital detox into your self-care. When you engage with news sources, ensure they are credible ones – and, again, make it for a limited time each day.
10 questions to ask
As we have seen, self-care is interdependent on physical, psychological, emotional and social care. Are you paying attention to all of these factors? If not, it may help to ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you getting enough sleep?
- Do you fuel your body with healthy and nourishing food?
- Are you proactively taking charge of your health?
- Have you been exercising regularly?
- Do you get enough face-to-face time with your friends?
- Do you actively invest time to nurture your relationships with friends and family?
- Are you ensuring you have healthy coping mechanisms or strategies in place to process your emotions?
- Are you investing in daily activities that nourish you and make you feel recharged?
- Do you make time for mentally stimulating activities?
- Have you proactively been doing things to help stay mentally healthy?
Self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. With your personal self-care plan, you must attend to your needs and pay attention to those needs that require your focus in the present. Assess the areas of your life that are calling for more attention. Nothing stays the same and, as situations change, self-care needs to shift too; so it’s important to regularly “check in”. If you discover an aspect of self-care that needs more attention, create a plan for change. Identify one small step you can take to begin caring for yourself better.
Make self-care a priority and not a luxury.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of NGOs and international corporations.
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