By Jody Elford
If eye-rolling were an Olympic sport I would have won gold so many times by now they would have retired the category. The suggestions and treatments given to me over the years have been greeted with no small degree of scepticism and resistance.
Who has time in their day for meditation? Who can really be bothered to fill out CBT worksheets? What good can it possibly do to waste my time on ‘grounding’ and mindfulness activities? How can I possibly find time for the fluffy and vague stuff of ‘self care’? How can any of that touchy-feely rubbish actually help me?
Does That Work?
I can’t put my hand to the exact quote now, which is infuriating because it’s the quote that inspired this post. In her book about self care, Jayne Hardy makes some pithy and starkly frank statements that I didn’t even realise I already knew. The quote in particular that eludes me presently is a comment on how frequently it’s the stuff that doesn’t sound like it will work, that works.
Conversely, I believe that many things that are made to sound so achievable are often the very opposite. Have you ever actually tried, for example, to take someone’s advice about ‘positive thinking’? When someone has blithely told you to ‘cheer up!’, have you actually felt that it was doable and helpful? Or did it just make you feel like punching them in the face?
I agree with Hardy when she goes on to talk about the buzz-phrases that terms like ‘self care’ and ‘mindfulness’ have become, and the kind of scoffing, eye-rolling, even outright irritation they seem to inspire. We seem sort of sick of hearing about these ideas for many reasons. Either because most of us feel that we can’t do it, haven’t the time, or that we’re undeserving or that there’s no point. We believe it’s all sort of nonsense that won’t help.
The more unwell we are, the more we tend to think this way. That is terribly unfortunate because it’s those of us living with chronic problems like mental illness that could benefit from these concepts the most.
My Sense of Integrity Eroded
The worst thing is that concepts like self care, although far from new and significantly underrated, are all too easy to belittle. We’ve become flippant, cynical and sceptical, developing a hilarious but unhelpful gallows humour about our crazy lifestyles and crammed schedules. So many of us are so used to feeling frazzled and thinly spread that we doubt there’s any other way to live. We also have a kind of condescending ridicule for people promoting self care and similar concepts.
Back in my previous life (not literally) I was a carer for the elderly. I don’t feel at all conceited by telling you that I was great at it. You may or may not have read this post, in which I told you about my own experience with compassion fatigue and how it eroded my sense of integrity. My totally uncharacteristic but wilful neglect, however small or short-lived, is something I deeply regret and think of often.
Powerless to Stand
It is of course important to learn from these mis-steps. However, looking back now I realise the home itself I worked in had developed a pernicious culture that perpetuated task-orientation and emotional detachment as ideals. This culture peddled the notion that by conforming to the company’s ideals rather than the residents’, and by putting the welfare of the company over your own or even that of those in your care, you were doing the best and most righteous thing.
By absorbing and complying with this culture, we suffered. In our suffering, we felt spread increasingly thin and under-appreciated. We became resentful and cynical in our approach to residents and slid into a gear that felt icky but inescapable.
It’s easy to make excuses for undermining your own sensibilities when you feel powerless and trapped.
It’s Weird When You Think About It
In hindsight it’s much clearer to me now how the weird sense of martyrdom was all-pervasive. People cared too much, or not at all. To some it was just a job and they did the bare minimum to meet care standards and had become emotionally unavailable at work.
To the rest of us, work was a place where we slaved consistently and constantly put in maximum effort. We gave more than was asked, over committed and went to sometimes extreme lengths to make things work. We were caring more for the company than ourselves or even of the residents.
I’m in a different caregiving job now, and I still see it. I watch nurses who are frazzled to the point of being tight-chested and dehydrated to the extreme of recurring cystitis. Also, I see them still continue to give too much, try to be too much and not only that but frequently even decline help.
‘No, no it’s okay I’m getting to it now,’ or ‘Yup, yeah I’ll put that on my to-do list,’ are things I hear constantly. I have even verbally vomited them up myself without stopping to think about what I’m already struggling to accomplish and accept help when it’s on offer and much needed. It’s so weird when you think about it.
Learning Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Maybe you’re one of those people who thinks that self care means visiting Lush and paying through the nose for a fancy bath bomb, lighting some scented candles and wallowing in a steamy bath for two hours. Who has time for that, right? I don’t even like fizzy bath bombs much.
Perhaps you’ve imagined that therapies like CBT or psychotherapy are for people who are ‘really’ crazy, for people who are broken and cannot cope. You get on alright – you don’t need therapy or counselling, right?
Or it could be that you’re guilty of scoffing at the idea of mindfulness and all this ‘new age’ touchy-feely nonsense about self care and ‘reframing your thinking’ or learning healthy coping mechanisms.
What if I told you that I did too. And what if I told you that it’s only now, after twenty years of mental ill health and a handful of nervous breakdowns, that I’m realising I was wrong. You’re probably wrong too.
It really rang a bell, to read Hardy’s thoughts on self care and when I really thought about it I realised that it was the stuff I’d not really given a chance. Stuff that I’d not really put stock in or engaged properly with before had been helping the most this time around. It had been all that touchy-feely rubbish that had brought me so much further than just medication and rest would have.
Some Books Have Helped Me
Reading books that actually candidly discuss mental illness and wellness, and encourage written engagement with the material inside of them have helped me more than I can say, by providing enlightenment and empowering me with the courage to know I’m not alone in this and to speak up about my illness.
Obviously I’ve already mentioned Jayne Hardy’s book, but I’d also strongly recommended Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive in which he discusses coping with suicidality.
Bryony Gordon’s book made me howl with laughter as frequently as it choked me up. It deals with some hard-hitting but deeply necessary content on OCD, addiction and depression.
Then there’s Gift from the Sea, which caught my eye in the book store only to end up being the perfect addition to my self-care bag (more on that shortly). It focuses on the slowing of life’s pace and taking an introspective, mental holiday.
For more creative types or people who enjoy worksheets and exercises, there’s workbooks like How to be Happy (or at least less sad). I’m also really enjoying it. There really is a wealth of words out there if we just reach for them.
What does ‘self care’ look like?
Well, it depends on who you ask. It can also depend on when you ask them.
Mostly, I think self care is about (re)establishing control. In my experience, mental illness is both caused by, and creates, a sense of lacking control over my life. It’s a perfect storm, a complete cycle that is difficult to break once it’s established.
Depression makes me feel hopeless (almost wrote ‘hopeless’, which is somewhat funnier for some reason). Hopelessness worsens depression. Depression and low mood cause poor motivation. Poor motivation and productivity causes anxiety. Anxiety causes stress-related physical illness. Physical illness worsens depression.
Or at least until something (or someone) breaks through.
Sometimes it’s a loved one
A medical professional
An event such as job loss or hospitalisation
Sometimes it’s even the morsel of you that’s left in there, somewhere, finding its voice and shouting ‘Enough!’
In any case, in my experience, the idea of so much as brushing my hair is laughable on the really dark days, never mind mustering the energy and inclination to treat myself to a posh coffee and a bubble bath.
Self-care ideas for really shit times:
Get out of bed, straighten the bedclothes and open the curtains.
Brush teeth, wet-wipe ‘pits, dry-shampoo hair and splash face.
Run a brush through hair & tie back.
Put on moisturiser and lip balm. Seriously. This is just so surprisingly good.
Put on fresh clothes (pyjamas count as clothes) that are clean and comfy.
Let in some fresh air, especially in the bedroom.
Find something you find acceptable or approachable to do:
Call a loved one?
Wipe down the kitchen sides?
Read a book?
Listen to music?
Tend to your house plants?
Care for your nails?
Pursue a gentle hobby?
Play or fuss your pet?
Try to get some nourishing stuff as well as comfort food. If you can’t, ask someone to bring you something. If all you can manage is Pop Tarts, eat the Pop Tarts.
I mean water. Avoid too much fizzy stuff, caffeine and avoid alcohol if you can.
Set alarms on your phone to remind you to take medications.
Just do it. I know you think you’re fine and won’t forget but just do yourself a favour and just do it ok?
Napping is totally acceptable, but sleeping most of the day should be avoided if you can help it.
Try setting yourself a gentle alarm when you nap. This will keep them shorter to avoid chronic sleep inertia which will make you feel ten thousand times worse. Check out these tips for making the most of your naps.
Break down any tasks into tiny, achievable pieces (make elephant lists).
Ensure you take the proper steps to manage maladaptive coping methods such as self-injury if and when it happens. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
Let someone know you’re really struggling and consider, if you can, seeing your healthcare professional.
Self care for better times…
Try to get some exercise.
Walking is fine all by itself. So is dancing like a loon in your kitchen. So is sex. Chair yoga is also a thing…and exercise videos intended for the elderly or very obese can also be really great if motivation and stamina are difficult for you right now (or, obviously, if you’re elderly or very obese).
See your loved ones. Take five minutes to text or phone someone. Invite someone around for a cuppa or, if you’re feeling adventurous, meet them somewhere for lunch.
Try to get a few portions of fruit and veg today and drink plenty of water.
Make naps shorter.
If you can, consider trying a caffeinated nap! It’s totally a thing, honestly you should try it.
Pursue interests and hobbies.
Even if you can only focus for shorter periods or get less out of them than usual, being creative and engaging with interests really helps.
All the time. I have it on low all the time. I mean….All. The. Time. It eases loneliness and can be really soothing.
Having purpose and meaning is one of the things mental illness steals from you. Work on cultivating them again by setting small goals, forward planning and doing things to explore who you are and help you know yourself.
Figure out what you can do and find a way to do just that.
If you can only work half shifts, talk to your boss about that. If all you can manage is beans on toast then you make that beans on toast! And if an hour’s revision or study is making you want to die, can you just manage five minutes of ‘flash’ study? Can you manage to just load the dishwasher? Or just clean one room? If you can half-arse something, or even quarter-arse it, then do that. It’s better than not doing it at all. Celebrate what you manage and leave what you can’t for another time. It’s okay.
Get sleep. Go to bed at reasonable times. Try to rise before 10am.
Do things that make you feel special and relaxed. Maybe you like a bubble bath, or perhaps you feel soothed by a peaceful afternoon of fishing and enjoying time alone? Maybe you fancy booking yourself a pedicure, or maybe visiting the cinema or something is more you.
Self care for even better times. Maintaining wellness.
Eat plenty of vegetables, especially dark leafy greens.
Plan ahead for things to look forward to, such as meetups with friends, dinners with family or days out. If you’re doing really well, why not look into booking a holiday?
Do laundry three times a week and make yourself a housekeeping schedule (it really doesn’t need to be complicated)
Find physical activities you enjoy and plan to do them.
Use a diary or planner to organise your time. Avoid cramming your schedule but avoid too much blank space too. Blank space should be ‘free time’ that you fill with what you need to at the time.
Check in with yourself.
Notice your feelings. Are you physically well? Do you need to get something checked? Have you been to the dentist? When was your last eye test? Blood panel? Also, when was your last cervical screen or sexual health check? Your body loves you – try to love it back just a bit. Ask yourself constantly – am I alright? Be honest with your answers.
Find your way of being creative and do it.
It needn’t be art. Try writing, or making music. Build impressive houses on The Sims or buy a beat up doll’s house to revamp. Look for easy DIY projects to try or start a scrapbook or journal. Plan your garden or buy yourself a colouring book. The possibilities are endless.
Develop a face care regimen and try to deeply condition your skin, hair and cuticles at least once a week.
Take your full lunch breaks.
Manage your task list sensibly and delegate at work if you need to. Don’t see this as a failure. Leave work on time, but arrive at least ten minutes early.
Learn to override your physical stress response.
If you slow your breathing, relax your muscles, smile and laugh, and force yourself to move at a slower, less frantic pace, you will feel less stressed. Your brain is pretty amazing, but it’s more easily fooled than you think.
Reproduced with permission, originally posted on mentalbabble