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How to Take Care of Yourself When You Feel Like Shutting Down

Woman Meditating

“Displace the pain. Put it in a camera, in a story, in a poem, in a song, in a lover, in a canvas.” ~Unknown

As an aspiring mental health counselor, I am a huge advocate for self-care. I think it’s extremely important to educate people about the benefits of taking the time to nourish our souls and to give ourselves some TLC.

I have several go-to ways I like to take care of myself, from practicing yoga, to immersing myself in nature, to writing, to taking the time to mindfully apply my favorite lotion.

I find myself engaging in these activities on days with good weather and when I’m generally happy.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that it’s during the times when it’s hardest to think about self-care, whether our schedules are jam-packed, we are going through a difficult time, or we just don’t feel our best, that self-care is critical. 

It’s easy to want to do fun activities or be nice to ourselves when life is looking good, but it’s much harder to have the energy or desire to take care of ourselves when times are tough.

But isn’t that when we most need to be our own best friends and supporters?

This all became even clearer to me when I received devastating news not too long ago. My childhood dog, Maggie, had passed away from kidney failure at fourteen years old. My desire to cook a nice meal for myself, write in my gratitude journal, or work out went right out the window.

All I felt was numb, and all I wanted to do was to fade into the couch and cry.

As human beings, when we experience a grief reaction or a trauma, it’s natural for us to freeze, feel numb, or to want to retreat and isolate.

While I believe it’s crucial that we listen to our bodies and give ourselves time to grieve, express ourselves, or react however we need to during that time (as long we aren’t causing damage to ourselves), we must also advocate for our healing and wellbeing.

I’m not saying that this is easy by any means, and this process is different for everyone. It might even seem foreign, unnatural, forced, or even impossible at first to think about doing activities that are fun or require energy when we are in a state of crisis or disarray.

As humans, we’re hardwired to want to stay in our comfort zone, but that’s not where the growth happens, nor where our optimal levels of health and happiness reside.

Since Maggie’s passing, it’s been hard to get myself to do even basic things, such as eat full meals, and it’s been difficult to go about my day knowing at any moment I could start crying uncontrollably.

Although it’s still very fresh, I could feel myself beginning to slip into a place that wasn’t healthy or beneficial to my well-being. I wanted to be careful not to let myself be completely overcome by the grief of losing her.

I was thinking about how I could let myself express the emotions of heartbreak, sadness, and emptiness yet still find a way to take care of myself. The first thing that came to mind was writing.

I’ve always been a writer at heart. My pen and paper (or these days, laptop) have gotten me through some pretty dark and challenging times. I knew that the self-care I needed at that moment was to open up a word document and just type.

When I allowed myself to get lost in my writing, I found that my heart felt a little lighter.

Self-care doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, and it isn’t just one thing. For some, it might include booking a full day at the spa, while for others, it might be much more low-key. The awesome part is, no matter what type of self-care you choose to participate in, you will receive the full benefits.

If you’re not sure where to start and you’d like some helpful strategies, look no further. I’m no expert, but I am committed to practicing self-care. 

Here are some tips and ideas that have been helpful for me:

1. There is no right or wrong way to “do” self-care.

Before you truly begin incorporating self-care into your life and feeling the benefits of it, it’s natural to wonder if you’re approaching it right. The good news is: there is no right or wrong way to engage in self-care, as long as you’re doing activities that contribute to your level of happiness or sense of well-being.

Allow yourself to be led by your intuition of what you need.

Practice disabling the part of yourself that wants to censor yourself or question the quality of the activities you’re doing and the work you’re producing as you’re engaging in self-care.

If you’re writing, for instance, you can edit it later. If you’re dancing, let yourself be guided by the rhythm of your body rather than your brain trying to keep perfect time or form.

2. Incorporate some form of self-care into your daily routine.

You might not always have the time or energy to do a full workout or practice your favorite self-care activity, but you can find little ways to take care of yourself every day.

For example, as you are waking up in the morning, take some time to repeat with confidence a positive mantra or affirmation that coincides with your goal or intention for the day. If you keep at it, eventually, it’ll become as second nature as brushing your teeth.

3. Consider the Wellness Wheel.

As you begin to integrate self-care into your life or work to maintain the self-care strategies you’ve already implemented, think about the several different types of wellness (physical, emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual, environmental, occupational).

Take the time to understand which self-care activities are connected to the different types of wellness. This might help bring things into perspective.

There may be times when some parts of your wheel seem more plentiful than others. If you find yourself stuck or lacking in a specific area, you can work to nurture those parts of your wellness wheel, but you can also feel grateful for the parts that are blossoming.

4. Inform others about your self-care practices.

If your self-care means unplugging for a day and others are going to want to contact you, you might want to let them know that you’ll be out of reach and explain why.

It might be difficult for some people to wrap their heads around it, or you might receive some pushback (remember, change is hard). People may be used to you always being available, but for others this could be a chance to understand your needs better and hopefully provide encouragement and support.

It might be a challenge to get into a groove with your self-care if you’re just beginning, so talking to family or close friends about the changes you’re making might spark something for them as well.

Maybe your friends have wanted to make similar shifts, and they’d like to try it with you. Rather than hearing complaints for taking five hours instead of five minutes to answer a text, you might just inspire them to unplug too.

5. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t forget to celebrate successes.

Just like any change you’re trying to make in life, it doesn’t always happen immediately or all at once, but rather over time.

If you experience a self-care setback, such as falling out of a new practice, being overcome by grief, or not dedicating as much time to it as you’d like, try your best to be gentle with yourself and use positive self-talk.

On the other hand, if the positive changes you’re noticing seem very small, try your best to remember to celebrate your efforts and the changes you are seeing. With positivity and commitment, you’ll notice the changes might begin to get bigger, and they might last longer too.

Self-care isn’t meant to be a quick fix to make all uncomfortable emotions disappear, and it won’t replace the difficult recovery processes we must go through when we endure trauma, experience extreme loss, or work to get out of a rut that we’re stuck in for whatever reason.

It can, however, help us take the pain we feel and soften it, or channel it into strength or something beautiful.

Self-care can help us feel a sense of happiness, gratitude, hope, and healing.

So, have fun with it! Experiment so you can see which types of self-care suit you and your lifestyle. If you feel yourself getting stuck, listen to your mind, body, and intuition—they know you the best.

Woman meditating at sunrise image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Melanie Hoffman

About Melanie Hoffman

Melanie Hoffman is an aspiring writer and LMHC, currently working toward her Masters in Mental Health Counseling at SUNY Oswego. She loves how, as a counselor, she can support others as they empower themselves to grow and change. Melanie is also passionate about practicing to live a life full of love, joy, and adventure. Connect with Melanie on LinkedIn here.

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  • Hi Melanie,
    I really enjoyed this post. I used to work in the caring profession several years ago. There some of the staff used to joke “Who cares for the carers”? I think you’ve answered that question in this post.

  • Absolutely spot on and just what I needed to read today x

  • Bullyinglte

    Self-care is so important and so much forgotten by most people. Everyone wants a quick fix to the problems they have, without realizing that they can take care of themselves. While sometimes it is important to get the help of others, you must want to heal yourself first.

  • Megan

    I’m so sorry for your loss!

  • Love this reminder! My favorite form of self care is to take more time to inhale and take more time to exhale. It’s transformational! (And also a game to see how long I actually do it for.)

  • chvygrl 70

    THank you I needed this just found out the man I have loved for 8 years has been cheating on me with someone else, I am devastated to say the least 🙁

  • rt

    I so love your posts Melanie on self care at difficulty times. I am going through a separation (after 30 years marriage) and am doing it alone. Some days I can give myself the self care I need to cope and keep moving forward but some days the pain of where I am at does not give me the energy to. So on harder days I try to look at what I can do to help myself get through at the time or I try to just let it be.I love some of your ideas you have shared in your story and will consider them,thank you.

  • Anastacia

    Hi Melanie,

    Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned and your insights into self-care. I appreciate how you encourage finding a balance – letting yourself grieve over a loss while not allowing yourself to become inundated and lost. I made that mistake a few months ago, and it’s much harder to pull yourself out of that hole than it is to work at achieving balance in the first place.

    Thank you for all of your advice. I recently wrote a short letter to myself and I wrote as if I were talking to a friend. It was encouraging, loving and supportive and I felt so much better afterwards. We don’t often give ourselves the kind of care we give others, and I think we should. Our relationship with ourselves is for life, after all.

    This was a wonderful post. Good luck on your journey.

  • Irene Sofia

    I am also working towards my Mental Health Counseling degree currently and have found that it definitely is in those trying times when self care is most needed. In my personal experience, this program has been extremely difficult but what I have learned about self care and even in my own personal research, I am continuously fighting to maintain my self care and actually boosting it up more whenever I’m struggling with something…

    What I found so helpful in your post was the idea that just because we’re engaging in self care, does not mean that our feelings will go away over night or will fix our emotions. I think its so easy to feel like you’re doing so much but the feeling continues to linger… this is something i have to remind myself of every now and then… it softens the blow but it does not take it away 100%… time and a positive outlook will do that!

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Hey Melanie, thank you for sharing your story… so sorry to hear about Maggie, hang in there!

  • Jeana

    Hi Melanie…your post was very helpful! I’ve been in same situation when I lost my 2 little dogs within 3 months of each other (aged 16yrs) the grief I went through was relentless… 3yrs on I still feel the effects… My heart was truly broken! I knew it was going to be a long road to recovery and I’m still trying….

    I now have another beautiful dog called Sasha & he’s helped me so much… My family kept telling me to more or less snap out of it for months but I just couldn’t! I’ve now realised my life was becoming stale & unfulfilling so I try now to see myself as fully recovered & stress free everyday ! As only I can do this no one else..

    I’m not either of these things but my mantra now has to be I’m not going to be unhappy but positive and kind to myself! To all of you may I wish you well … Jeana

  • bsdwydaho

    So sorry to hear about Maggie. Your post was wonderful – thank you for the reminder to care for ourselves as well as others! I forget that a lot.

  • Melanie

    Thank you so much-so happy that this post resonated with you 🙂

  • Melanie

    Bryan,
    Thank you so much. It’s so true… the carers need caring too!

  • Melanie

    Irene,
    I couldn’t agree more. Even during our training it can be very difficult-it’s so important that we create and maintain good self-care regimens and habits to carry with us into our careers. Thank you so much for the kind words, best of luck to you! 🙂

  • Melanie

    I am so sorry for to hear that, this must be such an incredibly difficult time for you. I am so honored that this post has resonated with you as you work through all of it. I will keep you in my thoughts and I’m so happy that we’re both part of the TinyBuddha community; it’s such an amazing place. I wish the best for you <3

  • Melanie

    Anastacia,

    Thank you so much for reading my post, I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. What a wonderful idea! Such a great method of self-care-I bet it felt really great to do that. Good luck on your journey as well 🙂 🙂

  • Melanie

    Jeana,

    Wow, I am so sorry about your losses. It is truly the worst kind of pain that as you know is often misunderstood, but I am so happy that you have Sasha now. He seems wonderful! It’s so great to talk to a fellow dog lover. Dogs just bring so much love and joy into the world! I love that mantra, and I think I’ll adopt that as well. It’s not easy, but being kind and positive to ourselves makes such a huge difference.

  • Melanie

    This is so true! Self-care is so fundamental to living a happy and healthy life 🙂

  • Melanie

    Thank you so much. I really appreciate you reading my post and for the kind words and support 🙂

  • Melanie

    I am so sorry to hear about your separation, that must be so difficult for you. It’s such an honor that you are able to identify with aspects of my post. It just goes to show that this all so universal. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post and respond with such heartfelt words 🙂

  • Melanie

    Thank you so much, Megan <3

  • Melanie

    Thanks so much! That is such an excellent method of self-care. It’s quick and something you can do anywhere and anytime, you’re right, completely transformational!

  • Melanie

    Thank you so much. I really appreciate the kind words and I’m so glad that my post resonated with you. I forget it a lot too, which is why I wrote this! 🙂

  • Sacred Introvert

    I love this, thank you! I just had one of those total meltdown cries and then I found your article. It feels better once you have one but then you can often feel numb. I needed to be reminded to take care of myself and it’s all ok. I am so sorry about your dog passing. She’ll always be your angel. As I write this my own dog is at my feet. They just know when you need a little extra love and they are always happy to give it. My first dog was with me for 16 years and it took me 4 to be ready for another but now I can’t imagine my life without him. I hope, when you are ready, you’ll invite a new dog in. Blessings, Lisa A

  • yes, brilliant, thanks for sharing…. telling others about how we cope can maybe even inspire them to try similar things….. we should not feel afraid of seeming vulnerable, that is what makes us real, even if we are counsellors and coaches ourselves, we are not invincible, but we do know how to help ourselves as well as others, it’s a necessary skill.

  • Melanie

    Thank you for reading my post and for the awesome feedback. I agree! 🙂

  • Melanie

    Thank you for reading my post, I’m glad you found it at such a perfect time. Thanks too for the kind words about Maggie… you are right, she will always be with me <3 Although they are not easy feelings to endure, it's nice to know that I'm not alone with them. I respect your choice to wait all that time before you welcomed another dog into your life and listened to your intuition. My boyfriend and I have both experienced dog loss, but are still excited to bring a dog into our life together when the time is right. Blessings back to you, Lisa 🙂

  • takeflight

    I absolutely love this post! Especially the last point. Self care is easy when things are going well, but it’s when things are not going well, when we are feeling discouraged that its difficult to keep up our improvements. I like your recommendation to be gentle with ourselves and use positive self talk. It helps me to realize that it’s ok to fall at times. It’s just part of the learning, but what’s important is how we stand up again. And that’s how growth happens. 🙂

    Thank you for this post and may we continue to radiate positivity!

  • Dee

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article <3 You're so right that when we need it the most is when we seem to ditch self-care as a priority. I especially liked your section on the Wellness Wheel, it resonates with me and allows me to be more articulate with my self-care methods.

  • e_monster

    Amidst the ever-increasing demands of professional and family life, finding (and safeguarding) the time to practice self-care is what’s vexing me.

  • Julie Bradshaw

    I enjoyed reading this post as I feel this is where I am at the moment. I was made redundant from my job as a carer after 7 years. My health hasn’t been good for awhile due to menstrual problems and the thought of the families I worked with being left with no support was devasting. I said i would stay i would stay in contact with them but I couldn’t as I started to suffer panic attacks at the thought of seeing them. I don’t have a partner to share the bills so was very concerned how long I would be out of work and if my age would go against me. My daughters are grown up and leading their own lives although my youngest still lives with me I felt maybe I was suffering from “empty nest syndrome”. I stopped sleeping, literally stopped, im lucky if I get 2 nights sleep a week and I won’t sleep in the day. Many doctors visits have lead to lots of tests, different meds all of which have done nothing, they refuse to give me sleeping tablets which im sure if they did would eleviate other problems too. I have shut myself away, I don’t even go shopping as I do it online. I don’t answer the door or phone calls as I feel I would breakdown at having someone see me so messed up. I hardly bathe, comb my hair or clean my teeth which just isn’t like me but I can’t get out of it. Any time things appear to be getting better im knocked down again by something even bigger. I really don’t know how to pick my life up or where to start. Although im crying as I type this im surprised at how easy it is to say exactly how I feel. I hope someone will be able to suggest something to help me kickstart my life again. JB