“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’m 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 well-being.
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. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even just a five or ten-minute practice can make a huge difference.
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. Or set aside a short window of time for deep breathing or a walk in nature. Little things can make a big difference.
3. Consider the Wellness Wheel.
As you begin to integrate self-care into your life or work to maintain the 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.
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.