How to practice self-care – take the driver's seat to your wellbeing

Being a great friend, an awesome parent, an excellent partner, a smart co-worker and a really good sibling too. Cook, work, clean, walk the dog, water the plants, fix the car, do the grocery shopping, take kids to the park and help out with the homework.

There is no shortage of tasks, goals and ideas on who we should be and what we should achieve on any given day. Rarely do we make time for ourselves. To recharge. Fill our own cups. Where do taking care of ourselves fit in in the puzzle?

What is self-care?
Self-care is about being there for ourselves. Making time to fulfill our own needs now and then. In order to be able to do all the other things we want in life.

Self-care isn't just about going to the spa.

Although there's nothing wrong with pampering ourselves as part of our self-care routine, it's time to broaden our understanding of self-care to include all the things we can do for our wellbeing and see it as showing up for ourselves.

In recent years our understanding of self-care has expanded from physical to include mental health and emotional wellbeing. This correlates with the rise of stress-related burnout, which has been getting more attention as an increasingly widespread mental health issue. Self-care is one of the things we can apply to take care of ourselves in a stressful context.
Why is it so hard to make time for self-care?
We all know that it is important in the long run to not only attend to others' needs, but also our own. Even when we have all the possible insights and tools, we're often still not where we want to be. So why is it so hard?

One of the barriers is that we often don't behave as it's that important to make time for self-care. All the other areas in life often seem more important in the short run, and self-care can (almost) always wait until tomorrow. So we postpone. Again and again.

Another blocker for self-care is the idea that we need to have x amount of time to focus, need to go to a special place, or need to be undisturbed – otherwise it's no use even getting started.

There is also the notion of self-care being another thing on our to do-list. Yet another thing that we don't have the time to do, and then that can make us feel even worse.
Investing in ourselves trains our brains to see us as someone who matters
Instead, we can approach self-care from a value-perspective, and evaluate our efforts – no matter how small.
Self-care can be an always-on routine
For 29k psychologist Agnes Branny, self-care is an ongoing proactive practice of investing time in ourselves. It is all about taking the time to find the right activities that work for us and which will improve our overall wellbeing in the long term. It's about putting "taking care of ourselves" at the center, not when we're already burnt out. It's about trusting that showing up for ourselves helps us show up more purposefully for our loved ones. It is like that routine in airplanes: If oxygen masks should be needed, put on your own first, before you help anybody else, including children. Because if we don't, we risk fainting and not being able to help neither ourselves nor our children.

Establishing a self-care routine takes time, and the results may not be immediate. But even the smallest investment, when repeated, sends a powerful message to ourselves and our surroundings that we are valuable and worthy of this time.

"The messages we tell ourselves are so important. Unfortunately, we are more inclined to tell ourselves negative things, so self-care can sometimes feel counterintuitive. A fraction of "me-time" each day will charge up your wellbeing. The next day, the battery may not last, and I may have to do something new. Some discipline is required, but it doesn't have to be perfect", says Agnes.
Self-care is important, but how do I find out what I need?
The first step, Agnes says, is to do a self-scan and ask yourself how you are feeling. Once you know that, you can start to think about how to meet your needs.

Different types of self-care

It can be hard to identify our needs. Seeing self-care as containing different aspects can help us see more clearly where our needs are not met at the moment, and where we need to put in our efforts and act differently.

1. Physical self-care

This area is about taking care of our bodies by for example sleeping, eating, working out, getting a massage, taking walks or giving your hair an oil treatment. This is what most people think about when it comes to self-care. But there are four other areas that also need attention.

2. Social self-care
Social self-care is all about our relationships. Because caring relationships with others – be it loved ones, friends, parents, siblings, children, co-workers, distant relatives, new acquaintances or somebody else we want to connect with – are among the top things that make people enjoy life, feel supported and valued.

3. Psychological self-care
Learning new things, challenging ourselves, striving for something over time, being creative or growing new skills are all part of the psychological self-care area. Education or work may fill up parts of this area, but thinking of what's important for us personally is also an important piece of the puzzle.

4. Emotional self-care
Emotional self-care is about acknowledging and paying attention to our emotions, as well as expressing them.

5. Spiritual self-care
Having, developing or finding a sense of meaning in life is the fifth area of self-care. A sense of meaning or purpose does not have to be religious or spiritual in a traditional sense. It can be about being part of something bigger than ourselves, bringing our best to the table, volunteering at the local refugee center or putting food on the table for our family. Whatever makes us tick.
Develop a self-care plan
When we check-in with ourselves in each area and notice that one of them has not gotten much attention the past weeks, it is time to act. Ask ourselves, what small things can we do to nurture this area?

It can be as simple as shifting your attitude. Becoming more mindful about the things we all need to do, such as sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene. Prioritize your eight hours of sleep. Or, each time you have a meal, instead of just seeing eating as a means to an end, you can take a moment to reflect on how you are nourishing your body with this very meal, thereby improving your wellbeing. Reflecting on how you wake up every morning. Can you replace checking your phone first with doing something kind to yourself, such as taking a moment of meditation, gratefulness, or making your favorite cup of tea? So, start small, check in with yourself and what you need, choose one action and repeat it often. Change things up if needed.

"You don't have to become a health junkie or wait for the perfect conditions to practice self-care," Agnes says, "Even when you're pressed for time, or injured and can't go running, you can always do something for yourself."
29k psychologist Agnes' three tips for self-care
Think about what actions make you feel better.
These may range from activities that take five minutes to several days. Create a shortlist of things and carry it with your day. When you sense a need to improve your wellbeing in this area, your list allows you to quickly opt into something that is feasible at this moment. Even though you may not be able to go for a three-day hike, you can always make an investment in yourself in smaller ways.
Take an active role in your wellbeing
Know that you are more than a passenger, you're an active driver of your mental, emotional and physical well-being. Make plans for when to include self-care in your daily routines. Schedule time in your calendar, or attach a new habit to an old one – such as brushing your teeth can be a trigger for a small self-care action every day. While spending time on self-care will not prevent you from coming across difficult periods in your life, you will be better prepared to manage them.
Small actions matter.
Even if you just take one minute to take ten mindful breaths counts. From a neuropsychology point of view, you are training your brain to tell yourself that you are worthy of this time.
Agnes' own self-care practice
My own practice includes yoga, and because of family life and limited time, I'm not in a position to practice at a studio. So, right now, I practice for shorter amounts of time more often rather than attending one long class once a week. When my two children are at pre-school, it's easy for me to practice at home, but on weekends they're usually climbing all over my back while in the downward-facing dog. But even if toys are being thrown around or the children start screaming or pressing on the keyboard in the middle of my YouTube yoga tutorial, I still see that time as necessary. As a result, I notice that when I follow through on my practice, it is easier to show up for myself again next time.
About Agnes Branny
Agnes has worked as a private life coach and project manager for many years in both Scotland and Sweden. She has a master's in the psychology of individual differences and is a certified counselor.
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