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One of the top trends this year is towards self-care, loosely defined as focusing on your own health and wellness in a calming, holistic and preventive way.
But just what does that mean? If you look at self-care products to buy this holiday season, you’ll find an emphasis on warm baths with soothing bath salts, plushy towels and silky lotions. Don’t forget self-care makeup, nail, massage and detox sets.
Calming apps and food and fitness training gadgets are everywhere. Self-care books, mindfulness journals and affirmation card decks, anyone? One retailer even puts “poop chairs” under the “self-care” category (I suppose I can see that.)
Obviously, those are all great tools to use to arrive at your self-care goals – but have you done the work to know what you need to focus on to truly be well?
To find out how to best focus our individual efforts to help ourselves, CNN reached out to stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: We hear a lot about how good self-care is for us, but I’m not sure many of us know how to go about doing it in the best way.
Ackrill: Oh my gosh, as important as self-care is, I don’t want it to feel like yet another “should” in your life, or something else you have to “get right!” It’s really just a process of starting to learn to recharge yourself, and it is different for everyone.
Look at it from an energy perspective: Are you doing enough to keep up your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy? And by spiritual, I mean that sense of connectedness and being grounded in the bigger picture of life and your faith, if that is important to you.
For most people I’ve worked with, the answer is, “No, I am depleted, overwhelmed, exhausted!” There is no shame in this answer. Not only were we not taught how to take care of our energy needs. We’ve even been rewarded for ignoring them in the pursuit of “success.”
But you can start to balance your energy equation by making small changes in the choices that you’re going to make. For some people, sleep is a good place to start, because they are shortchanging their sleep and suffering from it. Others may want to work on cleaning up their diet to include healthier food choices and less fast food.
Are you getting enough movement? Our brains are programmed to learn and grow through movement. Do you get outside to tap the benefits of nature?
Are you getting enough connection time with others? Perhaps you need to schedule time with friends or family. Or do you need more alone time, to just “be” and do the things that recharge you, whether it be reading a good novel, listening to music or quietly doing nothing at all.
It starts with building your own awareness – with compassion, not judgment – of how you are now versus being at your best. Do you need more space and time for emotional processing to build to that best self? And once you know that you can start to tweak your life.
CNN: Let’s say I carve out an afternoon to focus on what I need to do to be my best self. What should I ask myself so I know I’m tackling my key needs?
I suggest that you carve out a couple of quiet hours, with no distractions, to evaluate what is you need most. I find it helpful to answer the following questions:
- What is most important to me? Identifying your values helps you decide how to best spend your energy.
- What makes me strong? Think about your life to date. Take an online test that measures your strengths, such as the free VIA Institute on Character’s character strengths survey. Building on strengths is very powerful.
- Who am I at my best? Learn your healthiest, happiest, strongest mindset so you can practice it.
- What has derailed me? Another way to ask it: What historically depletes me physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually? What do I need less of in each of those areas?
- Now – what has worked in the past to help me get to my best self? What typically recharges me physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually? What do I need more of in each area?
- Brainstorm a list of possible tweaks to move me closer to balance. Don’t stop until you have at least 10. Get creative, have fun. Consider double and triple benefit ideas. For example, walking with a friend outside gives me time in nature, exercise and social connection energy.
- Circle the top 3 that sound like they would have the greatest impact. These can be eventual goals.
- Star the two that sound easiest or most fun to achieve. These can be your first tweaks because early success will fuel long-term success and keep you out of the “should” zone.
- Create tiny SMART goals from these. SMART means specific, measureable, action-based, realistic and time anchored. Make a chart, enlist an app, or put star it on your calendar. (Adults like stars, too.) Then decide how you will celebrate your win. This wires your brain for more!
- BONUS: Put your next self check-in meeting on your calendar now!
Now that you’ve prioritized your needs, realize that none of this can be accomplished overnight. Don’t say “On Monday, I’m going to be on the perfect diet, I’m going to exercise, I’m going to reconnect with somebody every day.” It’s not a huge overhaul that feels daunting to begin with—your brain is too good at resisting massive changes. It’s just starting to recognize how you can spend energy in ways that will improve your well-being.
Maybe this week you start by just drinking some more water and going to bed 10 minutes earlier – little things that aren’t going to trigger your resistance. What feels sort of “fun” to “play” with over the next few weeks?
Remember, self-care is not selfish. It’s not self-centered. Self-care is leadership. It’s actually your responsibility to take care of the body, mind and spirit that you’ve been given. This is how you can thrive and contribute. Yet we often discount ourselves in the equation of a successful life. Get clear about what is takes for you to thrive in this world and what you do need to do to do that.
CNN: What if we aren’t sure about what will make us “thrive”?
Ackrill: That’s not surprising. We weren’t taught to think about it for ourselves. We were told what it was that would make us thrive, and I think this is the one of the problems with stress to begin with. Our culture trains us look for external cues of whether we’re OK or not, as opposed to internal cues of whether we’re doing well.
Asking what it is that makes us thrive is an exploration. It’s staying curious and staying grounded in what matters to you and taking some time to figure that out with compassion and kindness, not judgment. And know that it can evolve and change over time.
CNN: How has the pandemic affected the ability of people to practice self-care?
Ackrill: Covid has done a masterful job of shedding light on every vulnerability we have. And we’re still reeling from that. All the regular things that we are supposed to be keeping track of are now more difficult, and it’s made us vulnerable. We’ve been forced to rethink what matters, so I think there’s also a concern that we’re not going to hold on to the lessons that we learned from all this loss and disruption.
If what you’re going through and feeling is interfering with your daily functions, please get some help. Sometimes there’s something medically going on, so we definitely want to make sure about that before we chalk our feelings of frustration or loss up to grief or stress.
There has been so much for us to cope with, and it can easily be too much to handle. There are lots of resources out there, many of them free. There are people to talk over your feelings with, and there’s absolutely no shame in doing that – having somebody who’s not related to you to talk with can be hugely validating,
You’re a human who’s grieving and exhausted, and it’s really, really hard. I think it’s time to give ourselves a huge hug and meet this uncertainty, exhaustion, burnout and frustration with some patience. Let’s allow our disappointment to be processed with some compassion and kindness.
Give yourself a hug. You can actually close your eyes and visualize that feeling of comfort and warmth a hug creates. We can learn to create our own hugs, and then create more and give them to others. The human experience is complex so let’s be there for each other.
Wouldn’t that be one of the best outcomes of this whole Covid mess?