Published 28 October 2020. Written by Geraldine Meadows.
4 November is National Stress Awareness Day, and in a year full of challenges, psychotherapist Geraldine Meadows shares six forms of self-care — from getting creative to honouring your boundaries — to give you a gentle boost.
This year definitely feels like a smart time to scale up our self-care game. Owing to the pandemic, 2020 has been challenging for us all — from worrying about work to concerns for loved ones, no one has escaped unscathed.
As a registered psychotherapist, I’ve seen first-hand the effect that anxiety and uncertainty has played on our wellbeing, and I’ve been affected by it, too.
Self-care can be defined as any activity or practice that supports your mental, emotional and physical health — and sometimes the smallest actions can make the biggest difference. A half-hour walk round the park or a chat with a friend may not feel like the most scientific approach to self-care, but there’s strong research that shows both will help us feel better.
Let’s use National Stress Awareness Day as a reminder to take a little more care of ourselves. Need a gentle nudge? Take a look at these six ideas.
1. Be an effective manager of your resources
We all have a finite amount of energy and time. I think of these as my personal resource units. Each day, we choose to spend these in a particular way: maybe eight hours on work, three with Netflix, two on our phones and one on exercise. For some of us, this might be quite a ‘normal’ day — but it also means a potential 13 hours spent in the company of screens, which may leave us unable to switch off at night.
Thinking consciously in advance about our time and energy might lead us to spend our resources in very different ways. For example, if tomorrow is a busy work day, I may well choose to go screen-free tonight, listening to podcasts or reading instead to increase my chance of a good sleep and waking up refreshed. Perfect ways to ensure a little self-care.
2. Stand in your truth
Standing in your truth means owning what feels right for you, speaking up for yourself, and saying no to things that your body, mind and soul don’t react positively to. Another way to describe it could be ‘honouring your boundaries’ – giving your resources only to things worthy of them.
In short, we have to be aware of the little voice that urges: ‘This – do more of this!’ when you’re lifting weights at the gym, blissing out in the bath or lovingly cooking a new recipe. You also need to hear that small voice that whispers: ‘No, this isn’t for me’ when you’re about to reluctantly agree to catch up with a mate when really you’d rather just unwind for the evening.
To help with this, try journalling for just five minutes each day – write a simple question to yourself such as ‘What do I love?’, and compose your own response. Or, make a promise to yourself and keep it, such as ‘I will have three drinks and no more.’
3. Nurture your emotional health (and reach out if you need to)
This is especially important at the moment when we’re at higher risk than ever of being cut off from the people and things we love and that make us feel good. Human beings are hard-wired for connection – we need closeness to others to feel safe and protected. That’s part of the reason why the extended lockdown situations this year have been so challenging.
A recent Mind survey showed that more than 50 per cent of people who had never experienced a mental-health problem before experienced worsening mental health during lockdown. It can take courage to admit we feel vulnerable and that we need people, but it’s also a sure-fire way to help grow and strengthen connections. We all like to know we’re needed. If you recognise that you could use some extra support, share the load with a wise friend, a good listener in your family or reach out to a professional. You can find plenty to choose from online.
4. Get creative and ring in the new
In a general sense, this is about being playful, fighting stagnation and allowing the fresh and the new into your life.
Research shows being creatively engaged — in that lovely state of ‘flow’ — can reduce anxiety and stress and help lift your mood. Being creative can simply mean mixing things up in a new way. It needn’t mean getting the watercolours out if that’s not your thing: a simple stroll round a new neighbourhood can awaken something in your brain.
Exposing yourself to new experiences keeps things fresh and, while we can’t enjoy a trip to the theatre right now, there are things we can do to mix up the routine. For example, plan to go for a long walk somewhere nearby you’ve never explored before this weekend or try out a new class online – from Argentine tango to Kundalini yoga, a world of newness awaits.
5. Get out into green or blue space
We’ve all experienced the wonderful sense of wellbeing that spending time in nature can bring. A strong body of research backs it up, too; a 2018 study showed that being outdoors, seeing trees and hearing birdsong were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing, and this affect lasted, too.
Additional studies also prove what we’ve innately known for years – the soothing effect of being near water. Proximity to ‘blue space’ (lakes, rivers and seas) has been shown to be helpful in reducing stress and increasing feelings of wellbeing.
Coastal areas are thought to score most highly, thanks to the tidal effect of lapping water calming our brains. However, any water will do; the study suggests even a fountain will have a positive effect. There’s probably an area of scenic water near you – can you get out, explore and practice self-care this weekend to see if it boosts your mood?
6. Make a practice of mindful activity
Mindfulness is a long-standing buzzword, but that’s because it works. Numerous studies have shown that the practice can help reduce symptoms of psychological stress. This needn’t involve formal sitting meditation though – what matters is doing something regularly that allows you to tap into your own inner voice. Something that allows your brain to calm, so that new thoughts and insights can bubble up.
For some of my clients, what works well is cooking. For others, it’s hiking or swimming. Or it may well be that short spell of quiet, deep breathing that brings mental clarity.
I often share this short breathing space video with clients – it lasts just three minutes and can be transformative. Whatever works for you, it’s about growing closer to your intuition and creating space in which you can know and hear yourself. It’s a wonderful gift if you can devote half an hour a day to your favourite mindful activity.
Read more about why self-kindness is key for your mental health and how it helps with self-care.
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