The Importance of Self-Care


Lately in my practice I’ve sounded like a broken record to myself: “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can put it on others.” There is a good reason for my increased emphasis on self-care. On a very fundamental level, we can not expect to be able to take on all of the stressors and burdens of life without caring for our own well being. We can not expect to take on and to meet the needs of others when we have not taken time to check in on our own needs and to see that they are met. This analogy of putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first is so fitting. Imagine losing oxygen on an airplane and immediately struggling to put it on others amid a sense of panic. You can’t focus, you start to panic more. You are unable to meet the task at hand, and everyone suffers. If, instead, you first remember to breathe, to take a deep breath through your own mask, you can focus now and you have the stamina to meet whatever comes next.

What is self-care? You’ve heard about it perhaps, but it is important to fully see what it looks like in order to implement it in your life. You can’t just hear, “take care of yourself”, and then follow through. No, we need to understand the intent behind it, the value in it, the specific details of what this taking care of ourselves will look like.

The intent behind self-care is to make sure that we are giving ourselves what we need to take on the demands of life. I find it very helpful to understand this concept if you imagine mental health as a simple mathematical equation:

Resources – Stress = Functioning

We need more resources than our level of stress in order to function well. If the value of stress is too high and our resources too low, you can see that our functioning will be in the negative. We might start to have panic attacks, to become depressed, to lash out at others.  Thus, if we know that our stress is going to be high for a particular reason, perhaps we are going through a difficult transition, we simply need to increase our resources in order to ensure that we are functioning well. (or at least we are in the positive range). I am illustrating this formula because self-care is a fundamental building block for increasing our resources.  If we want to be better at handling stress, we have to implement a plan for self-care.

Self-care can be broken into behaviors and attitude. The two are closely interwoven. Behaviors are more observable and sometimes we first need to start with the behaviors for the attitude to follow. Self-care behaviors will look different for every person because, for example, taking a bath might represent a caring behavior for one person and not for another.  I recommend that you write down a list of behaviors, in order to have ready during times of stress when coming up with ideas might be difficult.  To generate a list of behaviors, simply ask yourself what feels good, nurturing, and healthy to you. Examples of self-care behaviors include the following:

Going for a walk
Taking a long, warm bath
Getting out in nature and taking in the moment
Getting a massage
Taking the time to prepare healthy meals
Relaxation exercises
Curling up with a good book

The reasons why we sometimes need to start with the behavior for the attitude to follow is that we often do not feel we deserve to do these things for ourselves. This touches on the concepts of self-esteem and self-worth. Rather than first convincing ourselves that we do deserve to be taken care of (a process which can often take years), doing these things whether or not we feel we deserve them can have the effect of demonstrating to ourselves that we do. Its something like, “well if I am doing all these good things for myself, than I must be pretty worthwhile”. It follows that when we don’t do these types of things, we are confirming that we are not worthy.

1. Ask yourself what you need to feel taken care of and generate a list of behaviors
2. Start with a few behaviors that you know you can follow through on
3. Make those behaviors a priority, perhaps doing some of them at the beginning of the day
4. Notice how you are feeling in doing these behaviors
5. Repeat

Establishing a routine for self-care, as well as cultivating an attitude that values self-care are fundamental in addressing all of the mental health problems that bring people to see me. This is truly a common thread that weaves its way across all of the painful problems of stress, anxiety, and depression.  In another post I will introduce the concept of Self-Compassion, which is essentially a way of relating to ourselves that involves self-care. Self-compassion addresses the attitude of self-care and is critical in building a psychologically healthy lifestyle.