How Can Self-Care Support Mental Health?

Taking care of yourself—both physically and mentally—is an important part of overall wellness. The idea of self-care has grown in popularity in recent years, filling social media timelines and news feeds with tips and tricks. Self-care activities can be great tools for anyone looking to manage stress, be more aware of their feelings and emotions, and generally feel better. For people with a mental health diagnosis, self-care activities can be an important part of their overall strategies, in addition to psychotherapy and medication, to address symptoms and manage their illness.

What is self-care?

A quick Google search for self-care turns up a heap of articles, blogs, and videos laden with self-care practices ranging from bubble baths to physical exercise. Very few, however, dive into the deeper meaning of actively engaging in self-care.

True self-care doesn’t just involve pleasant things that we want to bring into our lives. Self-care isn’t about escaping from life, it’s about building a life you don’t have to escape from.

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Self-care is any conscious, intentional activity or habit that aids in the process of personal advancement, including emotional, physical, spiritual and social growth.

Is it self-care or self-indulgence?

Is a bubble bath self-care? It can be. True self-care is about the intention driving the action. At this moment, is a bubble bath bringing you closer to your values and goals in life, or taking you in another direction?

The motivation behind self-indulgence, on the other hand, often is to avoid difficult situations or tough choices about staying healthy or on track with your goals and responsibilities.

For example, let’s say you had a really tough day at work. Assignments have piled up. You had a disagreement with your co-worker. After you kick off your shoes and jump into some comfy clothes for the evening, you fire up your favorite show on Netflix. One episode turns into three or four, and now you’re hungry. You don’t have much in the fridge, so you order your go-to dish from the Chinese restaurant down the street. Maybe it was just a hard day, and Netflix and noodles was just what you needed to unwind and reset. Maybe that was self-care.

But if this is your “current situation” every evening, the pattern of behavior may be more self-indulgent than self-care.

Engaging in a pattern of self-indulging behavior, while in the moment may feel really nice, is ultimately keeping you from being the person you want to be long-term.

The next time you find yourself choosing between self-indulgence and self-care, ask yourself, “How is this activity serving me? Is this taking me away from something that’s important because it’s important too, or is this simply a distraction or a habit of running away from my responsibilities?”

In the Netflix and noodles example, a person practicing self-care might instead schedule a time for grocery shopping each week so there are healthy food options in the fridge. They might add another activity to their week that helps them feel refreshed and productive, like going to the gym or volunteering at a food bank or senior center. Or they might be intentional about planning time to spend with friends and family. If they are miserable at work, they might take steps to find a new job.

A self-soothing activity like a warm bubble bath is not necessarily self-indulgent. Self-soothing is a distress tolerance skill taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These skills are meant to reduce extreme levels of emotion, pain, or discomfort to more stable and manageable levels in order to continue on with whatever task or situation may be at hand. The intention behind these skills align with being the person you want to be and moving toward your goals and values.

How to start practicing self-care

Anyone can practice self-care. Is it easier if you have a flexible schedule and expendable income? Of course. Isn’t everything? But practicing self-care does not have to be expensive or incredibly time-consuming. You don’t need to buy some expensive piece of fitness equipment or sign-up for a membership at the spa.

If you’re living intentionally, then you’re taking care of yourself. Examine your personal values, like being creative or doing work that gives you a purpose, and then create some goals and tasks around achieving those values. Commit to doing something from your list of values for 30 minutes at a time a few times a week to support your long-term wellness and wellbeing.

Try journaling, talking a walk, calling a friend, crafting, gardening, spending time with a loved one, or joining a recreational sports team. Try a bubble bath.

Another way to begin practicing self-care is to take mindful moments throughout your day.

Set an alarm a few times throughout your day to check-in with your body and mind. Notice the sensations you’re feeling and the emotions attached to them. The more we have access to our experience in a given moment, the better we are able to answer self-care questions like, “what do I need right now?” or “what is something that will support my goals in this moment?”

Practicing self-care with a mental illness

For individuals with a mental health diagnosis, self-care practices can be very helpful tools for staying on track in recovery by forming healthy habits, creating boundaries, and building a life worth living. Building and adhering to healthy habits, such as getting plenty of sleep or regular exercise and movement, can go a long way in improving or managing symptoms of a mental illness.

One way to practice self-care for individuals with a mood disorder would be journaling. Taking the time to explore your thoughts and feelings in writing can give you greater insight into the patterns that may be causing you to feel stuck. Another way to practice self-care with a mood disorder would be to limit stimulants like caffeine or other substances that may impact mood swings. Be kind to yourself.

People with thought disorders, who sometimes struggle with activities of daily living like hygiene, may benefit from implementing self-care into their everyday routines. Keeping a clean or organized living space and regularly maintaining personal hygiene are great acts of self-care.

Making the choice to attend therapy and take prescribed medication is an incredible act of self-care. Being brave enough to say, “I don’t have all of the answers,” or “I need more support,” is a huge commitment to yourself that not everybody makes.

Sometimes self-care can be setting boundaries. If you never have time for yourself because you are responding to needs and requests from others, try saying “no” sometimes. Carve out time for yourself to engage in activities that will help you be healthier, stronger, and happier. A healthier, more balanced you is in a better position to care for people in your life who need you than an unhealthy you.

Encouraging Self-Care at Skyland Trail

At Skyland Trail, we believe that self-care isn’t selfish, but rather a self-full act of dedication. Showing up and caring for yourself allows you to be more effective in caring for or supporting others when needed. In our residential mental health treatment, mental health day treatment program, and outpatient psychiatric programs—and even with our staff—we implement, offer, and encourage self-care so everyone can build the life they want.