What does self-care mean to you?

By Laura Griffiths, YBTC Counsellor

There are many excellent resources out there that offer guidance on how to look after yourself during the pandemic, and deal with the many challenges that Covid-19 brings. However, this can also mean information overload.

I have worked as a counsellor for many years, and whilst everybody and their situation is different, the following is an overview of what I believe proves to be the most effective strategies that together can build an individual ‘self-care package’ that will help us get through these difficult months, and indeed life!

Everybody’s self-care will be different, as certain things will help some people, but not others. The key is working out what strategies fit for you and how you can make sure you incorporate them into your day, and start to make them a habit, as natural as cleaning your teeth. This is particularly important as for a lot of people their ‘normal’ day is now vastly different to what it was, for example now having to work from home. Even if this is not the case for you, those activities that gave us anchors around which we could structure our day, may no longer be possible, which is why our days need some careful re-thinking, to enable us to get through this period as well as we can, so that we are still able to thrive.

The following suggestions may help anyone who finds they are struggling with aspects of lockdown.




Daily Routine & Structure

As human beings, we have a tendency to like familiarity and routine, and we like to know what the day, and indeed the week holds for us. It leaves us feeling in control, which is why it is hard when some of the activities that used to shape our days and weeks have been curtailed, or if we find we are having to organise our working day at home instead of working within the structure of an office.

Try and incorporate as much structure and routine as you can into your week, by putting together a rough ‘timetable’. I wear two ‘hats’ in my professional life and so I write out my ‘schedule’ for the week and keep a copy handy, which helps me remember what I am doing when, and it is reassuring for me to have my week planned in advance. It also helps me decide how I am going to fit my ‘self-care’ strategies around this.

I would recommend getting up at your usual time, even if you do not need to get up for anything specific, in order to keep a regular sleep pattern; if you allow yourself lie ins every day, you may find it more of a struggle to get to sleep at the usual hour. Do not underestimate the impact of disrupted sleep – it is an instant body blow to feeling good, impacting mood as well as physical tiredness.
The same goes for eating. Regular meals break up the day and give you something to look forward to; it is vitally important at the moment that we fuel ourselves with fresh fruit and vegetables to make sure we are keeping ourselves as physically well as we can.
If working from home, be disciplined about your start and finish times and switch your devices off outside of your working hours if you find the boundaries are becoming unhelpfully blurred. This gives your brain a chance to switch off and focus on something else, which means that when you ‘clock back in’ you will feel more energised and productive. Without clear boundaries between work and home life, we can start to feel overwhelmed and out of control, leading to increased anxiety.

If you feel your Manager is expecting too much from you, it may be that you need to start putting some healthy boundaries in place around work and will need to communicate it to your Manager….. and that’s another subject!

Try and factor in breaks away from your desk, again these are so important for stimulating a different part of your brain. Ideally go for a brisk walk outside at some point to get the added advantage of some exercise.
Smaller breaks are just as important; going to the kitchen to make a cup of something gets you away from the desk and in addition you are ‘rewarding’ yourself with something nice (a hot or refreshing drink). These rewards are important to keep spirits up, especially if there are no colleagues to banter with. Eating lunch at your desk is not recommended for the reasons outlined above.

Pleasures

This nicely brings me on to the importance of building pleasures into your week, and nothing is too small. It is so important for our mental wellbeing to have things to look forward to, whatever it is.

Examples include a walk round the block, a longer country walk, a favourite TV programme, a relaxing bath, a run, nice food, a good book, catching up with a friend, photography, art, crafts, a jigsaw, or some ‘play’ time with the kids or a pet. Do not underestimate the positivity of smaller things such as making a cuppa, having a tasty lunch, or taking five minutes to watch the birds outside. Enjoying pleasures are a resource that builds resilience, is nurturing, and something that we can turn to when we need it.

Social pleasures are also important – think about planning a zoom call with friends, it may not feel quite the same, but a group call can still be lots of fun and connecting with others is a basic human need, in whatever form works best for you. Try and make sure you have at least one social call in your week, be it with one other or more, as opportunities to socialise are so limited at the moment, we can fall out of the habit of socialising without realising it.
 
Fun

This also leads me on nicely to encourage you to think about where you get your joy and fun – the news lately has been pretty devastating; it is not distasteful to think about distractions and pleasures, but a necessity to counterbalance the fearful information we are being fed – if we watch and hear too much of this, it can be overwhelming. So, some fun for the whole family is an important tool to keep spirits and resilience up. Think about such things as board games, which are absorbing and involve that all-important connection with others.
 
Exercise

Exercise can be an amazing stress buster in these worrying times.  Anxiety levels are likely to be raised at the moment, sometimes without us even realising; apart from the more obvious health benefits, when we exercise it reduces the stress hormone cortisol, as well as stimulating endorphins, the body’s natural mood elevator thereby reducing stress and anxiety – a winner all round. Again, I would recommend that you incorporate a minimum of some gentle exercise into your week, planning in advance when this might be possible, even if it is in bite size chunks. Many exercise classes have gone online now, so at least we still have the option to consider these.
If exercise is not open to you for health reasons, even a short ride out in the car (within government guidelines) again a provides a relief from being constantly inside the house – a change of scene can be incredibly uplifting.
 
Breathing

Taking a deep breath, and holding it for several moments, and then letting out a slow out breath, is immediately calming to our nervous system, so if you feel stress building, try taking some deep breaths. When we are feeling stressed or anxious, our breathing often becomes shallower than usual, which can result in light headedness, so get into the habit of taking deep breaths as often as possible. In fact, we generally tend to breathe from our chests, rather than our belly, which is the ideal, so practice belly breathing to keep calming the nervous system.

Belly breathing is easy to do and very relaxing. Try this basic exercise anytime you need to relax or relieve stress:

  1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and let your belly push your hand out. Your chest should not move.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.
  6. Notice how you feel at the end of the exercise.
Mindfulness

A lot is spoken about regarding mindfulness, and it can indeed be an effective antidote to anxiety.

Anxiety often manifests as powerful but unhelpful catastrophic thoughts, starting with ‘what if……..?’ and these distorted thoughts, are just that…..THOUGHTS, but when feeling stressed, we can often interpret these distorted thoughts as ‘FACTS’, which then goes on to impact our moods and often our behaviours in a negative way.

When our minds are a tangle of unhelpful thoughts, practising stepping out of our heads, and into the present moment can be incredibly helpful, to break the negative thought cycle. There are various ways of doing this, like going for a walk and concentrating on what you can see around you or practising a meditation, where you focus on your breath for 3, 5, 10 minutes, or longer, depending on how much time you have. These are great ways of calming and grounding ourselves.

If you know you are prone to anxiety, or are just understandably feeling more anxious at the moment, I would highly recommend a daily meditation – there are various apps such as Calm and Headspace that you can download on to your phone, and they offer various lengths and types of meditation, depending on what you feel you need help with, for example sleep, stress, self-esteem, confidence, etc. There are also many meditations available on the internet, and they vary, so it is important to find one that works for you. Again, it takes practice, but for a lot of people, doing a short meditation makes a massive difference to how they get through the day.

If meditation isn’t your bag, there are other activities, such as yoga, which are mindful, as you need to focus on the poses you are carrying out. There are also colouring books available that have proved popular, which again allow you focus on the task in hand whilst being creative!
 
Self-Compassion / Reducing the Inner Critic

Many people have an ‘inner critic’ that unfortunately can chip away at self-esteem. It’s the equivalent of having a bully in our heads and gets louder at times when we are feeling less resilient, and we have a tendency to believe it more at these times.
If this is something that affects you, allow yourself to take a step back and ask yourself if you would speak to a friend who needed some encouragement like that? Our inner critic can be particularly vicious, and when you try out this exercise, imagining yourself speaking to somebody you care about in that way, it can be shocking. Learning to soften your internal narrative again takes time and practice. Here is an excellent video by Kristen Neff, a self-compassion guru, who introduces us the concept of self-compassion

Take the opportunity to practice some self-compassion by putting your feet up and getting yourself a drink, to watch it.



 
Journaling

This isn’t for everyone, but many people find keeping a private journal, where you can write down how you are feeling, a good way of processing thoughts and emotions. It can crystallise your thoughts about things and it can also be used to monitor how your day has gone and what have been the good and bad parts, and why. This can perhaps give you a clearer appreciation of what makes a good and bad day and helps you to plan accordingly.

You could also add three things that have happened that day that you are grateful for, as studies have shown that practising gratitude raises mood. Unfortunately, evolution has given our brains a negativity bias, as the nervous system is constantly scanning for possible threats. This means we have a tendency to notice bad things and discount the good, it does not mean we’re miserable, it was self-reservation when we were in danger of being attacked by wild animals thousands of years ago! This means we have to work at paying attention to positive things that happen to us, as biologically it doesn’t always come naturally! 

Connecting with Others


Connecting with other people is one of the things that makes us humans happy.

This works both ways. If you are having a bad day, I would encourage you to reach out to a friend, family member or colleague. Do not be on your own with it, because believe me, everybody has bad days and people are usually very happy to offer support, just as you would be, should someone you know be struggling. Feeling useful is another aspect of human happiness, and reaching out helps others to feel useful, so you will be doing them a favour, as well as getting the soothing from them that you need. Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves not to be experiencing difficult feelings, which makes it all the harder. Struggling with thoughts and emotions is all part of being human, accepting this and recognising what you need at these times, and allowing yourself to receive it is a key part of good mental health. As is doing things for others, it helps us feel good about ourselves, which ties in nicely with the previous point.

For most people, the more connected we feel, the happier we are, so again, factoring these connections in to your week, and monitoring whether you have enough of them going on is another way of making sure you have in place what you need.
 
Design Your Self Care Package!

I am hoping that some of the points outlined above will be helpful, but the key is to decide what your own health care package is going to look like, and then work out how you are going to implement it. We can start with good intentions, but unless we start by proactively practicing them, we can forget and slip back to old ways that don’t work as well for us.

This goes back to biology – we are building new neural pathways in our brains here, and unless we practice our new schedule, for several weeks with conscious intent, we will slip back to our old ways very easily!

I suggest keeping a notebook just for this purpose, where you can jot down your ideas and plans that you think might work well and keep a note of what is helpful and what is not. Writing down a plan means that you can keep checking in to make sure you haven’t forgotten to include something in your routine should your mood or enjoyment of life take a dip. You can also then add and take away elements as you work out what works for you and what doesn’t.


You can contact the YBTC support team by calling 0113 511 8111 or by email to support@yorksbtc.org.uk
 

 
 
 
 
 
 

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