You hear the terms “mental health, mental illness” used all the time. But what does it actually mean? To explain this, it’s helpful to think about mental health on a spectrum.
At one end of the spectrum a person is mentally healthy. In this area you feel able to work and study, feel connected to others, be involved in activities in your community and ‘bounce back’ when life’s changes and challenges come along.
At the other end of the spectrum is mental illness. Mental illness is a general term that refers to a group of conditions, such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders. These conditions can significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with others. Almost half of the population will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. Common Mental Illnesses are anxiety, depression, eating disorders and post traumatic stress.
Self-care is any activity that we engage in to take care of our personal needs and well-being. It is vital to our mental and overall health and, ironically, it’s something we frequently neglect to practice.
The recent and ongoing stress related to COVID-19 has increased the need for us to self care. This will enable us to build resilience and continue to cope in the current stressful environment and prevent mental illness.
Practising self-care has remarkable effects on our self-esteem. When we take care of ourselves, it affirms our self-worth. By taking care of ourselves and our needs, we’re telling ourselves, ‘I deserve this’.
With regular self-care, our self-awareness is greatly enhanced. Our go-to activities will usually be something that we already enjoy, but it also gives us the opportunity to branch out and try new things. This enables us to decide what we do and don’t like and, if we discover new interests, it can potentially lead to new passions and goals.
Self-care encourages self-improvement. It promotes rest and relaxation, which benefits our overall health and wellness, and it also promotes healthy relationships. When our self-esteem and self-awareness improves, it has a positive effect on our overall mindset. This, in turn, enables us to care for our friends and loved ones in a way that we might not have been able to do before.
Do we practise self-care enough?
The first thing about practicing self care is to be aware that it is something we need to do. Work and supporting family and friends is totally exhausting and if we don’t start to look after ourselves and revitalise and replenish then we are at risk of developing mental illness ourselves.
Why don’t we Practice Self Care?
The lack of energy or time are two of the most common reasons why we don’t practise self-care as much as we need to, but our financial situation or feelings of selfishness or guilt are also contributing factors. Many of us are of the opinion that practising self-care makes us appear selfish when, in reality, that is far from the truth.
Self Care Ideas
Self-care doesn’t have to be time consuming, physically draining, or costly. In fact, sometimes it’s the quick, simple things that are happening on a regular basis that keep us rejuvenated. Establishing a self-care routine is ideal, and the easiest way to do this is to block time your diary, daily if possible. It doesn’t have to be for a long period, even 10-20 minutes to start would be good. Refer to a previous post on Self Care.
If you are a morning person set your alarm 20 minutes early, even if you treat yourself to a cup of coffee in bed before your hectic day starts. If you are an evening person schedule in 20 minutes to have some quiet time or use the time however you want to. It’s not what you do but having the time set aside. If you are consistent you will gradually find that the time you have set aside is really valuable.
Download the Self Care First Aid PDF . This will give you strategies to include in your routine. Choose the strategies that suit you.
Not all Strategies Help
Some individuals have negative coping strategies. These could include turning to addictive behaviours like increasing alcohol or drug use, gambling or overeating — behaviours that can vary from person to person. These strategies tend to be a short term solution and aren’t considered to be self caring because they aren’t behaviours that are nurturing and that would increase self esteem.
Here is a breathing relaxation exercise you can try:
- sit (or lie) down and close your eyes, or let your eyes rest on an object in the room
- inhale deeply and slowly, while counting to four
- exhale slowly, counting to four
- inhale deeply and slowly again as you count to four, then hold your breath for two seconds
- exhale slowly, counting to four
- repeat inhale and exhale cycle for several minutes, and relax consciously
- as you inhale, imagine yourself in a safe, comfortable, beautiful place, continue to breathe as you hold the image in your mind, feel how relaxed you are, and
- when you are ready, become aware of yourself in the room once again, wriggle your fingers and toes, and slowly open your eyes.
When you feel stressed, your muscles might feel tense making it hard to relax. Try this progressive muscle relaxation technique to get your body to relax:
This exercise can be completed laying. down or sitting in a comfortable chair.
- rest your arms by your side, and close your eyes
- inhale as you count to four, and exhale as you count to four, until your mind is quiet and you feel calm
- as you continue to breathe slowly, tense each muscle group for ten seconds (don’t tense so much that you feel cramp or pain), then relax for ten seconds, starting with your:
- feet: curl your toes, then relax
- calves: tighten your calf muscles, then relax
- thighs: tighten your thigh muscles, then relax
- buttocks: tighten your buttocks, then relax
- stomach: pull your tummy in, then relax
- chest: breathe in deeply, then breathe out and relax
- hands: clench your hands into fists, then relax
- lower arms: bend your hands up at the wrists, then relax
- upper arms: bend your arms up at the elbow, then relax
- shoulders: lift your shoulders up, then relax
- neck: roll your neck gently to the left, then the right, then forward, and relax
- jaw: clench your teeth, then relax
- forehead and scalp: close your eyes tightly, then relax, and
- eyes: raise your eyebrows, then relax
- continue slow, controlled breathing for five more minutes, and enjoy the feeling of relaxation, and
- when you’re ready, have a good stretch and bring your awareness back into the room.
Practicing self care is vital to your mental health. If you have a mental illness then self care will be one strategy used to improve your mental health. Self Care does not have to be elaborate, expensive, or take a long time. Self care needs to be integrated into your daily routine and become what you do to revitalise and replenish yourself to enable you to continue to support friends, family and communities that need your attention.
There are numerous self care strategies and the challenge is to choose those strategies that will compliment, nurture and fit into your lifestyle and routine and make you feel great.