Many of us struggle to treat ourselves with kindness. For some reason we’re often nicer to others than we are to ourselves.
Good self-care isn’t that different from effective parenting. As parents we want to balance clear expectations for our kids with an understanding that they’re human and imperfect.
In the same way, looking out for ourselves means holding ourselves to standards that aren’t too loose or too tight. This approach allows us to experience a balance of pleasure and mastery, the two types of reward that make life feel enjoyable and worthwhile.
One very obvious way to be kind to ourselves is to prioritize our sleep. Virtually every area of our life benefits from good sleep: mood, energy, concentration, relationships, work performance, driving ability, and more. However, we often push through sleepiness or counteract it with stimulants like caffeine, ignoring the costs of being sleep deprived.
Or we may spend plenty of time in bed but consistently struggle with insomnia. Over time we worsen our insomnia through attempts to get more sleep, like going to bed earlier or trying really hard to fall asleep.
Think: Challenge unhelpful thoughts about sleep, like “Tomorrow’s going to be a complete disaster if I don’t get to sleep soon.”
Act: Set an alarm for when to start your bedtime routine, and go to bed and get up at about the same time every day.
Be: Let go of efforts to force yourself to sleep, and accept that sleep will come when it comes.
Nourish Your Body and Brain
There is mounting evidence that our diet has a big effect on our mental and emotional well-being. While specific dietary recommendations vary, one common guideline is to eat minimally processed food, especially vegetables and fruits, nuts, fish, healthy fats like olive oil, as well as whole grains, and to limit or avoid refined sugar, fast food, and trans fats.
These recommendations are similar to the “Mediterranean-style” diet, which has been linked to improvements in anxiety and depression.
Think: Plan your meals in advance so you’re more likely to eat healthy foods.
Act: Cook a new recipe that incorporates some of your favourite foods.
Be: Practice mindful eating to bring greater enjoyment to your food and to make it less likely you’ll overeat
Move Your Body
Physical exercise has positive effects not just on our bodies but on our minds and moods—and for good reasons. Consistent exercise leads to better sleep, the release of natural “feel good” chemicals (endorphins), a sense of accomplishment, increased blood flow to the brain, social contact with others who are exercising, and more.
Think: Consider enjoyable ways to use your body that don’t even feel like “exercise.”
Act: Do a new workout that requires your body to adjust to unfamiliar ways of moving.
Be: Pay attention to your breathing as you move your body. Yoga practice explicitly directs our attention to the breath through the poses.
We’re built to handle short-term stress pretty well—our fight-or-flight response kicks in, we rise to the challenge, and then our parasympathetic nervous system calms us down. But when stress is chronic, our bodies and brains become worn down, leading to impaired immune function, digestive and cardiac problems, and psychological illnesses. Plus it’s just not enjoyable to live in a constant state of high-alert. We’ll never eliminate stress from our lives, but we can learn to manage it more effectively.
Think: Relax rigid and unrealistic standards for yourself, like “I have to finish this project today.”
Act: Schedule short breaks throughout your day in which you deliberately let go of unnecessary tension.
Be: Develop curiosity about your relationship with stress, like noticing the quality of your thoughts and how your body reacts when you’re feeling pressure.
Spend Time Outside
Being in nature is good for our well-being. Green landscapes are not only beautiful but also engage our parasympathetic nervous systems, helping to lower our stress levels. We’re also less prone to unhealthy rumination when we’re outdoors.
Think: Notice the effect that being outside has on your thoughts—their valence, content, etc.
Act: Plan a family outing that involves being outdoors—ideally with time away from technology.
Be: Gaze up and notice the particular look and feel of the sky today.
Helping others is actually self-serving. Indeed, making a point to help others leads to improvements in anxiety and depression. Serving others can distract us from our own distress, and can also provide a sense of purpose.
Think: Look for ways in which your partner or other loved one could use a little help.
Act: Do something nice and unexpected for another person, like helping a neighbour with yard work or preparing a meal for someone.
Be: Respond with compassion rather than judgment when a loved one makes a mistake.
Utsaah Psychology Clinic