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Real self-care

06 March 2020 - By Raewyn Ng

In May 2019 the World Health Organisation declared a global mental health crisis and defined burnout as an occupational risk and a workplace condition.

It’s not surprising that in a world that glamorises being overworked and stressed, the self-care industry has grown to be worth US$11 billion a year in the US alone. Globally, the wellness economy is worth US$4.5 trillion, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

Author Brianna Wiest makes a good point: “A world in which self-care has to be such a trendy topic is a world that is sick. Self-care should not be something we resort to because we are so absolutely exhausted that we need some reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure.”

When we think self-care, it’s easy to think of curated, consumer-driven social media pictures – bubble baths, massages and holidays – but it needs to be simpler than this. It needs to be about emphasising the ordinary things that make it easier for us to be in our lives without feeling like we always need to escape.

Using rewards

It’s great to be able to look forward to our next holiday, or to ‘treat’ ourselves to chocolate cake or a glass of wine, and while this approach can, of course, contribute to our sense of wellbeing overall, it should not be the totality of our self-care actions to ‘get us through’ the demands of our work, family and home life. When we use rewards like this for doing our jobs or living our lives and come to rely on them as the only source of relief from our responsibilities, what we’re really looking for is an escape from our reality.

Three cyclists

That’s not to say that everyone who looks forward to holidays or likes to get a regular massage is looking for that escape, is trying to avoid their life, or is self-medicating and numbing out from their reality. After all, who doesn’t look forward to these things – they contribute to what makes life good. We just need to be aware that if these are the only things keeping you going, and if you’re that person that always says ‘I just want this week to be over’ every week, there might be some things you can do to make life better.

We need to take a breath and focus on the small, unglamorous things we can do each day to make us feel good about our reality and take away the overwhelming desire to run away.

Self-care is any activity that we purposely do to take care of ourselves and help to build our energy so we can function better – mentally, physically and emotionally. When you’re thinking about what you can do to take better care of yourself, bear in mind the following:

  • Give yourself permission to take time to do things that help you re-energise and rebalance. Many of us are uncomfortable with this idea. It’s not always seen as acceptable, but remember that when we look after ourselves, we have more energy to look after those around us and to carry out our responsibilities.
  • Self-care activities can be different for everyone, so experiment to find what works for you.
  • Plan for your self-care actions and set aside time, rather than just fitting it in as time allows, waiting for a gap in your day or for it to just happen.
  • Small actions can add up. You don’t need to make major time commitments or do expensive things. If the commitment is too big and we don’t feel like we have space for it in our lives, it’s much easier to give up on them – so focus on small things that you can easily fit in to your day or week and make them consistent.
  • Make sure it’s something you want to do, as opposed to something you think you ‘have to’ do. If you don’t see it as something that adds to your feeling of well-being, then it probably won’t.

The following are simple self-care actions to consider:

Mental self-care

Self-talk: Perception is everything. How we talk to ourselves and how we see things influences our mood and stress levels so be aware of what you tell yourself. Reframe that voice in your head that admonishes your actions and decisions. Allow room to talk to yourself with more understanding and compassion. If you’ve chosen to do something to help you destress and relax, make sure you’re all in – there’s no point getting a massage and stressing about the things you’re not doing while you’re there or going to yoga and competing and comparing yourself with others in the room.

Doing the everyday things: Sometimes self-care is doing the everyday things every day. While you might want to just leave the dishes because you’re tired, consider whether waking up and seeing them there in the morning is going to be a bigger stress. Doing the basics on time can make a big difference to your mindset.

Addressing the stress: If your self-care often comes in the form of escapism as a distraction from your stressors, be aware that it’s not adding to the stress. Sometimes we just need to binge on Netflix or read a book, but when the things that let you check out for a while leads to your responsibilities and tasks turning into an unmanageable mountain, it’s time to rethink the strategy. Do not let your small escapes turn into full-blown numbing and avoidance behaviours.

Physical self-care

To me, these are the absolute basics and they always seem to be the first to go for many people when things get rough.

Sleep: When we want to squeeze more work and play into our days, sleep is often one of the first things to go. Typically, we need around seven to nine hours sleep a night and reduced sleep impacts on a number of things – neural and physical repair, immunity, liver function, energy restoration, hormonal balance and decision-making.

Eat well: When ‘treat’ foods become everyday foods because we work so hard and we ‘deserve’ it, we’re doing ourselves a disservice, moving into escapism and not looking after ourselves at all. We literally are the food we eat – so choose your food well to boost your energy, mood and health. I’m not saying never have an ice cream or burger, but be aware of your reasons behind your choices and ask if it’s taking care of your mental, physical and emotional self.

Move: Movement and exercise is not just for the purpose of losing weight and looking good. Move because you enjoy it, move to reduce stress and anxiety and move to improve your mood energy and concentration. Find ways to add movement into your day, not just relying on structured exercise.

Emotional self-care

Saying no: Many of us find it hard to say no, even to things we don’t really want to do. Make it easy and start a ‘no’ list – things you don’t like and don’t want to do anymore; for example, no checking emails at night, no going to events you don’t want to. It will help you live more in alignment with what you love and value, decreasing your overall stress.

Connecting with others: Spend quality time with loved ones doing the things you want to do. Remove distractions and be in the moment so you can really enjoy it.

Time to reflect: When we don’t give ourselves enough time out, we limit our opportunities for introspection, reflection and unconscious thought. During our workdays we tend to be mostly left-brain dominant (associated with logic, analysis, objectivity and language). When we take time out, the right-brain becomes more active and because it’s the more visual, intuitive and holistic side of our brain, we tend to get more inspiration, new ideas and creative problem solving during our down times.

The checklist of our lives

As with many things, the flip side is that we’ve tended to get a bit obsessive with our self-care as well, turning it into yet another thing to do on the check list of our lives. We’ve taken to counting our steps, calories, sleep and breaths with seriousness and turned it into ‘work’ as well.

Studies have demonstrated that while wearable technology such as Fitbit promote feelings of happiness, pride and motivation upon reaching goals and targets, it also promotes feelings of guilt and pressure when targets are not met. Leaving home without your Fitbit may have you feeling naked (just like the unthinkable of leaving home without your phone) and it may prompt you to go back home to get it, or else leave you with lower motivation or feeling like your exercise for the day is ‘wasted’.

Yes, let’s be accountable in our actions to be healthy, but be mindful of when the things that are supposed to help us relax, unwind or rebuild our energy no longer do this and instead of keeping us well, start to stress us out.


Raewyn Ng rae@mybod.co.nz is a movement coach with an interest in wellbeing and holistic health, managing stress and living a balanced lifestyle.

Last updated on the 6th March 2020