We’ve all seen articles telling us how to ‘indulge’ in self-care in a curated, Instagrammable, Pinterest-worthy way. You know, bubble baths and pedicures, mojitos with your friends and charcuterie boards. And that’s… nice for those who can manage it. But if you read those articles, and the very thought of all that is exhausting and makes you want to cry, read on… we’ve got you covered.
What is Self-Care?
Here’s the thing: Self-care means anything that you do for your own good. And, just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can classify self-care in a pyramid.The bottom of the pyramid? Things like: taking your meds, brushing your teeth, getting out of bed (with or without getting dressed), making yourself eat. And if those are too much, try and think of the smallest thing that you could manage to do in your day, and prioritize. It’s probably more important that you eat something and take your meds than get dressed or brush your teeth. Of course, those things are important, too, but when you’re in crisis, you need to choose the absolute essentials.
Once you have the basics covered, the next most important thing is to add in some joyful things which will fill your cup. Are you rewatching all of Star Trek in order? (That’s mine!) Do you like to knit, crochet, paint or draw? Do you have ‘$20 in your pocket’ and enough energy to make it to the thrift store? Can you make it out for a Starbucks with a friend?
Self-Care is Necessary
If you find yourself struggling with self-care, try gently asking yourself why. Are you exhausted and in chronic pain and it’s just physically difficult to do tasks? Are you in the bottom of a depression and shame spiral and you don’t feel like you’re worthy of love and care? Do you feel like any time, effort or money spent on yourself is ‘bad’? Maybe some of these things are issues to take up with your doctor and/or counsellor. If you are struggling with everything, including eating and taking meds consistently, it may be time to make a decision to ask for help.
Make Self-Care a Judgement Free Zone
Things that tend not to be helpful: Beating yourself up about what you ‘should’ be able to do, or listening to helpful relatives suggest that ‘if you just got to bed at a decent time’ you’d be able to do everything with ease. In order to work on making changes in our lives, we first need to accept where we are – without judgement, shame, blame or self-hatred.
It can help to find someone whom you admire who has also struggled with similar issues. For example, one of my favourite authors, John Green, struggles with intrusive thought spirals due to OCD, like I do – and it makes me feel just a little bit better.
If you struggle with certain self-care tasks, look for alternatives. Please know that many, many people have specific struggles with tasks like showering, brushing their teeth, visiting the dentist or doctor, taking their medications, etc. Instead of looking at those Instagram-perfect lives, use social media to your advantage, and find YouTubers and TikTokkers who understand what you’re going through and can give you some ideas:
Alternatives to tooth brushing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJ0YaA9nKGc
Dental care: www.youtube.com/watch?v=atM2PbF4SIs&ab_channel=HowtoADHD
Self-Care with ADHD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_kOPlMttl4
Neurodivergent self-care: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPrF73fN_oU&ab_channel=fosteronthespectrum
If you struggle to take your meds, think about whether it’s a problem remembering (and put them somewhere you will be sure to see them every day), or a mental struggle (you may have to bribe yourself with a treat, or get a loved one to check in with you to help you to be consistent).
Dentists and doctors: if you have fears or specific issues, it can seem overwhelming to tackle medical appointments. Here’s the time to take your loved ones up on their offer to advocate for you, and let them take care of scheduling, transport, being with you and checking in on you during the appointment if they recognize that you are overwhelmed.
It can be hard to work on decorating your space when you don’t have a lot of energy or motivation, but if you spend a lot of time in your room, it’s important. There are resources which can help you. Try this YouTube video for some good ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABof7aqVSoQ
The Best and Bravest Decision
Deciding to work on self-care is a very brave decision. And one of the best ways to do that is to ask for help. This is often really hard! But you probably know some people who would be happy to help if they just knew what you needed. This might involve swallowing your pride a little bit. It takes courage to let even a trusted person into your space when it’s messy or dirty. I 100% promise you that they are not judging you like you are judging yourself. I also promise you that if they were living your life right now, they’d be struggling, too. This isn’t about your sickness, disability or lack of motivation. It’s about figuring out what you need to in order to create a life worth living.
So, self-care can be hard. And yes, that sucks. But it’s the foundation which will allow you to build towards all the good things that are waiting for you. Remember that every tiny act of self-care you can manage will build up into a forward momentum towards feeling better.
Mental and emotional burnout is something different from keeping a busy schedule and feeling tired at the end of a week. It occurs when a person has experienced pervasive and prolonged stress. Burnout can be described as occurring in a predictable manner in which it begins with excessive ambition and commitment, leads to changes in values wherein personal care is neglected and emotions are displaced, and typically ends in feelings of sadness, emptiness and/or defeat.
While many people live a full life and are invigorated by pace and productivity, burnout is often demonstrated by a persons’ inability to reenergize and struggle to stay focused. Although true burnout will affect each individual in unique ways, there are standard warning signs that your nervous system may be overloaded, and that you’ve neglected parts of yourself in the process. This list is not exhaustive, but it captures some common signs of burnout:
- You’re easily irritated and find it difficult to be patient with others.
When other people’s requests of you begin to feel like an assault on your capacity to provide what they need, it is an indication that you’re feeling depleted. Normally, a request is something we can consider, and decide in a relatively neutral way what we’d like to give.
What can you do about it?
Begin to check in with yourself more often to see what you need. When you feel that your own needs are taken care of, you’re much more likely to be able to meet the needs of others. When you have taken care of your own needs (for rest, solitude, exercise, nutrition, enjoyment, etc.) you will be better set up to meet those needs for others.
- You’ve lost the motivation to engage in activities you normally enjoy and may be more likely to procrastinate.
Procrastination tends to occur when we feel overwhelmed; our “system” (mind, body, spirit) is taxed and so we lose motivation. When we lose motivation, we’re less inclined to engage in activities we normally enjoy or the responsibilities we’ve committed to. When we’re not enjoying our activities, we’re likely to procrastinate in making them happen.
What can you do about it?
This may boil down to scaling back activities and responsibilities. It may also be a matter of tackling responsibilities in “bite-sized” pieces. Some people find it helpful to break down one big task into several smaller pieces, identifying deadlines and rewarding for a job well done.
- You feel detached from your own feelings, and your day-to-day life can feel robotic.
When a person experiences burnout, they have learned to function at such a high capacity that they have had to shed a certain degree of their “humanness” to do so. When a person begins to think (consciously or subconsciously) that emotions get the in the way, or that slowing down to be present in their experience is cumbersome, they will adjust to a way of being that sees those elements of the human experience eliminated.
What can you do about it?
It requires, yet again, a turning in toward yourself – toward your feelings, your present experience, your needs. Do regular “check-ins” to note the physical responses, the thoughts, and the emotions you’re experiencing. If you operate in a robotic manner, return to the things that make you feel human. Mindfulness practices can be really helpful. For example, hold a cup of tea and feel the warmth on your hand, note the scent it releases, and observe the design of the mug itself. Taking moments to look for what brings you pleasure can eventually lead to a slower, more human experience.
- You become emotional at unexpected times, and you are quick to cry.
If it is true that we are more inclined to detach from feelings if we are experiencing burn out, then it stands that our emotions will bubble up unexpectedly, as we know that they have to find their release somewhere J. If you find that you can go weeks at a time without identifying any significant emotion, but then suddenly cry at a car commercial, you may be experiencing burn out.
What can you do about it?
There are many ways to facilitate an open acknowledgement and acceptance of the emotion. Some people need to process it verbally with a good friend who listens well, or with a therapist. Some people find that journaling can be helpful as it forces a person to reflect on their experience. No matter how you begin, it requires a method for tuning in to your feelings, and this requires slowing down enough to make this possible.
- You experience an increase in worry and anxiety.
The capacity to process your environment is compromised, and your stress responses are weakened when you are burnt out. When your body and brain have operated as if you’ve been under threat for a prolonged period of time, the resources for dealing with everyday stress are inhibited, and you are likely to experience an increase in anxiety.
What can you do about it?
First, try to eliminate obvious stressors. An honest look at your schedule may illuminate the ways you’re overextending yourself, and where you can cut back. Second, don’t try to push away the feeling of anxiety. It can be very tempting to attempt to detach from anxiety, much like detaching from other emotions or feelings when experiencing burnout, but this can be counterproductive. Sometimes it can be helpful to follow the “thread” of the anxiety, to become curious about what it’s about, and to see if there’s something beneath the explicit fear. Particularly with burnout, it can be helpful to stay with the feelings of anxiety, as it can point us toward what we need.
To provide a personal example, when I was experiencing a strong sense of overwhelming several years ago, I began to worry – more than usual – about my children. I found more reasons to be concerned about their safety and wellbeing. It was during this time that I was also taking quite a bit of school work. When I became curious about my anxiety, and how it generally pertained to my children, I realized that I was really missing spending as much time with them as I had in previous years. I felt more distracted and less connected to them, and that was unsettling for me. My anxious feelings pointed me toward what I was really in need of at the time – to drop a course and to fit in more time with my young kids.
If you recognize yourself in any of the items listed above, it may be helpful to take some time alone. In the quiet of solitude, we are more likely to reflect on who we are, and what we need. In addition, it’s likely you could benefit from the support and guidance of a counsellor. If you think working with someone to process some of this could be helpful, give us a call, we’re here to help.