Self-care was not always a big deal to me. In fact, I’d argue that for most of my life, self-care didn’t even exist. My body and mental health were merely roadblocks and hurdles that I needed to tame and overcome in order to do what I needed to do. Growing up, I was treated as though I didn’t have anything wrong with me, and I was expected to perform at the same levels as my “normal” peers, and so I simply kept pushing myself until I completely broke.
It is breaking that caused me to care about self-care. I had reached a point in my life where my body would no longer allow me to not care anymore. It forced my hand and forced me to change my habits; anything short of that meant I was unable to get out of bed or function without a ton of pain.
But even then my approach to self-care was wrong. You see, when my body broke, it started with my stomach. My stomach was suddenly moody and never wanted to eat anything (still doesn’t) and most any food I put into it made me feel worse (still does). Combined with my chronic pain and overwhelming anxiety that plagued me at the time, I pretty much viewed self-care as a way to placate my body just long enough so that it would allow me to continue to act as I had before. “If I do this one thing, then my body will go back to normal and I can continue living like I did before everything fell apart.” However, I had reached a level where that was no longer an option. To draw a parallel, when someone experiences trauma and the consequential PTSD that comes with it, the brain is rewired. At that point, there is no going back to the same mental wiring and processes that existed before. Instead, you have to adjust and learn to live with the new wiring in your brain. That is essentially what happened to me on a full-body (and probably mental as well) scale.
My body had changed, and my life and attitude towards my body had to change to reflect it. No matter how much I wanted it, there would never be any going back to surviving off of four hours of sleep at night while I fueled my body with Coke and Doritos.
It took me many years to figure this out, and in all honestly, I feel silly that I didn’t connect the dots sooner. I spent so much time trying to figure out how I could make things go back to the way it was before, only to find out that that was not even a viable solution for me anymore. I needed to reformat my life to accommodate what had happened to me. It is at this point that self-care actually began to take a hold in my life.
Throughout the bulk of this process (this process being: moving from my stomach crapping out on me to realizing things would never be the same again) I focused heavily on what I ate. I felt that most of my woes would be solved by eating the right things. However, due to the severe anxiety and stress (and probably depression) I was feeling at the time, I ended up shooting myself in the foot at nearly every meal. My attempts to help myself only served to exacerbate the problem. My self-care was failing hard.
Step One: I give myself permission.
So one of the first things I did regarding self-care was to stop caring so much about what I ate, because I hurt no matter what I ate, and beating myself up over it wasn’t changing anything. I gave myself permission to eat what sounded okay at the time, whether inside of my house or outside of my house (I used to eat out a lot). I allowed myself to fudge the rules because fudging the rules was better than stressing even more about what I was putting into my system. And since I didn’t know what was causing my stomach so much pain- better to eat and not stress than to not eat and still stress. You dig?
Giving yourself permission to do what you need to do to get by can be a very helpful step in moving forward. Berating yourself for things you can’t control or change benefits no one and ends up holding you back from making needed changes and actually moving forward. Going easy on yourself (and others) in times of need can make a huge difference.
Step Two: Address your schedule.
The second step towards helping myself was addressing where I lived. I used to drive about 45 minutes one way to work. That equates to about 2 hours in the car every day, and those two hours could be spent sleeping or relaxing. So with the permission of my SO, we moved to the other side of town where my job is located, and he took on the driving instead. This has had one of the most profound effects on my health. I’m able to sleep an additional hour every day (which makes more of a difference than even I can comprehend) and I walk to work every day. This benefit is twofold in that it gets my exercise in, and I have time to process thoughts and calm my mind while I walk. Of course, this has its downfalls- as it’s really hot in the summer. However, I think the benefits far outweigh the heat, and I’m grateful that I’ve been allowed this luxury of walking to work.
Walking to work also allowed me more control over my food intake. I am able to walk home during lunch (though I rarely do during the summer) and I’m able to make food that is better for my stomach because I have access to a full kitchen. Walking ended up benefiting me in more ways than I would have expected. The reduced stress and increased rest was enough that I began to eat better simply because I wasn’t stressing all the time. I found myself eating in more and eating things that bettered my stomach, and I think that heavily coincides with walking every day.
Step Three: Make your rest count.
It sounds weird- making your rest count, but I’ve found that not all types of rest are equal. My body is one of the kinds where it feels like no matter how much I rest, I still feel tired. I don’t know if this is a byproduct of something like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or possibly tied to poor breathing and allergies combating my system, or even maybe tied back again to my anxiety and stress wearing me out, but either way, for many years I felt like there was no point in resting because I’d wake up feeling just as tired. I felt it was more productive to just stay up and get work done.
However, through the walking to work experiment listed above, I found that resting at certain times actually makes a big difference for me. Before I moved, I used to sleep all the time. I’d nap under my desk at work. I’d come home and nap for another half hour or so, and then I’d go to bed at 9 because I was too tired to stay awake anymore. However, being able to sleep in the extra hour or so in the morning (combined, likely, with the reduced stress of walking to work), means I no longer need to nap at work, and I rarely nap when I get home anymore. I can even stay up later, sometimes as late as ten or eleven, without any extreme taxation on my body (just don’t ask me to wake up at 6 instead of 7, apparently). Figuring out how my body ticks and what gives me the most bang for my buck has made my self-care go that much further.
Step Four: Listen to your body.
I think it’s pretty obvious at this point that me and my body have often times been at odds. I feel like our society formats us to be that way- we’re often told that our bodies are a source of shame and dislike for a variety of reasons, and having a body that is slowly dieing can make it really hard to want to do anything for your body. “You’re making my life hell, so why should I even bother to help you out” was often my mentality. However, our bodies are not things that we can escape (if we want to stay alive, at least). We are stuck with ourselves and ignoring your body will not only likely shorten your life, but will make your life less enjoyable.
Learn from my mistakes and listen to your body’s needs before it breaks on you, because once it’s broken, there is very little you can do to fix it again. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from my stomach is to urge people to try and take care of themselves and their specific needs before their body face plants them into the ground out of desperation. Bodies and minds are not things we can just will to move forward. Our quirks and illnesses and needs are not something you can steam roll out of existence, they are things that have to be worked with and cultivated if we are to make the most out of what we’ve got (or don’t got). An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and working on self-care now while it’s still viewed as optional can make all the difference between having a body and mind that functions fairly well and being stuck with both being bombed out and not operational.
Figuring out what works best for your self-care can certainly be a challenge. Each person and each person’s needs are going to vary greatly, and what works for me may not be exactly what works for you. Taking the time to experiment with your needs can be time consuming, but it’s worth it to be in good health.
What things have you tried with your self-care? What has worked and what hasn’t? If you don’t partake in self-care, why is that? Do you think self-care is an important part of maintaining your health?