According to Oxford Living Dictionaries, self-care "is the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one's own health, or the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during times of stress". Considering the way the summer holidays are portrayed in popular culture, you would never imagine this to be a stressful time, or that you might need strategies for preserving your health and well-being. However if you're planning a trip away, or you're a parent with the long summer holidays ahead, you will surely understand the reason for, and timing of, this post!
As much as we might 'look forward' or plan to have a wonderful summer, it doesn't always live up to expectations. Add in a few relatives you don't really get along with, the potential challenges of being in a different place, eating unusual food, drinking too much alcohol and not enough water, not to mention possible travel delays, and you can see the potential for stress. That's without even thinking about keeping any kids safe, fed, exercised, and entertained, the cost implications, or juggling work.
While it may not be possible to avoid all of the potential summer stressors, it can be helpful to have a few strategies which will help you to stay in the right frame of mind, and to cope more easily if things divert from what you'd planned! In this post, I'll be offering just that.
Before we dive into any strategies, I want to bring your attention to the three key elements of the dictionary definition.
Self-care is about 'protecting' your health, wellbeing and happiness. Rather than being the luxury many people assume, protecting these things should be a priority, however busy you are. This is not what most of us have been conditioned to think, and is especially important if you're caring for others, at home or at work. (We all know the saying: "you can't pour from an empty cup.")
It's something that you need to be 'active' about - in other words, the onus is on YOU to do something about it.
Self-care is a 'practice' rather than being a one-time thing. Like playing a sport, or an instrument, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. It's said that it takes approximately two months to create a new habit, so that it becomes automatic. If you start practicing self-care now, by the Autumn you won't need really to think about it.
So what exactly is it? Self-care can - and should - encompass all aspects of an individual - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The term is both wide ranging and subjective - which means our personal needs at any time are likely to depend on our circumstances. The specifics might even change from day to day, or hour to hour.
Common methods of self-care include getting more sleep, improved nutrition or hydration, exercise, meditation, getting help with something, engaging in a spiritual practice, or taking time out. Learning to say 'no' and setting better boundaries can also be life-changing methods for many! So what does self-care look like for you? What would help you to feel happier and more balanced? Is the very thought causing a list of excuses to form in your mind as you consider these words?
Tip: The more you think you don't have time for self-care,
the more important it is that you MAKE the time for it!
A very simple way to manage your self-care practice is to use this three-step method to identify what you need, to commit to making it happen, and then to act on it! You can use this exercise at any time. Doing it when you feel fine is a great way to keep on top of things, but you can also do it to help take remedial action whenever you notice things aren't going so smoothly. In that situation, you can literally take a couple of minutes to tune in and see what you need to address. (Just taking those few moments might be a great help!)
STEP 1: Ask what you need.
At any time, you can simply ask yourself what you need to do to have your needs met (remember, this is SELF-care - it's about the things that YOU can control - be honest with yourself). Take a few moments to close your eyes, get present, and then identify any area(s) that would benefit from attention right now. These questions are not exhaustive but will get you started. Try not to let yourself go into any stories around these things, but to be factual and to notice your response to each of them:
How is your physical health?
Are there signs of pain or tension in your body?
Do you feel strong and well-rested?
How do you feel when you get up in the morning?
How much time are you spending outdoors?
What about your emotional needs - are they being met?
Are you fulfilled and happy, stressed and in a rut, or something in-between?
How are your thoughts - are they mostly positive, or is your glass half empty?
How are your relationships?
When did you last read a good book or laugh until your face ached?
Do you make time for spiritual practice, whatever that might be for you?
Which area of your life feels most balanced?
Are there any areas where you feel out of alignment?
What else do you notice?
What else do you feel you need?
Bringing your attention to your needs in this way is fundamental to taking responsibility for your own care, and if you can tap into your body (as discussed in this post / Episode 2 of the podcast) you'll get immediate feedback and will usually find that you know what you need to do to address any issues.
STEP 2: Identify the 'How?'.
Be honest with yourself as you identify what YOU can do to take better care of yourself in the area(s) you've identified. Sometimes it's really simple and obvious when you've taken the time to realise what's going on. It might be that you missed a meal ('hanger' is real) or are dehydrated, both of which can be easily remedied.
For bigger things you'll probably know what to do too, even if you feel some resistance. If so, ask yourself whether you genuinely want to feel better or not. If it helps, you might like to make a list of the cost vs the payoff so you can see what's really at stake. For example never standing up for yourself with a family member for the sake of keeping the peace (the payoff) might be costing your sense of self-respect and authenticity, and is likely to spill over into your relationships with others.
Tip: If you can't see what you could to do to protect your health, wellbeing and happiness, you might want to consider why you're resistant to this, and what you're getting out of things staying as they are!
If you're still not sure what to do, try making a list of possible solutions and then working through it to find one that suits you best. It might be a simple choice, or you may have several viable options so get creative! When you're in the right frame of mind, it's often easy to put things in place, although you may need to prioritise things differently, to alter your schedule, or to get additional support, depending on the circumstances. It should go without saying that if you think you need to seek professional advice, or to get medical attention, you should do so as soon as possible.
STEP 3: Get on with it!
Some things can be dealt with instantly while others may need more planning, but don't procrastinate for too long - the point of this is to feel better. Why would you want to postpone that? If you can make a start straight away, do so. If not, set a plan in place. You may need to enrol your nearest and dearest for support. Demonstrating the importance of self-care is a great example for them, and it may be that you can help one another out, so that you all get the time and support necessary to meet your needs.
This goes for your kids as well as the adults in your life. In our house we have things in place to ensure we all have time to meet our needs as much as possible - we instigated a 'quiet hour' on weekends where we all go off for our own brand of relaxation (I usually read or nap, my husband and son play games, and my daughter watches TV for an hour) then we all get together for a family meal, feeling refreshed and ready to interact! One of my personal strategies for coping with overwhelm has been to get out of the with the dog. My daughter usually walks the dog with me but she knows that if I say I need to go for a dog walk without her, it's because I'm feeling stressed, or 'touched out' and would benefit from quiet time. It's not necessary to say anything else and she doesn't take it personally - she understands it's because I need some space. She'd much rather a mother who is relaxed and calm, so she'll happily stay home until next time, knowing I'll be in a better frame of mind when I return.
Finally, I'd like to share a breathing exercise / meditation that can be done anywhere, although I prefer to do it sitting outside on the ground. I do this one most days because it only takes a few minutes and is very effective. You can use it any time you're feeling stressed or worried, or if there has been conflict with another person. It's very relaxing and will give you a sense of connectedness (with the universe). I've used it in queues, on trains, and one day I even did it when I didn't want to react to my husband's bad mood while we were in the car - it's very helpful and can even be done without anyone realising you're doing it, especially if you're wearing sunglasses! A few of my clients have been using this exercise with great results. It might feel a bit strange at first if you've never done anything like it before, but this really does work.
If you've been attuned to level 1 or higher, you can call in Reiki energy (and may see the similarity to Reiki exercises), if not, simply imagine you're working with a beautiful white light. As you're doing the exercise, focus on your breath and visualising the white light (or Reiki) to the exclusion of other thoughts. (N.B. You might like to listen to this on the podcast episode which accompanies this post.)
Take a moment to get yourself comfortable, either sitting on the ground or in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your palms facing down, in your lap. Close your eyes.
As you breathe gently in and out, focus your attention on the tan-den (or tan tien) energy centre which is located inside your body below your navel. Notice how it fills with each inward breath.
When your breathing is steady and you're feeling centred, begin to imagine a stream of beautiful crystalline light coming down from above you and flowing into the top of your head. If you're attuned, connect to Reiki and feel it coming in through your Crown Chakra.
Visualise the light/energy flowing into your body with each breath. Imagine (or feel) it flowing into your tan-den, down through arms, through your legs and feet, and into the earth.
If you have pain or tension in your body, direct the light/Reiki to that area as you inhale. Imagine it filling with light and, and as you exhale, imagine any pain or tension leaving with your breath. If a different colour would be more healing for you, imagine that mixing with the beautiful crystalline light.
Whenever you're ready, turn your palms upwards. With your next breath, fill your tan-den with light/energy, and briefly pause before exhaling. As you breathe out, imagine the energy radiating out to fill all the different parts of your body.
Repeat this as many times as you like and then, on your next out breath, start to send the beautiful light/energy beyond your body to the environment around you, including any people, animals, plants, the earth and sky.
Continue to do this a few more times and then, with your next exhale, repeat it but don't limit the range, instead send the energy out to infinity.
You may continue to do this for as long as you like, maintaining steady and intentional breath.
When you feel ready to bring the meditation to an end, bring your hands together in front of your heart, to finish with thanks.
Even if you only have a few minutes, you should be able to fit this meditation into your schedule, or to you use it when you need an instant dose of self-care. You can also try it at the end of the day before you go to sleep.