Self Care: Soothing and Strengthening

By Anna K.

Author’s note: I’ve lived with depression and (social) anxiety since my teens; at various times, I’ve been prescribed anti-depressants, and gone to counseling, but the main way I’m currently working to minimise my symptoms is through self care. In no way do I want to suggest that it’s the best or the only way to deal with these mental health issues, but I wanted to clarify that this is where I’m starting from. I’m definitely still on a journey of working out how to manage my mental health, and everyone’s mental health journey is different, but I hope that this record of my experiences with self care will be helpful to someone.

I’ve only recently come across the term “self care”; so recently, in fact, that I don’t know the official definition of self care (or even if there is one). But in some ways, I don’t think having a single expert definition is so terribly important. Self care, as I understand it, boils down to looking after yourself. This is one of those “sounds simple, is in fact complicated” things, I know. I think of self care as taking the aphorism “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” and applying that to yourself — recognising that you, too, are fighting a hard battle, and that you therefore deserve kindness, not just from others, but from yourself. It’s about recognising that living with (in my case) depression and anxiety is a really hard thing to do. And self care is about trying to make this as easy as possible.

It’s often much easier to be kind to other people than it is to be kind to ourselves, and the idea of self care can often seem more like self indulgence. But being kind to yourself is not the same as letting yourself off the hook: certainly for me, practicing effective self care is about knowing when to give myself a break and when to give myself a kick in the pants. But how to tell the difference? I started getting better at this when I was introduced to the idea of mindfulness by a therapist a few years ago: he had me practice regularly assessing both my physical state (“how does my left foot feel?”) and mental state (“what thoughts are bubbling up right now? How do I feel emotionally?”). I no longer run through the exercise daily, but the habit of checking in with myself has stuck, and it makes it easier to decide whether some self care would be a good idea, and what kind of self care would work best right now.

In writing this piece, I found myself thinking about the different ways in which I practice self care, and I realised that my self care practices can be grouped in different ways. One possibly helpful realisation I had was that you could categorise my self care as being of one of two types: “preventive” and “palliative.”

“Palliative” self care is what I would call self care that I use to soothe myself when I’m in a particularly depressive or anxious phase. It’s about acknowledging that I’m in pain, and trying to find ways to make the pain a little less in the here and now. “Preventive” self care is about looking after myself when I’m basically feeling okay, and strengthening myself in order to be able to weather the storm of a bad patch in the future. “Palliative” and “preventative” could also be understood as “soothing” and “strengthening.”

“Strengthening” self care and “soothing” self care aren’t in opposition to each other, and in fact can overlap to a certain degree. To help illustrate what I mean by these two labels, I’ll now look at some of my personal self care practices, talk a little bit about each one, and try and explain what it is that makes it a useful form of self care for me.

Strengthening self care

Yoga

We’re always told that exercise produces endorphins and makes us happy and healthy and so on and so forth, but the problem is that exercise is often really boring, and also hard work. It is for me, at any rate, and that might be why I find it hard to exercise beyond walking everywhere downtown. But I do like those endorphins, and I would also like to feel that I’m in control of my body rather than the other way round, so I started going to a gentle yoga class at my local Y. And it’s been really helpful — it’s a really low-key class with a lovely instructor, and I never feel judged for my size or my near-complete lack of flexibility. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to psych myself up to going, but I always feel better afterwards; in addition to the yoga-specific benefits, successfully completing an exercise class makes me feel strong and capable and proactive, which are things that depression prevents me from feeling a lot of the time.

Choir

I am a giant introvert and also (perhaps relatedly) really really good at being in my own company, but even I occasionally feel the need for human interaction. I’ve found that singing in my church choir helps fill this need pretty well, without being too draining — people are friendly and sociable, but we’re there to sing, so there’s no pressure to be Super Chatty And Extroverted. Choir also helps fill my need for creativity: I love communal music-making, and the sense of accomplishment when we produce a beautiful sound is really satisfying and makes me feel good about myself. And because choral singing requires a three-way split in concentration (simultaneously paying attention to your own voice, the other singers, and the conductor), I find it to be a good exercise in mindfulness and directed attention.

Eating at regular intervals

I often forget to eat, particularly in the first half of the day. And I forget I’ve forgotten to eat until suddenly I’m ravenous, at which point I find it really hard to decide what to eat, and equally hard to make/acquire it. So remembering to eat before that point makes my life easier in general, and — since feeling hungry interferes with my emotional stability — also helps my mental health. (I should acknowledge that food is a pretty fraught issue, and I certainly don’t want to be prescriptive about eating here: all I know is that the cycle of “forget to eat – realise I’m ravenous – have a hard time feeding myself” is physically and emotionally unpleasant for me, and eating at regular intervals helps prevent it.)

Soothing self care

Painting my nails

Why painting my nails? Well, it requires concentration, which helps take me out of my spiralling thoughts, but it’s pretty easy to do, so I don’t get frustrated and give up halfway. I actually often find myself getting into a meditative sort of state, which is nice. Also, the end result looks pretty (I usually go for bright colours and/or sparkles), which helps boost my self esteem — as a bonus, this effect can last a couple of days, or until the polish gets chipped enough for me to remove it.
(I find that I can achieve the meditative aspect of this practice through similarly simple, repetitive tasks like doing a jigsaw puzzle, colouring, or some simple drawing.)

Listening to The Lord of the Rings

A pretty good indicator of my mental health at one point was “how often do I listen to (the 1980s BBC Radio 4 adaptation of) The Lord of the Rings?” This is my ultimate “comfort listen.” I’ve never really had much success with using books or music to soothe myself during depressive episodes, but this adaptation is just the ticket. I think it’s a combination of not having to concentrate on words on a page (which is often why I have trouble with attempting comfort reading) and requiring enough concentration that my mind doesn’t wander (which is why listening to my favourite albums doesn’t work for me). The other element that makes the BBC’s Lord of the Rings work as a comfort listen is that I grew up listening to it, so it comes with years of childhood nostalgia attached: we used to take it with us on long car journeys, and I used to listen to it if I was home sick from school. So it has lots of fond memories attached to it. Also, it’s really really good.

A nice cup of tea

Being English, there is a part of my psyche that firmly believes that tea solves everything. So it’s perhaps not surprising that “making myself a cup of tea” would be on my list of self care. Partly it’s because I enjoy drinking tea, but I think there are other factors at work — I’m much more likely to make myself a cup of tea as self care than I am to make a cup of cocoa or pour myself a glass of lemonade, even though I enjoy drinking those, too. The difference between other drinks and tea is partly physical — the comforting warmth of the mug in my hands, the ritual of waiting for the kettle to boil, steeping the tea for just long enough, and adding the right amount of milk — but I think mostly emotional. “I’ve just put the kettle on, do you want a cuppa?” is a regular refrain when I go home to visit family; making a cup of tea for someone is a sign of affection and care to me, and that sense of “tea = love” carries over into making myself a cup as well.

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Anna K. is a contributing writer at the Ellipses Project. Her academic background has little to do with feminism or gender studies (an undergraduate degree in science led to a master’s in sustainability), but she’s making up for lost time thanks to finding great sources of feminist writing on the internet. She’s particularly interested in intersectionality and social justice, especially as regards food, urban design, and deliberative democracy. She enjoys young adult literature, choral singing, and making pop culture finger puppets.