No matter what issues my clients come into my office with, I almost always end up talking about self-care at some point. We cannot talk about happiness and self-fulfillment if we cannot practice the very simple concept of self-soothing.
We all have our go-to tools that work for us. In all actuality, we likely have a full arsenal of tools that we have used for years, some dating all the way to childhood - our personal default coping tools, if you will. Anyone who has dealt with established traditions know that sometimes tradition needs to be updated. So too is the case of coping skills.
One of the fathers of psychology, Erik Erikson, is arguably most widely known for his theory of development. The first step of his theory, Trust vs. Mistrust, is when an infant, uncertain of the world and its surroundings, will learn if others will be there to care for it when needed, or if the cruel world will leave it to go hungry, or to soothe itself. The vast majority of us are lucky enough that our parents did, in fact, feed us, clothe us, change our diapers, and soothe us when we were in distress. However, under this theory is where the old saying, “everything in moderation” plays a part. If parents care for their baby’s essentials, but are not hypersensitive to their baby’s distress (lets the baby cry things out at times), the child will learn to soothe itself as opposed to relying on its parents every time something goes wrong. Ultimately, the child learns to rely on itself. This same principle can be generalized as lessons are learned throughout childhood in how parents come the aid of their child. Do parents coddle their child emotionally every time they are upset, and step in to solve their problems, or do parents teach the child coping tools and exercises to self-soothe and problem solve for themselves?
Often times parents themselves struggle with self-soothing, and thus do not have the capacity to pass this skill down to their children. Or children - and eventually adult children - never pick up self-soothing tools along the way.
Regardless of the why, we as adults have the choice to work at and develop the skills to self-soothe, or cope - or not.
Most of us, through simply living life, have developed tools that help us deal with stress. We talk with our friends, we pour ourselves a bubble bath, we meditate, or go for a run. Most times, our default coping tools - our ability to self-soothe - is sufficient to deal with life’s stressors. Occasionally, however, those tools fall short and our stressors rise above our ability to cope. This is where regular stress turns a corner and we may now actually be experiencing anxiety.
Coping skills are used in two main ways. The first is to deal with acute stress - the stress that arises after a sudden change.
Essentially, any time we experience change can be a type of acute stress. From being cut off in traffic, to the sudden death of a loved one. These are the times that we most often reach out for our tools. It should be noted that over time we have likely adopted some maladaptive coping tools as well. Shop-therapy, over-eating, recreational substance use, sexually acting out, and even smoking are all examples of maladaptive coping tools.
Perhaps a practice of coping skill that most people don’t always thinks about is regular maintenance.
This is your daily practice that builds resilience for when acute stress arises. It just so happens that I am a proud, card-carrying, Sci-fi nerd, and I frequently draw an analogy of resilience to the shields that the Starship Enterprise equips. When we are fully functional with no stressors, we are functioning at 100%. However, any time a stressor arises, our shielding of resilience takes damage. When significant acute stressors occur, or multiple smaller stressors pop up, our resilience is significantly depleted. It is our regular maintenance of self-care that replenish our resilience.
The Self-Care Trinity comes in three main areas: mind, body, and soul.
In order to be most effective at maintaining your resilience shielding, we should strive to touch on each of these areas in a daily basis. In my experience, when we are feeling “off”, “in a funk”, or just generally not having a good day, it is most likely that at least one of these areas has been neglected, and by spending a little time to ground ourselves in these, we are able to regain our selves, our focus, and our productivity on the things that matter most. Although the trinity seem simplistic enough, I will briefly touch on each.
Mind is perhaps the no-brainer here. When we are stressed, it makes total sense to self-soothe to help cope with that. Self-care should always be healthy, healing, and cause no damage to self or others. This can take the shape in many ways, be it individual therapy, practice of mindfulness, meditation, mantras, quiet time, etc. The important part of this piece of the Trinity is that you are relaxed and not engaged in something mentally stimulating.
The body part of the trinity comes in three main sub-categories: diet, exercise, and rest. The mind-body connection has been well researched in empirical studies, and requires as much attention as the mind. Focusing on eating healthier - whatever guidelines you choose, and drinking more water are great steps in providing self-care. This is tricky at times, as there is nothing more soothing than a scoop of ice cream, or a piece of dark chocolate to soothe away the stress of the day. This is where the practice of moderation is vital! Make sure you’re being physically active. Simply walking on a semi-regular basis can be enough, but you cannot replace the high you get after a work out - the rush of endorphins, the sense of accomplishment, and the satisfaction of the act of self-care are so important. The last part of this, rest, is often challenging as well. Getting 7-8 hours of sleep is vital to keeping your shields up, and charged to the max. Regardless of what your habits are, and what you proved you can survive on in college, this is the goal to strive towards. If you are struggling with reaching this goal, speak to your physician about your sleep. Getting a regular good night’s rest can literally be a life-changer.
Soul is likely the part of the trinity that people struggle the most with - it does not necessarily mean soul, as in religion, but rather engaging in the activities that are soul-fulfilling to you. Personally for me, singing is a great passion of mine and is where much of my ‘soul’ comes from in terms of the trinity. For others, exercise, or meditation, reading, playing with their pets, etc. can all be forms of the soul part of self-care.
It should be noted that not all types of self-care are equal. Reading a book may not give you the same relief or level of soothing as a weekend camping trip. Also, not all types of self-care are for all people. One person’s hot yoga class is another person’s version of hell. You may have to play a little trial and error until you find your defaults for mind, body, and soul. If we are lucky, specific tasks can touch on multiple parts of the trinity. For instance, yoga is often a trifecta, accomplishing self-care for mind, body, and soul for some people. I have heard runners talk about being “in the zone” where they are never more mentally at peace than when running, suggesting both body and mind self-care.
Although these three areas may seem obvious, many of us struggle to prioritize our own self-care. We get bogged down with the minutia of work, family, and social obligations and we tend to come last - if at all.
I propose the radical idea that we should always come first!
This is sometimes a difficult concept to grasp as some cultures view this a selfishness - that we should always think of others before ourselves. To this, I cannot argue - it IS selfish. What I will argue is - so what?! When it comes to self-care there is no one else to fall back on. No one else to regulate our emotions, to monitor our stress level, to make sure we’re keeping a healthy work/life balance. We MUST learn to do this ourselves. We must be selfish in our practice of self-care. After all, if it is not our responsibility to care for ourselves and move us toward our own happiness, who else is supposed to step up and do that for us? In this area, I fully support selfishness; however, in this too we practice moderation.
Once we have taken care of ourselves, with whatever we have left over, we can then help others.
Our job, school, friends, and yes, even our family may be vital to us, but they are never more important than taking care of ourselves. I am reminded of the safety speech before every flight: when flying next to a child when the oxygen bags deploy, what is your first action? You put your own oxygen mask on first - we can’t be help to anyone, including ourselves - if we aren’t functional. The ways in which we typically overextend ourselves is in time, money, and services.
I suggest the general rule before helping others is by asking a simple question of, “do I have the time/money to spare, or the availability to do this service?”
Sometimes, on occasion, we will make an exception for family, or a good friend, and let them borrow that last dollar. It is a practice of awareness that helps guides us to ensure it really is just an exception, and not our norm.
When we tend to give more than others, we face engaging in a possible codependent relationships.
Check out this link to look at symptoms and take a questionnaire to determine if this is a pattern of behavior for you. If you find you identify with codependency more than you might have thought, check out CoDA.org for more information and to find support groups near you. The great news is that, regardless of where this behavior came from (nature or nurture), it is simply a pattern of thought and behavior that can be changed, if you so desire. Just remember that what is simple is not always easy, and you may find that seeking out a therapist to help would be a helpful option.
Given my radical approach to self-care, both for myself, and for my clients, I highly suggest making a calendar, and actually planning out what and when you will engage in your daily self-care of mind, body, and soul. Set reminders, make things go DING, so you can chase the squirrel to healthier patterns of behavior. Happy practicing!