Self-care, how to make it work for you
Self-care can mean different things to different people. For many, with the current prevalence of an ever-growing multi-million-pound wellness industry, it could be a bubble bath, spa trip, vitamins or something promoted for the public to part with their money. For others, it might be something much simpler that instinctively feels good like going for a walk or meeting with friends. Generally, it is a very individual choice and can refer to any practice that sustains and supports wellbeing.
“If you perform any action that constitutes caring for yourself, you are doing self-care,” Audre Lorde (1988)
It is useful to think about the origins of the terminology perhaps to get a better understanding of its meaning. The term, self-care has origins in medical research, but it can be traced back to the radical political movements of the 1970’s. Audre Lorde, a black feminist writer, in her collection of essays, “A burst of Light” described self-care as a way of coping with her cancer diagnosis and managing the structural trauma of racism.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
What can we take and learn from this in an age where structural inequalities in society still predominate and it is normal to feel stressed and overworked? It might be that self-care has to be a proactive choice of responding and prioritising your needs. This conscious choice will not only help to improve wellbeing, where your life feels fulfilled and meaningful, but act as a protective factor, recognising that with many competing demands, having time to re-charge “depleted batteries” could be seen as an act of self-preservation.
Self-care is often seen as a mainly female pursuit where traditionally the role of caring for family on top of work has fallen to women. To find time to rest and re-energise within these many competing demands is challenging and it is not difficult to understand how the idea of self-care grew out of this social context.
However, normalising self-care might indicate a radical change of behaviour for men too. In society where expectations of traditional gender roles and pressure on men to “stay strong” and not display vulnerability can be extremely damaging. The worrying statistics that show that men are more likely to die by suicide than women are and are less likely to seek psychological therapies underpins this notion.
Self-care may not resolve mental health problems or remove the social context a person is in, but will certainly help alleviate stress and contribute to a feeling of empowerment by prioritising needs and saying to yourself that you matter. Crucially, self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence or being selfish. It means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, function well and do the things you want and need to do, while caring for other people too.
Self-care is much more than what is often seen on the surface but is the perhaps a reflection of the commitment we can make to ourselves to maintain boundaries, to say no and to seek help from others when we are struggling.
Self-care can include setting boundaries
Boundaries are often an overlooked part of self-care. For some of us setting boundaries can be challenging but is a life skill that defines the limits we set other people and ourselves. These boundaries often indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in behaviour towards us and also may incorporate limits on our own behaviour, for example with consumption of alcohol, exercise or sleep and wake times.
Perhaps more commonly, adopting a readymade list of self-care ideas can be used as a starting point if this is new for you. Self-care is individual and holistic to help to meet the varying needs of being a human (social, physical, emotional). The important factor is to make them a priority into busy schedules rather than “add-on” which may be dropped as soon as the stress and demands of life increase.
What is a self-care tool kit?
The self-care tool kit or emergency box idea can be a written list, real objects or prompts that is ready made and available for those times when you may struggle to think of anything to help you out of a low mood or feeling stuck. Sometimes, after a period of stress or difficulty it can be hard to connect with the activities that keep you well. This is not surprising as with situations where the body’s safety system (fight, flight, freeze response) is operating, the problem solving, rational part of the brain is not as accessible and remembering what you used to like, or what feeling good is like and what helped you achieve this can be really challenging. The idea is to be pre-prepared for these times and reach for the toolkit as an empowering method of self-care through tricky times. Carolyn Spring, (therapist, writer and trainer), provides an example of an “Emergency Box” and what can be useful to consider.
To make self-care work for you it might be worth asking yourself some difficult questions. Where are you on your list of priorities, at the bottom or somewhere nearer the top? For some it may be are you able to meet your own needs if you habitually put the needs others before your own? Can you incorporate the fundamentals of self-care, (good sleep, nutrition, and hydration) and make a commitment to yourself by having an appropriate study life-balance that will positively affect all areas of your life including your studies?
Self-care can be viewed as the intention to prioritise any activity, which keeps you well, and functioning as a human. It does not need to be expensive or materialistic; a walk outside in nature or meeting with friends can be hugely effective in maintaining positive well-being. In fact, incorporating the “5 ways to well-approach” as part of your weekly or daily self-care needs is not only evidence based to support positive wellbeing but also is not dependant on large outlays of cash. The most important factor to remember using the analogy “you cannot drink from an empty cup”, is giving yourself permission and time to be human, meet your needs and recharge your batteries regularly so you are in a better position to help yourself, manage your commitments and support others.
For more information on the 5 ways to wellbeing approach see blog
or MIND website
Written by Viv Farrand Wellbeing Advisor - Faculty of Science