Self-care. It’s become a buzzword over the past handful of years, the topic of blog posts and magazine articles, but what is it really? And why is it important? St. Paul social worker/counselor Angie Vaaler and mental health nursing professional Steve Kalber share from their years of experience and talk about the importance of self-care during Mental Health Awareness month and throughout the year.
Self-care, as defined by the World Health Organization is “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”
Self-care includes a litany of items that translate into overall health and well-being. Things like exercise, nutrition, and intentional connection are all practices anyone can create to manage the daily stressors we all face.
According to a 2021 Google Trends study, self-care and topics related to self-care including reflection, healing, and mental health were among the most searched themes of the year. In fact, the number of searches specifically for “self-care” has doubled since 2015. It’s no surprise the last few years have put a strain on mental health with abrupt shifts in the normal flow of lives. As things return to a new kind of normal, how can we continue to grow and care for our physical and mental wellbeing?
Steve Kalber is a registered nurse who has worked for Vera French, taught in the nursing program at St. Ambrose for 12 years, and is currently doing clinical adjunct work with St. Ambrose nursing students in their mental health rotation at Genesis.
“Self-care is starting with a basic awareness that the individual – you – can do things for your well-being on your own behalf which will optimize physical and mental health,” Steve said. “It’s the self-efficacy within us to make choices and changes that lead to more optimal health overall. It’s important to distinguish between trends and solid, scientific knowledge. Self-care is important because it’s accessible. We are always accessible to ourselves and our internal thoughts and forces so there are lots of things we can do independently to address our needs and decrease or avoid future trauma. When we care for ourselves, we’re much better equipped to care for those we love. It’s important to everybody of all ages and stages of life.”
St. Paul’s onsite social worker/counselor Angie Vaaler agrees that self-care is about figuring out what is best for you in the current moment and taking action to nurture the things you need most. Often adding connection, fun, and calm, while eliminating the guilt or the “I should be” thoughts are a step in the right direction.
“Self-care is truly anything that you can do to reduce daily stressors in your life, maintain health, maintain connection, set healthy boundaries, and create an overall sense of well-being. The big thing with self-care is that not only does it help you reduce stress but it also can make you more resilient. It even affects our physical health and immune function. If you’re reducing stress, you’re less apt to harm your immune function because you are taking care of yourself, you are resilient, and you are overall healthier. It’s all a circle, all a cycle.”
Self-care, especially things like exercise and getting outside into the sunshine, boosts all of those “happy chemicals” – endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin – in your brain that leads to a positive mood and feelings of happiness.
How do you get started? By making small, intentional changes.
“Just start with five minutes of breathing or quiet time. It doesn’t have to be big things: stepping outside during the middle of your workday to get some sunshine, standing from your desk, and doing stretches. There’s a mindset shift. Instead of thinking I have to be productive in my downtime, ask yourself ‘Can it wait? Is it more important than my health and well-being? Can someone else help me?’ Find other solutions so you can prioritize time for yourself.”
Both Steve and Angie agree that there is no “one-size-fits-all” self-care plan.
“It’s important to find things that work for you, to identify your areas of need, and find activities that fit and are intriguing to you,” Angie said. “The five things that work for other people might not work for you.”
▶ Pay attention to your environment
Don’t allow yourself to become overstimulated with the news or negative inputs. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Pictures that your children or grandchildren drew, are one example.
▶ Get out in nature
Nature helps you detox from technology, that constant buzzing and ringing of cell phones and dinging of reminders. Take some time to disconnect from the blue lights of screens to sit or walk in nature. Plus, fresh air is calming, and walking is great exercise!
▶ Keep moving
“Some of the countries in the world with the longest lifespans don’t have spas and gyms but more active lifestyles. They walk to work instead of driving, they take the stairs, they handwash the dishes, they’re active. When you have a chance – take the stairs, park your car farther away, small things that will keep you moving,” Steve said.
▶ Teach yourself to stay in the present
When you find yourself in the past or ruminating about the future – try to recognize that and recenter yourself in the present moment. What sounds do I hear? What smells are present? Grounding techniques like walking barefoot in the grass are helpful to return to the moment.
▶ Proper Nutrition
Psychologists and nutritionists are studying the complex interaction between what we eat and how we think and feel including which types of foods stimulate different chemical interactions in your brain. Choose cleaner, healthier ingredients and avoid ultra-processed foods.
▶ Make mundane tasks fun
“When you have tasks you aren’t excited to do, turn on music! If you’re doing laundry or picking up around the house, listen to music, an audiobook, or a podcast,” Angie said. Anything that will keep you engaged, that makes the activity enjoyable, boosts your mood, and maybe even starts a dance party.
▶ Make it a habit!
“Use reminder techniques to tell yourself to “stay in the moment, to reach out.” It’s important to build that into the structure of your day,” Steve said. “We plan our errands, we plan our appointments but we don’t plan our obligations to ourselves.”
▶ Connect and communicate
Don’t be afraid to reach out. Do things intentionally that will lead to interactions with other people. Learn to say “I need” or recognize when you need something. “It’s necessary to say “I’m taking some time for myself.” That’s very difficult for people to say especially parents of young kids and primary caregivers,” Angie said.