Self-care is crucial for maintaining mental health. Though we often neglect self-care, distracted by the responsibilities of daily life. Our minds tell us self-care is selfish and that we need to focus on helping others instead.
Working in mental health and addictions, I am a strong proponent of self-care. I need to help myself before I can help anyone else. Going into potentially stressful situations while hungry, tired, and frustrated is a recipe for burnout, making it difficult to be helpful at all.
If you value helping others, you need to be able to help yourself first. Self-care is not selfish. Instead, giving people the best version of yourself allows you to be even more helpful while preserving your mental health in the long-run.
Here are some self-care tips for mental health:
- Practice saying “no”
- Ask for support when needed
- Let go of toxic relationships
- Meaningfully connect with others
- Focus on the present
- Get clear on your values
- Take time for yourself
- Focus on what you are grateful for
- Incorporate some form of exercise
- Spend time outside
- Incorporate healthy dietary habits
- Get quality sleep
Let’s delve into these tips, dividing them into three broad categories: interpersonal self-care, mental self-care, and physical self-care.
This form of self-care considers the quality of your social relationships. As social beings, the quality of our close social relationships is one of the most significant predictors of well-being.
Practice Saying “No”
This is about personal boundaries and assertiveness. If you lack these two skills, it is easy for others to take advantage of your kindness and willingness to help.
Although there is nothing wrong with helping others, it can be problematic when it comes at the expense of your health. You can only give what you can give yourself first.
Ask for Support When Needed
To use a popular self-care metaphor, you cannot pour from an empty cup. To give yourself to others, you need to refill your cup. This may sometimes require asking for support.
Although you may not want to feel like a burden, consider the fact that you would likely do the same favor for the person you are asking. You are just as worthy of support. As much as our modern world instills the value of independence, this is an unrealistic standard since we all depend on one another somehow.
Let Go of Toxic Relationships
You become most like the people with whom you surround yourself. If you find you are becoming cynical and resentful, consider the influence of those around you. It is tempting to get pulled into gossip and negativity, but like junk food, the short-term benefits outweigh the long-term costs.
Letting go of toxic relationships does not necessarily mean avoiding or confronting people. Instead, it means refocusing your attention on those that matter most, letting others be.
Meaningfully Connect with Others
Meaningful social connection fulfills our social needs. Loneliness and social isolation are significant contributors to mental health and addiction issues.
This may mean unplugging from your devices and social media for a while, but it could also mean using social media in ways that help you better connect with others. I explore this dynamic further in my article, “Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?”.
This form of self-care requires using effective psychological strategies to maintain mental resilience. This involves mindfulness, personal boundaries, and clarity regarding your values.
Focus on the Present
Worrying about the future or ruminating on the past takes you away from the present moment. Since the present moment is the only place you can effectively deal with issues that arise, worry and rumination threaten self-care, keeping you stuck in your head.
One helpful exercise consists of directing your attention to the sensations in your body. Notice the sensation of your body in the chair, notice your feet on the floor, and notice the rise and fall of your breath. See my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head for more exercises.
Get Clear on Your Values
Are you in the habit of asking yourself what you want? We can sometimes go through periods of focusing so much on others that we lose touch with our own values.
For example, if you value creativity, how can you bring this value into your daily life more often? If you value authenticity, how can you bring this quality to each interaction? Without clarifying your values, it is easy to lose touch with your own sense of self, finding yourself merely responding to the environment’s demands.
Take Time for Yourself
Carving out alone time is a crucial feature of any self-care plan. If you have a busy lifestyle with several responsibilities, it may be challenging to find the time. This is where the interpersonal self-care tips come in.
Are you overbooked because you have been unable to say “no”? Are you unwilling to accept support when necessary? If you cannot find time for yourself, resort back to the interpersonal self-care skills for personal boundaries.
Focus on What You Are Grateful For
Gratitude may feel like one of those self-care buzzwords. We know it’s good for us, but we don’t think about it too often. The reason why gratitude has acquired such a strong reputation as the greatest virtue is due to the strong research backing its effectiveness:
“…people who were asked to write a gratitude letter once a week for three weeks were significantly happier, less depressed, and more satisfied with their lives at the end of the intervention.”
Physical self-care is an essential but often neglected way to improve one’s mental health. Since the mind and body are so intertwined, optimizing one’s diet, exercise, and sleep, vastly improve mental resilience.
Spend Time Outside
Spending time outdoors is an easy way to get natural vitamin D from moderate exposure to the sun. Roughly twenty minutes of mid-day exposure to the sun can have a significant impact on your well-being. Research demonstrates the power of vitamin D for mental health:
“…treatment of inadequate vitamin D levels in persons with depression and other mental disorders may be an easy and cost-effective therapy which could improve patients’ long-term health outcomes as well as their quality of life.”
Incorporate Some Form of Exercise
The American Psychological Association released an article stating psychologists have often neglected the power of exercise in their practice. They summarize a study on the effect of exercise on Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), concluding:
“The efficacy of exercise in patients generally seems comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medication, and both tend to be better than the placebo in patients with MDD.”
Incorporate Healthy Dietary Habits
Limiting sugar intake may be the single best way to immediately improve one’s mental health. High levels of sugar consumption are associated with anxiety, depression, dementia, and several other illnesses. A study on sugar intake and mental health found:
“…men in the highest tertile of sugar intake from sweet food/beverages had a 23% increased odds of incident [common mental disorder] CMD after 5 years.”
Get Quality Sleep
We’ve all heard the familiar rule that we should be getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night. This is generally a rough guideline, and each individual requires a different amount of sleep.
Beyond the amount of sleep, quality of sleep is just as important. This means sleeping in a dark room without disruptions and maintaining a regular sleep schedule. A report by Harvard Health states:
“…sleep disruption — which affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things — wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation. In this way, insomnia may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders and vice versa.”
Engaging in interpersonal, mental, and physical self-care has numerous mental health benefits. Beyond the mental health benefits, self-care allows you to be the best version of yourself so that you can more effectively be of service to others. If you value helping others, the best way to do so is by helping yourself first.
This is the same reason why persons on an airplane are directed to put their own oxygen mask on first. You can’t be of use to anyone else if you can’t breathe.
Hopefully, these tips have helped and inspire you to take action on a path toward improved self-care. If you’re interested in checking out my other articles on mental health, you can find those articles here.