By now, you’ve heard about self-care just about everywhere. It’s all the rage. And you’ve tried to get on board. Maybe you went to yoga but spent the whole class trying desperately not to let any gas escape your contorted body. Painfully, you might have tried meditating and became frustrated with yourself and your mind’s lack of control as it wandered to that thing you wish you hadn’t said 3 weeks ago. And you tried writing down the things your grateful for each night. Maybe that lasted a week until you realized you’re grateful for the same three things every day with little to no variation. Is this the self-care routine you really want? Probably not!
Somehow, doing these things that are supposed to be helping you are actually creating even more stress. Everyone else seems to be able to do it just fine, and they have pretty pictures to show for it. And you start to think, maybe self-care just isn’t for you. You beat yourself up because you’re not doing it right. You wonder if you should even be making the time for yourself when there are a million and one other things to do. And maybe your current self-care routine doesn’t really feel productive or like a good use of time. Maybe you searched for “self-care routine” and saw images of happy, positive people everywhere. Or you searched #selfcare on Instagram and all these pretty images appear. And suddenly, you’re feeling the pressure to make your self-care look good. #DoingItForTheGram
What’s worse is that is can be hard to focus on the task at hand when you’re already anxious. Maybe you live with a ton of stress from all the hats you wear and the weight of your responsibilities. Or perhaps you live with a constant feeling that something’s not quite right or that something will go wrong. It could be constant worry about things you said and did. Or things you didn’t say and didn’t do but feel you should have.
In any case, you feel like you’re always on, so when it’s time for self-care, your mind and body are confused. It’s uncomfortable. And if anything makes anxiety worse, it’s feelings of discomfort.
But you soldier on. You draw your bubble bath, arrange your book and glass of wine, snap a pic for “the gram.” Once you hop in, you sit uncomfortably, waiting for the timer to go off. You realize you don’t even like baths. But hey, you can say you practiced your self-care routine and move on and chalk self-care up to some woo-woo BS that will never work for you.
But isn’t self-care supposed to make you feel better? Isn’t your self-care routine meant to reduce your anxiety? The answer is “yes,” but if it’s just another thing on your ever-growing to-do list, it will always feel like a chore. (And some recent research shows that your to-do list might be a cause of more anxiety, further harming your self-care routine). However, when we learn to make self-care a habit rather than just another thing to cross off our lists for the sake of doing what’s trendy at the moment, designing a self-care routine can help reduce anxiety and stress.
Self-Care Gone Wrong
A few things can go wrong with you’re crafting a self-care routine. And these mistakes can lead to you swearing off self-care altogether. Why? Because there are lots of people out there calling things self-care that really aren’t. You’re being misled all the time about the real purpose behind self-care.
So first, let’s do a little self-care 101. What is self-care? Self-care is
So what goes wrong when practicing self-care. One common self-care pitfall is that you don’t plan for it. You might notice that your “self-care” looks something like this: You find yourself on an accidental Netflix binge. (Yes, Netflix, I’m still watching. Stop judging me.) And to avoid the shame of watching 8 episodes of the Office that you could probably recite from memory, you name it “self-care” and hope that guilty feeling doesn’t stick around. But that wasn’t intentional, so it wasn’t a real self-care routine. A few episodes of The Office really can be self-care, but it has to be intentional. See the difference?
You might fall into a different camp. The one that’s sworn off self-care entirely. If you’ve decided self-care just isn’t for you, hopefully, you’ve already seen that it’s probably easier than you’ve made it out to be.
What happens when you don’t practice self-care
If you avoid thinking about self-care you miss a valuable opportunity to pay attention to your own needs. The demands of your life will make their needs known. Your boss will give you a deadline. Your test at school is coming up. Family lets you know that your presence is expected and the wedding invitations keep on coming in.
When you always take a back seat to deal with the squeaky wheel, you’ll never get around to taking care of yourself. It’s easy to come up with excuses not to schedule in time for yourself. There are only so many hours in a day, after all. You don’t want to seem selfish. And frankly, sometimes avoiding our feelings and needs can be easier than dealing with them.
But the failure to plan and avoiding self-care altogether routes both have consequences. Failing to practice good self-care can lead to more stress and anxiety, unexpected blow us and outbursts at inappropriate times, panic attacks, and general life dissatisfaction.
Self-Care Done Right
Self-care that is routine and intentional really can reduce stress and anxiety. It can make the mood better and you just might find yourself a little less irritable. And this regular, deliberate self-care plan does not have to be scary.
Building a self-care ritual doesn’t have to happen overnight. You can gradually add little self-care bits to your life a little at a time. Here are 5 things that will hopefully ease your reservations and debunk some misconceptions.
Self-Care is not one size fits all.
Some trial and error should be expected when you’re working out a self-care ritual that works for you. A face mask a bubble bath might be great for your sister, but you might prefer a 3 mile run. Neither is better than the other as long as it works for the individual.
Your self-care routine doesn’t have to be Instagrammable
Most self-care, and frankly, most of life isn’t. So don’t worry about setting the scene to get the most likes. Self-care is for you and you alone. No one else needs to see. The “self” in self-care is super important here.
Self-care isn’t selfish
It’s the oxygen mask analogy that we’re all familiar with. If the masks come down, put your own on before assisting others. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care for others. When you show up as your best self, everyone wins.
Self-care isn’t all or nothing
If you miss a day (or week or month) it’s not over. If something doesn’t work, you can try something else. Self-care is a great time to also practice self-compassion. Perfectionists, I’m talking to you—you might be sabotaging your self-care routine and not even know it. And if this is your roadblock, you might also want to read this mindset gamechanger, so you can lose that all or nothing mindset.
Self-Care is not a quick fix or a cure-all
Practicing self-care doesn’t bring about world peace or cure whatever ails you, no matter what anyone tells you. So you don’t need to feel as though you failed if those things don’t happen for you.
But, when done well, practicing self-care can make your life a little easier by bringing that anxiety and stress down a few notches and helping you hone in on what’s important to you and what changes you might want to make to make an even bigger impact. Keep reading to find out how. It’s easier than you think.
How to build a self-care routine that eases anxiety instead of making it worse
- Adjust your mindset around self-care.
Take to heart, self-care is just an intentional act you perform to take care of your physical, emotional, and/or spiritual health. It’s nothing fancy.
Consider your lifestyle, likes and dislikes, and your schedule. If you hate yoga, don’t choose it as your self-care activity. There’s no point in setting yourself up to fail. That’s not self-care. It’s self-sabotage.
- Identify things that already make you feel good.
That’s right. If you’ve never meditated in your life, meditation should not be in your self-care plan. At least not now.
What are your go-to comforts? Is it snuggling up with your cat? Great, put it on the list. Listening to your favorite podcast? List it. Is it a glass of wine or a pint of ice cream? Write that down too (but we’ll come back to that.) Keep on listing. It can be as insignificant or monumental as it needs to be. A stroll around the block or a two-week beach vacation.
- Review the list and separate the healthy(-ish) activities from the vices.
When I say vice, I don’t mean guilty pleasure. An episode of Love and Hip Hop is cool. Trashy TV and mindless activities definitely count. But alcohol, binge eating, shopping when your bank account says no are vices that you don’t want to rely on and schedule into your day in order to feel good. Self-care isn’t an excuse to eat/drink/buy/ignore whatever you want. Remember, we’re trying to make your life better, not create more problems.
- Choose 3-5 main Self-Care activities from the list.
Take a look at what you’ve come up with. You might notice that these are things you may already be doing on a regular basis. They’re probably things that aren’t intimidating. You might feel a little underwhelmed by your list. You might think, this isn’t sexy at all. If you’re thinking that, then great! You’re on the right track. Self-care doesn’t have to be sexy. It can be (ménage a moi, anyone?), but If your self-care routine fits like a pair of granny panties instead of a thong, you’re probably doing it right.
- Time to schedule
If you’ve been anxiously waiting for this part, thinking you don’t have time for this, don’t fret. There are no specific parameters for the amount of time you need to take. Maybe it’s 5 minutes, maybe it’s an hour. Maybe it’s daily, maybe it’s weekly. That’s up to you. But the point of setting this up is to be intentional.
Think about the times of the day or week that you feel most stressed. Is it right when you walk through the door at work? Right before bed when your mind is racing? Sunday night blues? Whenever that time is, take a look at your list of core self-care activities and see if there’s a way to incorporate one of those activities near right before, during, or immediately after those peak stress times.
- Give yourself some grace and troubleshoot.
Forgot to self-care today? No worries. Try again tomorrow. Miss the next day too? No biggie. Missed the whole month? Maybe the initial plan wasn’t quite right. Take a minute to think of reasons why you keep skipping.
- Talk to your therapist.
Consistently avoiding taking care of yourself could be a symptom of a larger issue. When I work together with my clients surrounding self-care issues, we dive a bit deeper and get to the root of what beliefs, thoughts, and feelings might be getting in the way. It’s completely possible for you to overcome those blocks that make self-care seem hard.
The idea of creating an effective and practical self-care plan might be anxiety provoking at first. But when you use the things you’ve already got, it’s entirely possible to practice regular self-care to reduce your stress and improve your mood. If your self-care routine isn’t having the desired effect, Tailwinds Counseling can help. Click here to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation to get started!
Erika Ames is a Licenced Clinical Social Worker and owner of Texas online therapy practice, Tailwinds Counseling. Her specialties include anxiety, young adult issues, and coping with cancer as a patient or caregiver. To schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with her, click here or call (713) 936-4909.