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Two steps to self-care (no fancy spa needed)

Updated: Aug 12, 2019

When you hear the words “self-care”, your mind probably goes to something like this: a massage, followed by a hot tub, a rain shower, some champagne and cucumbers on the eyes. At least, that was my experience a couple weeks ago when I carved out some time for myself during a busy work conference. Eyeing some free hours on a weekday morning, I booked 30 minutes in a Himalayan Salt Room billed by the hotel day spa as “nature’s form of self-care”. I tried not to think too hard about whether that motto meant that nature was taking care of HERself or whether it was me using nature to take care of myself. Regardless, I spent 30 full minutes disconnected from technology breathing in salt (11/10 recommend this therapy, by the way) then another few hours hopping between the eucalyptus steam room, the cedar dry sauna, toiletry bar, champagne and tea lounge and the hot tub. I wrapped myself in thick Turkish robes and laid out by the pool for a while. I treated myself to lobster. As I told my girlfriends later, “I loved myself hard”.

Suspending the stress of my life for a few hours was nice, to be sure. My personal and professional anxieties were put on pause while I was inside the spa. But, it was soon clear when I left the soothing confines of the day spa that the old saying we use in my industry held true for “self-care” as well: garbage in, garbage out.

On the outside of the spa, I was still dealing with the same root cause issues of my anxieties and stressors. “Self-care” was a welcome distraction, but it is not the foundation of true wellness. You can not build your dream house on shaky ground; nor should you build your best self on momentary happiness and relaxation.

In the past few years I have been through a move across the country, a divorce, a couple career changes and the start of a serious new relationship. This whirlwind of life changes has led me on an expedition to find what self-care really means—it is an act of survival, not a quest to find the best day spa. Here are two real self-care practices to help you start to build the mental strength you need (and of course, seeking out professional behavioral health care is always a good idea).

#1: Centering through breathing

It has always seemed strange to me that something we do naturally could be such a powerful self-care ritual. My cynical self might roll her eyes when someone told me to be still and breathe, figuring that if it’s a bodily function necessary to live it shouldn’t be the key to peace. I soon found out, through apps such as Headspace and Sanity & Self that there was more to breathing than just passively letting it happen. There were levels to connecting with this normal function that could help slow time down and get the brain to quiet down enough to find some space to rest. I think of these different exercises as advancing levels:

Basic: focus on the part of your body that feels breathing most intensely. This may be your chest or your diaphragm or your stomach. Sometimes even putting a hand on that part of the body helps you connect. Breathing in through your nose for four counts, holding for four and then breathing out through your mouth for six counts is enough to get you in line with something you take for granted. Repeat this cycle five or six times until you feel your body start to calm down. I even use this on my teenage daughter when she starts getting worked up about life. ● Noting: I like this one the best because for some reason I hate holding my breath! This practice requires a little bit of multi-tasking. Instead of focusing on the tempo of your breath, count the number of breaths that go in and out. Count up to 10, and then start from the beginning. At the same time, pay attention to the things your brain wanders to while you are trying to focus on your breath. My favorite Headspace activity is categorizing these intrusive thoughts—sort feelings as feelings and thoughts as thoughts. Feeling anxious all of a sudden and can’t figure out why? That’s just a feeling. Thinking about that big assignment due tomorrow at work or wondering whether your baby will ever sleep through the night? That’s a thought. Try to do this while also counting your breaths and eventually you’ll be able to center yourself and handle your brain activity all at once.

#2: Self-Grace: managing your anxiety and baggage

This may seem super crazy, but sometimes the best type of self-care is talking to yourself. So much of what makes us stressed is the stuff we tell ourselves… not the stuff other people say to us. To do real self-care, you have to give yourself some grace. What does that mean? It means to recognize the stress and messiness of your life and give yourself a big dose of forgiveness and empathy. It also means addressing that inner critic and making her an ally. “Whatever you resist, persists”. That’s one of my favorite sayings. Instead of trying to push your feelings away, give them a soft landing of acceptance. Simply say to those thoughts: “I see you, it’s OK that you are here, I understand why you’re here.”

Then, focus on the underlying things that are causing you stress. Is it anger that you feel like you’re taking care of everyone? Resentment that you aren’t in the life position you think you should be? Focus on that anger for a minute and do this one thing for me: accept that whatever is making you feel negative is not personal. There are no grand universal plans to make your life difficult, no cosmic mean girls conspiring against you. Even if it is another person making you angry, you have no control over other people, just control over your reaction. When you start to de-personalize the triggers that make you angry, you start on a road to true healing and true self-care.

Finally (and this seems so simple it might seem silly), self-care begins with a sense of gratitude for the world around you… even the most challenging things. Gratitude is a habit, not something born into someone who is saintly. Keep a tiny notebook near your bed and write either first thing in the morning or at the end of the night—what are you grateful for? No matter how small it may seem, or how long it may take you to come up with something, write ANYTHING down. Over time, this habit will become a necessary part of your day. Again, it doesn’t have to be something totally mind blowing. Some days all I can manage to write is the word “coffee”!

Spa days are awesome. Massages and TV binges and long naps are awesome too. These are all types of self-care that become much more meaningful when you treat a person who is taking care of their heart and mind. Trust me, the Himalayan Salt Room is much more fun when you’ve worked on that super important foundation.

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