Opinion by EHN Guest Writer
Written by Jo Colette, recovered addict, tattoo artist, and mom.
“Self-care.” On paper the term is self-explanatory and straightforward, meaning to take care of yourself. By Google’s definition, it means, “taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health.” Simple! Right? …well, if you’re anything like me, and you spent a significant period of your life doing the opposite of this, it can be challenging to develop an effective self-care routine.
Practicing good self-care means you’ll need to dedicate time every day that would otherwise be spent on other people, or activities, and start spending it doing healthy and enriching things for you. I was not raised to think this way. I grew up being taught to be kind, helpful, useful, compassionate, and thoughtful to others. The narrative I heard as a child was not meant to be harmful. It was said to me in hopes of making me a contributing member of society and a “good person,” but somewhere along the line, I interpreted the message as meaning that being of service to others meant putting my own needs last.
This idea presented itself in my life in numerous ways as I grew up. I entered relationships that were harmful to my well-being with the intention to help someone else. I sacrificed my own wishes, hopes, and dreams to make other people happy. I lacked boundaries and self-control, and would constantly betray what was best for me in order to please other people. Self-care was not a concept that I understood.
When my mindset first switched from self-destruct mode to realizing that I wanted better for myself, it became apparent that the things I had been doing to make myself feel good were not actually doing me any good. Using drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, and any other distraction I could find to make myself feel temporarily better, was harming my health in a massive way. Mentally, physically, and emotionally, I was deep in the grasp of addiction and chasing elusive happiness, contentment, and pleasure in self-destructive ways.
Learning self-care is a lifelong process that starts with the realization that you deserve to be treated with compassion, kindness, and care—most of all by yourself. Once you start treating yourself this way, you raise the bar for how you let others treat you as well, and thus begin cultivating healthier relationships.
Your own understanding what self-care means to you will change and evolve as you learn more about yourself and your individual needs. At first, maybe it looks like simply not picking up the drink or drug, and avoiding unhealthy situations. In the long term, the goal is to understand your own needs on a deeper level—being ahead of the curve and learning what your mind and body needs to be at its healthiest and happiest. It’s important to note that good self-care is different from self-soothing, which is done after something upsetting, stressful, or harmful has already happened.
Let’s start with the basics. Self-care starts with self-awareness. Learning to recognize your own needs and how to attend to them is paramount. I break down my self-care into three parts: physical, mental, and practical self-care. Balancing the three of them along with everyday life can feel like a full-time job, but the benefits of consistently practicing self-care become quickly apparent once you’re in the habit of doing it.
When first I discovered recovery, I started running, training Muay Thai, and going to the gym regularly. I needed an outlet, and something on which to focus. I needed goals, and structure, and I wanted to feel better. I loved the feeling of putting my all into something, watching my body get stronger, and feel more competent. However, I soon realized that physical self-care was a lot more than maintaining a certain BMI or my athletic achievements. I noticed that the amount of sleep I got, and what types of food I ate, directly influenced my mood and ability to regulate my emotions. I started to understand that although an active lifestyle benefited me in many ways, I had to use as much self-control at the gym as I did in the rest of my life, to make sure that exercise remained something beneficial for me, and not a stressor, or something to check off my to-do list. I realized that caring for my physical body went hand in hand with wanting a better life.
Physical self-care examples
- Educate yourself on proper nutrition and eating a healthy diet that’s appropriate for your needs.
- Engage in regular physical activity.
- Ensure your sleep is good quality and that you get enough of it.
- Recognize your physical needs when they arise by regularly asking yourself the following questions: “Am I tired? Am I hungry? Am I breathing properly? Do I need to slow down?”
- Maintain good personal hygiene.
- Visit a trusted doctor and ensure you maintain good physical health.
Mental & Emotional Self-Care
This one can be the most challenging to change, but also the most rewarding. At various different times in my life, I sought help with the complaint that, “I’m doing everything right, but something still feels wrong.” Self-care doesn’t work if you just “go through the motions.” Understanding that you must learn new habits of self-love, self-acceptance, and self-care is vital. Everybody’s struggle is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, but the examples below will help start you on the right path.
Mental & emotional self-care examples
- Practice mindfulness: this alone is a lifelong journey!
- Learning to recognize your emotional and mental needs: when you notice your emotions becoming overwhelming, take a second to check in with yourself, like a good friend would, and try to identify the root of the turmoil.
- Practice gratitude daily.
- Learn to say “no” when it’s the healthy thing to do: set boundaries, stick to them, and don’t overextend yourself.
- Be patient with yourself. If you feel stressed, ask yourself if you’re perhaps putting more pressure on yourself than is healthy or constructive.
- Don’t beat yourself up when you have a bad day—they happen to everyone! Forgive yourself before you go to bed at night and remember that you can always turn things around.
- Be honest with yourself and others: deception is a heavy weight to carry.
- Allow yourself to feel and accept your emotions as they arise. Suppressing and ignoring your feelings leads to bigger problems down the road.
- Schedule regular visits with a mental health professional such as a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Even if you are not going through a crisis, having a check-in can provide you with useful insights and take a weight off your shoulders. Mental health checkups are just as important as physical checkups.
- Build a social support system. If you are isolating, it’s easy to slip into a dark place. Reach out and start building a network of people you trust who add positivity and support to your life.
Many of the practical self-care examples that I provide may seem fairly common sense, but too often we can hyperfocus on one aspect of our self-care while ignoring the bigger picture. The examples below can help reduce stress, making other elements of your self-care more manageable.
Practical self-care examples
- Practice effective time management: rushing, not meeting deadlines, or otherwise managing your time poorly can make it very difficult to enjoy the present.
- Avoid impulse buying and excessive spending. It’s ok to treat yourself from time to time, but if you find yourself feeling guilty for purchases or questioning why you bought something after the fact, try to recognize and avoid impulsive purchases.
- Organize and simplify your living space. Get rid of household items you don’t need and create a clutter-free environment that gives you more space to focus on important tasks, or to relax. Organizing the things you keep can help you create a peaceful and stress-free environment.
- Provide yourself a stable foundation for your life: food, housing, transportation, and safety. Make sure you take care of the basics before you start to build.
The three pillars of physical, mental and emotional, and practical self-care go hand in hand. Neglecting any one of them can lead to difficulty succeeding in the others. If I neglect my physical health, my mental health suffers. If I neglect my mental health, my will to be physically healthy wanes. If I neglect my practical self-care, my mental and physical self-care become buried in the mountain of mundane tasks that make it easier for me to bump self-care to the bottom of the list.
My most common reason for neglecting self-care is, “I just can’t find the time!” In reality, that’s just an excuse for not prioritizing myself. If you’re one of those people who “just can’t find the time,” chances are high that you’re in need of a dose of self-care! Immediate gratification is not always something that comes along with self-care and it may feel different to engage in activities that don’t provide you with immediate rewards. However, the long-term benefits of self-care will soon become apparent as your self-care routine becomes a regular habit.
My first gigantic step towards understanding self-care was choosing a life free of drugs and alcohol. But you don’t need to be in recovery to practice or understand good self-care. Almost everyone I encounter, myself included at times, is overextended, stressed, suffering from strained mental or physical health, or just plain exhausted. Make your self-care routine realistic and achievable. Most importantly, ensure that it reduces your stress and takes a weight off your shoulders rather than just creating additional items on your to-do list.
The many different examples of self-care that I’ve provided here may seem overwhelming, so it’s important to remind yourself more than anything to exercise self-compassion. It’s not always possible to stay on top of every item on the list, and your own version of self-care may look different. Gift yourself with understanding when you don’t always do everything perfectly, and validate yourself every time you do something good for yourself. Self-care is a lifelong journey with peaks and valleys. But unlike some other aspects of life, self-care is under your control. You’re the one who’s best able to understand your own needs and take care of them.
We Can Help You
If you’d like to learn more about the addiction and mental health treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC