Best gift to yourself? Self-care!

Taking care of yourself is important, especially during these cold, darker months of the year.

Self-care is exactly what it sounds like — taking care of oneself.

Though it’s a simple concept, so many people still haven’t been introduced to it. Discussions about self-care strategies are commonplace in certain professions—social work, medicine, or counselling—where psychological stressors are often considered a greater occupational health and safety risk than physical risks. While self-care is an integral part of some types of work, you don’t need to be employed in those fields to benefit from having some self-care strategies in your back pocket.

The World Health Organization defines self-care as “what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, prevent and deal with illness,” noting that it is intentionally a broad concept.

Options for self-care are both endless and entirely individual. Going for a hike up Signal Hill, giving yourself the time you never seem to have to knit, or even a good night’s sleep can make a huge difference to our psychological well-being, and are all examples of self-care practices.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year?

It’s no surprise this time of year can be a breeding ground for emotional and social stress. It can bring out financial concerns or family tensions, make us busier than usual, and sometimes the road and travel conditions alone can get us down.

Additionally, the shorter winter days mean our bodies may be producing lower levels of serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter) and more melatonin (the hormone that tells us we are sleepy, or hungry — or anything else related to circadian rhythms), and these tendencies can have a depressive effect.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a clinical term that describes the mood changes resulting in major depression that reflects the changing seasons, though most Canadians will inevitably experience wintery sluggishness to some degree.

Cultural changes that influence our work/life balance are another reason to spruce up our self-care. For example, precarious work is increasing and an influx in educated, skilled people working two or more jobs (without benefits) is putting a growing number of Canadians between a rock and a hard place.

Disproportionately affecting women, youth and newcomers, this trend leaves workers with little-to-no time for engaging in anything but work, especially when it comes to on-call, split shift, and overnight positions. With the pressure to make ends meet, these workers face higher risks of health challenges, which often go untreated. Considering all of the above, there isn’t a better time for everyone and anyone to improve self-care practices.

Given that stress is a normal and healthy function of being human, self-care prevents burnout, compassion fatigue and chronic health issues from developing as a result of stress. Have you ever engaged in an activity that absorbed almost every ounce of your attention? Or perhaps one that gave you a sense of peace and calmness? Whatever might come to mind is a great place to start for developing a self-care plan.

Cooking has always been one of my favorite go-to’s. While studying, the hectic end of semester rush often meant I wound up preparing gourmet meals nightly. It might seem counter-intuitive to add self-care tasks and activities to an already busy schedule, but trust me when I say that it helps us be of better service to ourselves and our responsibilities.

Stressors and triggers

Stress also does not affect us all equally, and we are all stressed by different things.

Being aware of our triggers and identifying safe ways to manage them are important, proactive pieces of a good self-care plan. For example, I have to be careful about what kinds of media I allow into my day. Recently I “unfollowed” a national newspaper on Facebook because their headlines (in particular, one about animal abuse) were too upsetting for my daily social media check-in. Now just imagine all the triggering events that made headlines in the past year, and the multitude of people they affected.

Being aware of our triggers and caring for them in a safe, healthy environment is another important dimension of self-care. It’s okay to feel upset by something, and identifying triggers doesn’t mean necessarily avoiding them — it just means finding a healthy, safe way to manage your emotions that result from them. Meditating, debriefing with a person you trust, or working with a counsellor or coach are all examples of ways we can take care of our triggers.

Caring for others begins with you

Feminist activist Audre Lorde once wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. This is an incredible thing for an activist to share, because many activists do suffer from burnout. Caring deeply about the world around us is the foundation of positive change, but this change is not possible without taking care of ourselves first.

Right now in Newfoundland and Labrador, there is much growth going on in mental health care and awareness. A grassroots advocacy group, the Community Coalition for Mental Health was initiated this year and mental health care both provincially and nationally is bound to come up in political campaign platforms in 2015. Making self-care a priority is one way you can personally and effectively contribute to this growing awareness, while giving yourself the highest quality-of-life you possibly can.

Diagnosis and symptoms of health problems can serve as a reminder to prioritize self-care. But allowing yourself to practice self-care—in whichever manner you choose—serves the mind and soul, too. As Audre Lorde points out, this is not to be confused with self-indulgence, a mistake easy to make in a globalizing economy that insists more work and harder work is the only path to success.

We need self-care to sustain a balanced lifestyle. I think it is the best marker of success, contrary to financial models. With a little self-reflection, I promise there’s a self-care strategy to be found for everyone and it’s a gift I hope everyone will consider giving themselves this holiday season.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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