Self-care might be an Instagram buzzword. But it goes deeper than social media posts, and how can it translate into an already busy schedule?
It could be that – as with every New Year’s Resolution you have ever made – the tasks you are setting yourself in the pursuit of a balanced mind are unattainable and therefore unlikely to ever translate into a regular slot in your mental daily diary. “Self-care is an attitude of valuing yourself,” says neuroscientist and leadership coach Dr Tara Swart. “Incorporating lots of little things, rather than creating impossible standards, is vital for us to thrive in our busy lives, where we are pulled in so many directions, always switched on and multi-tasking, which is stressful for the brain.”
Dr Swart suggests small changes such as sitting down to drink your morning cup of tea, instead of gulping it down while tearing around the house. Or, if you need to stay later at work, give yourself a set time to leave instead of watching the hours tick into dinner time. In the evenings, use a proper cleanser removed with a hot flannel instead of swiping a wipe across your face. It all counts.
If you are, by nature, yoga-averse, committing to a thrice-weekly class will do about as much good for your mood as not going at all (in fact the guilt you can feel can increase cortisol levels). A five-minute morning routine, however, can be fit into the most manic of schedules. “Gentle mobility exercises are great to add to a morning routine,” says Leah Willoughby, trainer at Ten Health & Fitness. “Good muscles to stretch out are the calves, quadriceps and hamstrings. If you spend most of your day at a desk, it’s also important to stretch the hip flexors and lower back muscles.”
“Spine twists are performed sitting on the floor (or propped on cushions if hamstrings are tight) with the legs outstretched hip distance apart. Keep the body tall, with the arms out to the side like a corkscrew. Keeping weight evenly spread across both sit-bones, the upper body rotates to one side and then back to the centre. Alternate from side to side, keeping the body as upright as possible. Flexing the feet up towards the ceiling will increase the stretch.”
Ditch the guilt
Women particularly are guilty of feeling guilty about everything, but it can be a harmful emotion. Guilt leads to excess cortisol production, which can lead to further feelings of anxiety. “When the guilt is more about beating yourself up all the time, it’s not healthy,” Dr Melanie Greenberg, psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain, says. “You either want to change your behaviour – or change your thinking.” She suggests labelling what you’re doing as ‘unhelpful guilt’ and then coming up with things you can do instead. From thinking positive things, to taking a walk or calling a friend.
You don’t need expensive candles and yoga retreats to practise a really fundamental form of self-care: taking the time to eat well. When we’re time poor and stressed it can be tempting to go for quick nutritional fixes, including sugar, when we’re tired. But a recent study from Binghamton University found that women need a larger spectrum of nutrients in their diet to support mood compared to men. “Everything that goes into your mouth affects how you think and behave,” explains nutritionist Geeta Sidhu-Robb. “Add some whole fruit, fibre and fat every day, to give your body all the water, fibre and enzymes it needs.” If you know you make bad decisions under pressure, try to plan ahead.
Practising self-care can be as much about the things you drop from your calendar as the things you add. “Learn to say no when you mean no,” says Sidhu-Robb. “Even when it feels ‘unfeminine’ to be confrontational.”
A practical way to do this? Question your future plans if your gut instinct says no. If you’re being invited to a gig next Thursday, ask yourself if it was tonight, would you go? If the answer is no, politely decline or suggest something you would like to do instead.
It can be difficult to resist a mindless scroll at midnight when you’re struggling to drift off, but a 2016 study found that bedtime smartphone use can lead to a drop in sleep quality. As well as leaving your mind abuzz when it should be ready to switch off, studies have found that the blue light in phone or tablet screens can suppress the secretion of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating the body’s circadian rhythms. Keeping your phone away from your bed and opting instead for a book and an alarm clock is the first step to improving your sleep.
Another self-care sleep tip? “Use smell to anchor your bedtime,” advises Dr Swart. “It works when travelling too – if you always put jasmine drops on your pillow, you can really create a bedtime atmosphere even when you’re not in your normal environment.”
If you’re a serious insomniac, as well as adopting a clean-sleeping routine, consider taking a supplement to help support night time slumber. For example, Pukka Night Time, sleep-supporting botanical blend of valerian, fennel and gotu kola.
Look after your vagina
Forget split ends and dry cuticles, the most deserving part of your body for a spot of self-care is your often-neglected vagina. “One in three women under 30 skip the smear test, mainly because of embarrassment and fear, and perhaps, for some, the first time you’ve had any kind of intimate examination,” Dr Anita Mitra, aka the Gynae Geek, says. “But you shouldn’t be worried.” She stresses the importance of making time to book in for your appointment, as well as treating your vagina with a bit more love.
Know your dates
There are times in your menstrual cycle when you can push yourself, and times when you should ease up. The week of your period is that time: as your hormones levels decrease, so too do your energy levels. It’s the time of the month to swap the HIIT class for soothing yoga (or a walk), and when you might be feeling more antisocial than normal. Try keeping a note of your period dates, such as on the Moody Month app, and how you’re feeling throughout the month to better plan your moods and know when you need extra support. But also know that it’s not essential to do it all the time. The key to nailing self care? Keeping everything in balance.