Self-care is so much more than massages.
In recent years we’ve come to know “self-care” as an expansive set of practices that help us feel our best.
Taking care of your emotional health, especially during stressful times, becomes a critical aspect of self-care because our emotional well-being touches so many other parts of our lives, like our physical health, relationships, and career.
Emotional self-care goes beyond putting on a face mask and binging your favorite Netflix show for a night off, though those activities definitely can’t hurt. More so than any other aspect of self-care, emotional self-care is about checking in with yourself - your real self - and taking your emotional state and your emotional needs seriously.
So let’s start there.
Practice hope, rather than expectation
In stressful times, there are often a lot of feelings involved. You may feel burnt out, exhausted, or just not present in everyday life. It can even feel like a time warp where everything seems to go on and on and you’re just moving through the motions.
There’s a mindset change that can combat that.
During the Vietnam War, American Admiral James Stockdale was a prisoner of war, and while he endured brutal conditions for seven years, he says he knew he would make it through and survive. Eventually. Psychologists have learned a lot from his outlook. They call this balance between acknowledging reality and maintaining hopefulness the Stockdale Paradox.
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be,” Stockdale said of his time as a war prisoner.
While being held captive, Stockdale later said, he noticed that other prisoners who tried to remain optimistic would often feel extremely let down when they’d set arbitrary timelines for release that didn't come.
Instead, Stockdale acknowledged the passing of time, but focused on the light at the end of the tunnel. He had faith in the long term.
You can learn from this, too. If you’re experiencing a stressful time, especially one that you may have no control over, where are you putting your focus? If you’re making it your job to have a sunny disposition every day or thinking the finish line must be just around the corner, you might be setting yourself up for recurring disappointment or failure.
Instead, acknowledging your state - even if it is bad - gives you something real to work with. What can you do today to get through the day? Is there an opportunity to improve your situation? If not, don't give up; it doesn't mean this will be forever.
It takes checking in to bring awareness to these feelings, though, which isn't always easy. Be persistent and be honest. Let your true feelings come to the surface.
Find comfort in routine
It’s easy to get caught up in the specifics of self-care and making it something special for yourself. And while a splurge can be great, there’s a lot of power in leaning into smaller daily routines.
Good routines (think: getting enough sleep, eating regular meals) can improve virtually all aspects of your wellness, making it a great act of self-care.
In a 2020 study, the World Health Organization found that a routine can “buffer the adverse impact of stress exposure on mental health.”
Researchers separated routines into primary (necessary behaviors like eating and sleeping) and secondary routines (based on motivations and preferences like exercise and making goals) and concluded that in times of uncertainty or disruption, primary routines should be prioritized because they have a better impact on your mental health.
So try to build up habits that focus on those. Meal planning and going to bed at the same time every night can help alleviate stress and improve your mental health, making you feel more emotionally stable.
If you have to run the dishwasher twice to make sure your primary needs are met, do it. This doesn't have to be a lifelong change; do what you need to do to get your healthiest, most basic needs met. The rest will follow.
When you feel like your primary needs are dialed in, you can expand out to things that nurture you, like calling a friend or working on a creative project. The simpler, the better: it's all about doing the thing, not achieving a result.
One of the most difficult things about tough times is that we can often feel alone, like we’re the only one that feels the way we do. And even in the very unlikely event that that is actually true, you are still not alone - because there is always someone who can relate to your struggle, who has been there (or somewhere like it) before.
It’s important to build a support system where we feel comfortable and safe. We’re only as good as the people we surround ourselves with, so having a few trustworthy people around can be a big boost for emotional self-care.
Counseling professionals say that a support system should include people that are in your community and leave you feeling happier. They should be people you feel comfortable talking to and being around.
If you don’t feel like you have a strong support system, an emotionally challenging time can be a hard moment to try to build one - but it is worth putting forth whatever effort you can expend to create one. Start slow and take it easy on yourself. There are always resources available like anonymous helplines and online communities. Sometimes strangers can provide a level of support you didn’t expect.
Most importantly, you must use the people in your support system. It’s not enough just to know it’s there. Ask for help, some time to vent, or even a lunch date where you talk about everything but your problems - just like you would be there for them, they’re likely to be there for you.
Do something for you
Finally, remember to do something for you. Emotional wellness depends on resilience, so doing something for yourself that will help you bounce back from a stressful time is well worth the effort (or lack thereof in some cases).
Watching a movie, going for a walk, or investing in your bedtime routine are just a few ways you can practice self-care and benefit your emotional wellness at the same time. The great thing about self-care is that focusing on one aspect of your life tends to help in other areas, too. So taking a physical break from the daily grind can really bolster your mental health, just like focusing on your routine for emotional stability can improve your physical health. Even a little effort can make big impacts.
Even if you’re leaning into routines, avoid hitting autopilot and remember to do something special, out of the ordinary, for yourself.
Remember, when you nurture your own emotional needs, you’re making sure you aren’t pouring from an empty cup. Saving some time for yourself will feel especially constructive during stressful times.