2020 launched the term “Self care” into the zeitgeist as this past year+ of uncertainty and anxieties has plagued us all. Establishing our own routines of self care is more valuable now than ever so we invited Dr. Michelle Chung to dig a little deeper into the benefits and science behind self care, and ways we can create our own practices today.
Dr. Michelle Chung, Psy. D, specializes in the evaluation and treatment of anxiety-related challenges, and holds a faculty position at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. You can watch her full Discussion on the importance of self-care here, read below for her highlights from the interview.
When thinking about self care, I think it's important to understand the nervous system and how the fight or flight system, or what I like to refer to as the “body's alarm system”, works.
The body's alarm system is triggered in novel situations, in times of uncertainty, and when you're feeling a lack of control or lack of support. Practicing self care is what helps us manage our fight or flight system in the moment and can also help to reduce overall sensitivity to being triggered in the future.
What is self care exactly? What are some examples?
Self care is not about the act itself, but it's more about the intention that goes behind the act itself. So making the time for self-care is probably a lot easier and less time consuming than you actually might think.
It could be simply having the intention to just carve out a period of time for yourself, maybe when you're showering or getting dressed, or having a short FaceTime call with friends while having a cup of coffee, or even taking a few minutes just to zone out. But again, with the intention that this is for you, this is for self care.
Find below 5 self care practices:
I want to make it easy. I don't want to make it another thing that you feel like you must do. So self care can be facials and baths, don't get me wrong. But it can also be about setting boundaries with friends and family members, especially during times where anxiety is rampant.
It can be intentionally limiting exposure to other anxious people or to people that might have a pessimistic outlook on things, limiting your exposure to news and really be okay with saying, “no”.
Reconnecting With Things You Enjoy:
Self care can also be about reconnecting with things that you enjoy. Asking for the time that you need to really sit with things that make you happy. For you this could be reading a book or lying in bed, maybe picking up that knitting project that you've always wanted to do. Whatever makes you feel that little tiny bit of joy and trying to reconnect with those things.
I also like to stress taking something that I call “mini vacations” or finding micro moments for yourself. So, being intentional with your time by finding smaller and even shorter ways to feel these positive moments and emotions. For example, lay in bed for an extra 15 minutes, take a short walk around the block of your property, sit in your room and make sure that you get to listen to your favorite song, and I mean the whole song from beginning to end, notice the flowers blooming, imagine your next vacation.
I know for myself, probably my favorite thing to do is to just to take a moment and to stop and reflect on how I'm doing right now. So just to check in with yourself to get a sense of where you're at and what you need in that moment, the most important part is to do it with intention, and to do it mindfully.
Practicing Moments of Mindfulness:
Some people have a hard time staying still. What I want to stress in this is to not put your focus on productivity per se, but to focus on what makes you feel satisfied. Something that might be productive can also be satisfying and that's kind of like killing two birds with one stone. So if you love organizing, why not take a stab at that hallway closet that you've been looking at for months. But if it's something like painting or just lying around, if that makes you feel satisfied, that's okay too. This is not the time to be a perfectionist.
If you're having a hard time letting go of the need to be productive, or the feeling that you are not doing enough, this is where self-compassion really comes in.
We want to, and we need to, recharge and to decompress. However, it might not be as realistic in the form of an hour walk every day, and that's ok.
Asking For Help / Sharing What You Need:
Ask for help, look to those around you for support and really embrace it. It takes a village mentality.
So for example, if a friend is calling and you're just not in a place to talk to them, maybe text them and say, Hey, busy right now, but can we chat tomorrow?
It might be telling your kids, Hey, mommy just needs 15 minutes, and then give your kids an iPad or let them watch a TV show for 30 minutes, just so you can be able to take that step away. If you have a partner, ask them for help.
Learning when and how to say no, assert yourself, or even asking for your needs to be met is truly a valuable skillset.
I like to use the acronym of DEAR MAN as the way to break down how to ask for something you need, or get your needs met. I take this from the world of DBT, and it breaks down like this...
D is to describe. Describe the facts of what's happening first. Don't add in emotions or how you're feeling. Hey, I've been cooking and cleaning for three weeks straight and I don't really have the help that I usually have right now. That's just describing the facts.
E is to express your emotion. Next, how are you feeling right now? I'm feeling really overwhelmed.
A is the ask, or to assert yourself. So what is it that you want? Are you saying no, are you setting a boundary or are you asking for help? - I really would love if you could cook dinner tonight (or) I really would love if you can give me just 15 minutes to myself to be quiet. That's the ask.
R is to reinforce the other person. What is it that they're gaining by giving you what you need? Being able to say, If you give me these 15 minutes, then I can be there for you afterwards (or) then I can play this game with you (or) then I can have this conversation with you. It could even be something like, It would make me so much happier.
M is to stay mindful. Stick to the topic at hand. Don't bring up the past or allow yourself to get sidetracked with statements like, Well, last time this happened (or) Last time you said this... Work to be really present.
A is to appear confident. In your ask, be mindful of your body language and don't apologize, shrivel up, or be embarrassed about the ask & reinforcement. The ask is what you need, and what you deserve.
N is to be open to negotiating. Once you've shared your ask, listen to what the other person has to say. You might find a middle ground that works for both of you.
Using these steps together is really a great skill and tool to be able to collect your thoughts and successfully phrase the ask in a productive way.
Practicing Positive Thinking, or Gratitude:
This is not something that comes naturally, this is something that you do have to practice. It's a technique. Acknowledging the good in our lives is a really powerful action that we can choose to take. You can even practice gratitude as a family, asking everyone to contribute a thought or a daily comment and collectively be able to feel the positivity grow.
I've been really challenging my clients to answer these three prompts every morning.
- What am I grateful for?
- What can I let go of? Or what can I forgive myself or another for?
- And what will I focus on today?
In summation, all of these practices are really important because they reduce our vulnerability to feeling levels of anxiety. If you visualize your intensity of anxiety as a thermometer, self care is the way to manage it, and to kind keep it at a lower intensity level, or a more manageable level. So if you're starting to feel like, Oh my gosh, I'm feeling overwhelmed, I'm getting into an anxiety attack, that is the trigger for you to bring in your self care skills.
I would recommend making a list of five things that you think would help you in those moments. Sometimes those five things might be: take a few deep breaths, go listen to some music, relax in bed, do a mindfulness meditation, or call a friend. And sometimes just one of those things might not be enough. Sometimes you might have to take a deep breath, call a friend, and then listen to some music. It might have to be in conjunction with one another.
I'm hoping that you have found some of these tips to be helpful, and a launching point of motivation to create some space for yourself, and time for self care