Self-care is a difficult subject. There is a tension between doing what you need to do, and looking after yourself. My favourite analogy is a Formula 1 analogy… even if you are a Formula 1 driver trying to win a Grand Prix, you still need a team of mechanics and a pit lane. Ignore your maintenance, and you will eventually slow down and be overtaken anyway.
A key part of self-care is attending to what we might call ‘the little things’. By this I mean tiny details of your life, and small habit and tasks… the things you tend to brush over if you are obsessed with the ‘big things’. The big things, in this context, are your grand plans, perhaps your most important relationships, perhaps your job, perhaps a creative project.
These big things are all great… but, like the Grand Prix driver, if you don’t attend to the little things, the big things suffer too. Here are a few ‘little things’ you can attend to when trying to manage your mental health. They are things that become difficult when suffering from anxiety and depression; but that means it is all the more important to see what you can do to tend to them.
YOUR GETTING-UP ROUTINE
Firstly, in anxiety and depression, largely through fear, sometimes through despair, your getting-up routine suffers. Many sufferers begin to lie in of a morning. This is understandable. Mental health issues often interfere with sleep patterns, and there is a felt need to catch up, to try to stop feeling so tired. For some sufferers, it will be the afternoon before they are able to emerge into the day, by which time it is almost gone.
This can cause problems with bodily function. Our bodies respond to routine and habit. If we get up at the same time each day, our bodies learn to respond to this. If we eat a certain breakfast, then our bodies develop an enhanced ability to process that food. The body learns to expect certain things at certain times, and adapts to deal with them then. If we drift into a lazier routine, however understandable it is, we are building up problems for ourselves, in that we are not allowing our bodies to find a ‘groove’, a routine that works.
THE LITTLE COMMUNICATIONS IN RELATIONSHIPS
Secondly, in anxiety and depression, we get worse at giving ‘positive strokes’ to other people. We become self-absorbed, and tend to forget to say thank you, or I love you, or anything encouraging. In the short term this is tolerated, but eventually our friends and relatives will find it more and more difficult to be around us, because they are not receiving the ‘fuel’ of encouragement.
It is worth applying a bit of energy to simple positive communication. This doesn’t mean you have to hide your own difficulty and distress – there will be times when you share that, and it’s important that you do. But, when you can, take a moment to thank someone, or arrange a quick coffee, or ask someone else how they are. It can reverse the trend of loneliness in both yourself and others.
Thirdly, when anxious or depressed, some of us begin to lose interest in our self-presentation. For the depressed person, this can be a rational response to life: if life feels meaningless, why dress up, or why even get dressed at all? For the anxious person, it may become difficult to choose what to wear, because, when you are suffering from acute uncertainty, even small decisions can become hard.
There are a few things one can do to help. Some find it good to buy a lot of the same clothes, to lighten the daily burden of choice. Some deliberately book meetings with others, just to persuade themselves to get dressed and make themselves presentable. When we have appointments with the dentist, optician, doctor, even coffee with friends, we have a motivation to get presentable. The act of getting ready to go out, and then going out, can feel empowering once it is achieved, especially to someone who is losing their confidence and preferring to stay in.
However big your dreams and aspirations, you need to attend to the little things in life. Unless you attend to the basic self-care routines, it can become harder and harder to make progress on the bigger projects.
Three things to focus on are:
Honing your getting-up routine until your body is trained to do it as second nature
Making sure you offer brief, encouraging messages to those around you, to keep the relational ball rolling
Try to get dressed and presentable every day, perhaps by giving yourself public appointments to keep