If self-care feels like another item to tick off of your to-do list, then you’re doing it wrong. Yet I completely understand why you feel that way: the media loves to promote its fluffy, commercial definition of self-care. But to me at least, thousand-dollar silent meditation retreats and Goop-endorsed vaginal steaming sessions don’t speak to the heart of self-care….not even close.
To me, self-care is about taking care of your basic needs before tending to others. It’s the classic “put on your own mask before assisting others” line from every airplane safety tutorial ever. Because if you aren’t taking care of yourself, how can you expect to help others? How can you teach your loved ones to value their own self-care, when you haven’t showered or slept in the past 48 hours?
But this type of self-care, while vitally important, doesn’t show up in our Instagram feeds very often for a reason: basic, ‘boring’ self-care just doesn’t sell as well as chakra-realigning healing crystals, sourced from the deep caves of Nepal. (Can you tell I’m having fun with this?) And to be brutally honest with myself, I’m part of the problem. At my day job, I work in the wellness industry – meaning I literally make my living off of promoting woo-woo self-care techniques.
Yet while I love a good cold-pressed juice after a sweaty hot yoga session, these are more like special treats (or medieval torture techniques) than a glimpse into my everyday life. In fact, at the end of the day, all my daily self-care routine boils down to is three simple questions:
Did I shower?
Did I eat?
Did I sleep?
Each of these steps accomplishes something vital – and while these three questions may seem painfully simple, you’d be surprised how often they go unaddressed in our everyday lives. In fact, you’ll be astonished by the dramatic effect that simply showering, eating and sleeping can have on your productivity, your mood and your attitude.
I could honestly write a book full of reasons why I swear by showering, eating and sleeping for self-care – and maybe I will one day! But for now, I’ll content myself with sharing the logic behind why I might not meditate or dry-brush every day, but I’ll be damned if I don’t suds that shampoo, eat that bagel or put on my gosh-darn jammies.
Did I Shower?
When I picture the face of depression, it looks a little bit like this:
As much as this GIF makes me LOL, I’ve had seasons in my life where I looked (and felt) more like this than I care to admit. Seriously, though: we don’t often think of hygiene as essential to mental health, which is probably why it’s one of the first things to go when I enter a depressive episode.
As I sink deeper into my spiral of despair, showers become fewer and farther between. As one anonymous woman stated, “I wake up every morning thinking the same thing I do every day. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ but tomorrow never comes.”
The link between hygiene and mental health stretches far beyond sitcoms, memes or even my personal experience. Studies show that family members perceive their mentally ill loved ones as better off when they’re bathed, groomed and dressed. (More detrimentally, family members also report significant embarrassment regarding their loved ones’ inability to accomplish basic hygiene when suffering from mental illness.)
Speaking as someone with mental illness, I certainly feel better when I’m bathed, groomed and dressed! A daily shower is my gold standard when it comes to personal hygiene. However, I completely understand what it’s like to have days when even turning on the water feels like an insurmountable task. A wet washcloth or even a face wipe makes the perfect lazy alternative to a shower when you’re feeling blue. Additionally, I always keep deodorant and perfume on standby for banishing body odors, especially when my daily shower was more of an “aspiration” than an “accomplishment.”
These habits may be less-than-glamorous, but they get the job done – and at the end of the day, when you’re feeling depressed and can’t bear to leave your bed, that in itself is more than enough.
Did I Eat?
As someone who has struggled with both depression and orthorexia, I have lived at both extremes of the food spectrum at different points in my life. On top of that, I work in social media full-time – which means I’m constantly exposed to glamorous food photos by nutritionists and influencers. Because of these experiences, however, I’ve learned an important truth: no one eats like they Instagram.
Green smoothies and Buddha bowls are all well and good – but they don’t represent the truth of living for most of us. If you’re anything like me, a real day looks a little more like grabbing a yogurt for breakfast, microwaving leftovers for lunch and eating a big bowl of pasta with jarred marinara sauce for dinner. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Speaking from experience, the only way to eat “wrong” is not to do it at all.
Neglecting something as basic as your daily meals doesn’t bode well for your physical or mental health – yet when we feel overwhelmed, skipping meals may seem like a legitimate choice for reducing the burden in our lives. However, skipping meals can have detrimental effects on our bodies and our brains, for reasons including but not limited to:
- Increased cortisol production. Hunger increases our production of the stress hormone cortisol, leading to “hanger” and feelings of overwhelm, writes Piedmont Healthcare.
- Physical and mental fatigue. According to the same article, skipping meals decreases your body’s supply of glucose, which is your body’s main source of energy. This can lead to brain fog and exhaustion.
- Negative overall health consequences. Studies have linked meal-skipping in young adulthood to a variety of problems down the road, including but not limited to depression, irregular menstrual cycles and potentially chronic illness.
But now that we’ve established the importance of eating, how do we avoid resorting to meal-skipping as a coping strategy when we’re busy, stressed or depressed?
First, note that none of the sources cited above mention any particular food. In other words, what you eat matters less than that you simply do it. Prepared meals, frozen dinners and even, yes, fast food are legitimate options for warding off hunger. While no one’s doctor would argue that eating these foods every day promotes optimal health, even McDonald’s chicken nuggets make a better strategy than simply skipping meals.
You can also take steps to simplify the process of making delicious, nutritious meals from scratch. One Buzzfeed reader recommends whipping up big batches of freezer meals during less stressful periods to eat when you’re depressed or overwhelmed. Grocery delivery services like Instacart and Amazon Fresh can also make healthy eating easier when your main obstacle is simply getting to the store.
Whatever solution you choose, I only ask that you remember one thing: no matter how stressed, depressed or tired you are, skipping meals is never the answer. Your body needs nutrients and you need to eat – end of story.
Did I Sleep?
Ah, sleep….sweet, sweet sleep. Ironically, one of the hottest wellness trends of the moment is also one of the most basic self-care strategies in the books. But believe me when I say that Mom was onto something when she urged you to go to bed earlier as a teenager. Sleep accomplishes more in eight hours than Joey does in an entire season of Friends. (Sorry, Joey. You know I love you.)
In college, like so many of us, I used to stay up late – occasionally pulling an all-nighter – to finish my homework while still making time for myself before bed. Yet at the end of the day (or should I say night?), nothing you can do – absolutely nothing – matters more than sleeping. Not even finishing this blog post….so, go ahead. Turn off the lights and get your butt in bed, girlfriend!
All jokes aside, sleep augments our mental health more than any other self-care strategy. A good night’s sleep promotes strong mental health – and poor sleep habits wave a red flag in your therapist’s face. As many as 50 to 80% of patients in a typical mental health practice will present with chronic sleep issues, especially in those with mood and anxiety disorders. And taking an afternoon nap just isn’t good enough.
As Harvard Medical School shares, because so much healing occurs during REM sleep – the deepest stage of our sleep cycle – a 15-to-20-minute nap won’t accomplish nearly as much for your mental well-being as going to bed just an hour or two earlier than usual. In fact, to function optimally, adults need seven-to-nine hours of sleep per night. If you can’t remember the last time you got that much sleep, take this as a wake-up-call: your self-care routine needs some work!
My advice, therefore, is simple: prioritize your sleep above all else. Whatever it is, it can wait.