Mental Health Series: Why Self-Care is Important

Self-Care is important for your mental health

The classic struggle

It’s the classic struggle of finding balance between work and life. While we know that we need to recharge, it’s easy to feel like a hero when we spend all of our time working and caring for others. Our American ideals of hard work and emphasis on achievement make it easy to feel like we need to try harder and put in longer hours, while meeting our own needs can be viewed as selfish or lazy. Emphasizing productivity at work and meeting the needs of our families can ultimately lead to short changing our own essential needs… for sleep, exercise, nutritious food, and just time to regroup. Unfortunately, while it feels like we’re working hard, we’re probably undermining our own productivity by failing to care for ourselves.

The risk of neglecting self-care

Neglecting our mental and physical health can have big repercussions. Without adequate rest and recreation, our concentration and professional competency diminishes. We can also find ourselves struggling with personal and professional relationships as we become short tempered or even depressed by the constant struggle to do more in less time. Proper nutrition and exercise require daily investment in order to avoid long term problems, such as illness, weight gain, diabetes, bone loss, and poor cardiovascular health. Ultimately, we will find ourselves burnt out, unable to fully participate in the families and careers that we have prioritized over our own basic needs. When we really think it through, we know that self-care is important. So why do we neglect it? In addition to our prioritization of success, achievement, and obligation over our long term health and happiness, the simple power of habit can also be a big factor. We may begin by receiving pressure during a crisis at work or home to perform in a way that is unrealistic and respond by continuing those patterns of action for longer than is healthy or necessary. While such a clear focus and drive can be helpful in negotiating a short term crisis or deadline, in the long term it will drain us, diminishing our productivity, creativity, and joy in our work and home. This article is the first in a series of improving our mental health through self-care. By attending to our basic needs supporting our health and mental health, we will experience improved relationships, achievements, and energy. Frequently, making these changes is more attainable than it seems, though it does require thinking through challenges and developing new habits that include building time for self-care into our daily lives.

Starting anew

This exploration of areas of self-care and mental health will include everything from tips on improving your sleep to setting personal goals. In starting this process, take a look at your daily life now. Are there areas that you may be regularly shortchanging yourself? Do you get enough sleep, exercise, and nutritious meals? Do you have un-rushed time to enjoy the people you love? Are you able to find gratitude for the gifts in your daily life? If these are areas you are struggling with, knowing that we all neglect these during short term crises, do you anticipate it getting better in the near future? If not, are you ready for a serious look at what is preventing them from happening for you and how you can address both your environment and priorities to ensure that you’re supporting your long term goals for your physical and mental health. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the idea of changing your daily habits and behaviors. People frequently remain ambivalent about making changes for a long time, even when we understand the benefits of those changes. Whether you choose to take the simple (but not always easy) step of becoming more aware of the impact of your choices on your physical and mental health, or decide to jump in and address whether your work or your exercise habits are in keeping with your long term goals, I hope that this series will give you the tools you need to take you closer to the life you truly desire.

Further Reading

An excellent laymen’s overview on Prochaska’s Stages of Change and how recognizing them can help you to make changes in your life: http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/six-steps-that-can-change-your-life Why do we do what we do? How can we understand our habits better to transform our business, communities, and lives? http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/ Ready to put it into action? Tips for developing a self-care plan. https://socialwork.buffalo.edu/resources/self-care-starter-kit/developing-your-self-care-plan.html
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.