Most of us are familiar with the pre-flight safety briefing delivered to aircraft passengers. It includes the instruction to place the oxygen mask on our own face before attending to those around us.
It’s common sense, yet when it comes to everyday life many of us neglect our own needs while attending to others.
Sydney-based counsellor Sue England says many of us don’t know how to say “no” because we’re sure the sky will fall if we’re not there to hold it up – and this can apply to both our work and personal lives.
“Learning to say ‘no’ is being kind to ourselves and others,” Sue says.
It’s just one of many self care strategies that can help you on the path to happiness and wellbeing, says Sue.
There doesn’t have to be an emergency
Most of us can recognise times when we need to “really look after ourselves.” These are often times when someone is counting on us to be there for them. Perhaps there’s a family or work emergency, someone’s unwell, or a friend, colleague or loved one is relying on our help or support.
As a general rule however, we’re not as good at prioritising our own needs on a day-by-day basis (outside of an emergency!). However, the practice of self care is very important to nurturing and sustaining our own health, happiness and wellbeing.
The good news is – self care is easy to implement and small, simple changes can have a significant impact.
Commit to change
The first step is to acknowledge that something needs to change – for the better - in your life.
Maybe you have a demanding job, which is having a negative impact on a personal relationship or you’re in a carer role where someone depends on you to get things done.
Whatever the situation, the moment has to arise when you choose to actively create a healthier and happier situation for yourself.
Sue says, “The first step has to start with a shift in mindset – where you say to yourself, ‘This isn’t working for me, so what can I do to make it work?’”
Here are some simple, self care strategies to get you started.
1. Prioritise your commitments: work out what can be left until tomorrow (or the next day).
2. Ask for help: when the going gets tough, reach out to that friend, relative or colleague who is trustworthy and empathic.
3. Set boundaries: give yourself permission to say “no”, especially if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed and resentment is creeping into your mindset.
Create healthy routines
4. Get enough sleep: Sleep is important for overall health and wellbeing, and not getting enough can play havoc with our physical and mental health. Experts recommend seven to nine hours a night for adults.
5. Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water and try to always include breakfast.
6. Take a break. It might be as basic as going for a walk in the fresh air for 20 minutes and coming back feeling reinvigorated, Sue says.
Embrace the moment
7. Meditate: Meditation doesn’t have to be a big deal; it can be as short as you like. Sue suggests bringing mindfulness into what would otherwise be “dead time”. “You can meditate on the bus on the way to or from work, or focus on your breath in a queue at the supermarket check-out,” she says. “Three minutes can do a lot to calm the immune system.”
8. Lean away from confrontation: Sue recommends observing rather than reacting to potentially confrontational situations. “If someone is being unpleasant to you, don’t take it personally,” she says. “You could react but, instead, take a step back and set yourself free from getting involved. Respond in a way that leaves you feeling calm.”
9. Be grateful: Studies have shown that gratitude can make you happier. “Gratitude can move our attention to the fact that not everything is black and white; something as simple as marvelling at a flower bursting through a crack in the pavement can bring us to a point where we think, ‘This moment is enough.’”
Write it down
10. Keep a journal: Some people use a journal as a daily practice. “A journal helps stop the mind chatter,” Sue says. “It allows you to look at a situation from a different position.”
11. Write a gratitude list: Every day Oprah Winfrey jots down five reasons to be grateful but you don’t have to go that far. Even keeping a small daily or weekly list is a mood lifter.
Be kind to yourself
12. Be kind to yourself: It’s easy to be self-critical over the smallest things. “Cut yourself some slack - nobody is perfect,” Sue says. There will be occasions when you will have to be your own cheerleader and best friend, she says. “Sometimes it is important to remind yourself that no one in this world can offer what you offer and you are unique.”
Surround yourself with good people
13. Have good people in your corner: Sue draws the analogy of the orchestra pit where each musician relies on the other to create beautiful music. “Everyone needs an ally so they feel supported,” Sue says. “If you feel supported, you can do anything.”
If you don’t have supportive people around you, then Sue suggests recalling someone from the past who has made you feel loved and valued or bringing to mind close relationships you’ve had in the past. These memories too can have a similar uplifting effect, Sue says.
Shifting our thinking and making small, simple changes
Self care is not to be confused with selfishness. “It means not taking on too much, realising you have limits and making yourself matter,” Sue says.
The most important mind-shift is recognising the importance of prioritising our own health, happiness and wellbeing. Sometimes one small change or self care activity can make a significant difference, she said.
Sue England is a qualified counsellor with more than 20 years’ experience. At her Sydney-CBD practice Mindfully Well, she works with clients dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, and grief and loss.