With everything going on in the world right now, self-care may not be high on your priority list. But it should be.
“During crisis, self-care is often the first to go and the last to integrate back into our lives,” San Diego therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh told HuffPost.
Perhaps you’ve been neglecting self-care because you think it’s selfish to focus on yourself when so many others are struggling. In reality, taking care of yourself will help you show up for those who need you.
“Focusing on personal needs isn’t selfish — it actually increases our capacity to care for others,” Chappell Marsh said. “Airline attendants say it well: If the plane is going down, place the oxygen mask on yourself first before turning to help others. This is absolutely critical. If we don’t, we may not be able to help anyone.”
We asked wellness experts to share self-care tips that are easy and accessible, even during a global pandemic.
1. Make a list of activities that feel restorative to you right now.
It could be taking a walk outside, petting your dog, meditating, baking, drawing, organizing your closet, listening to a podcast or anything else you enjoy that alleviates stress.
“Save it in your phone or wherever is easily accessible,” said Lauren Donelson, a writer and yoga teacher in Seattle who’s studying to be a therapist. “Ideally, you would make this list on a day when you’re feeling pretty good, so that when you feel burnt out — which happens to everyone — you don’t have to then think of self-care activities.”
2. Identify what you’re grateful for.
There’s a lot happening in the world to be upset, angry and scared about, especially right now. But in these darker moments, finding things — big and small — that we’re thankful for is even more essential.
“In order to challenge our tendency to be pulled towards negative thoughts, we can turn our attention to what’s good in our lives,” said Tamara Levitt, head of mindfulness at the meditation app Calm. “Gratitude, like anything, is a practice, and neuroscience shows us that if we make efforts to cultivate appreciation, we’ll find more to be grateful for, even during times of loss and grief.”
Each day, write down three things you’re thankful for in a journal, save them in the Notes app on your phone or share them out loud with a loved one.
“It could be the health care workers or service industry, the weather or a perfect piece of toast,” said Pasadena, California, psychologist Ryan Howes, founder of the online Mental Health Boot Camp. “Your effort to search for goodness in the midst of this chaos is good exercise for your brain and mood.”
3. Set boundaries with work.
With many people working from home during the pandemic, living spaces now double as office spaces, blurring the line between work and play.
“It can be tempting to answer emails as soon as you wake up in the morning or respond to texts from your boss when you’re eating dinner,” Donelson said.
To create more structure, try to stick to the same start and stop times for your workday as you did pre-COVID-19.
“If you normally didn’t get to the office until 9 a.m., don’t sign on to work until 9 a.m.,” Donelson said. “And stop working when you would typically leave the office.”
When you’re not on the clock, put your laptop and any other work materials in a closet, bin or drawer until you need them again. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Focusing on personal needs isn’t selfish — it actually increases our capacity to care for others.”
4. Make a “done” list.
Many of us aren’t as productive during a pandemic as we are under normal circumstances — and that’s totally understandable. But staring at a long list of unfinished tasks on your to-do list is only going to make you feel worse about yourself. Instead, Howes suggests compiling a “done” list of all the items you’ve already accomplished.
“Include all the tasks, large and small, that you’ve successfully completed, from grocery shopping to folding clothes to getting kids through a day of school,” he said. “Pat yourself on the back for producing anything at all in a time where any task can feel Herculean.”
5. Put limits on your news intake.
“Yes, staying up to date with the news and latest developments is important ― but not at the cost of your sanity,” said writer and artist Meera Lee Patel, author of “Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration.” “When the news becomes a source of dread, anxiety, and futility, it’s time to take a step back.”
To curb your consumption, block out specific windows of time where you let yourself read or watch the news and try to avoid checking for updates otherwise.
“Respect the boundaries you set,” Levitt said. “And if you notice that even a small dose of news feels to be too much, be mindful of how you are feeling and pull yourself away.”
6. Crack open a book.
“Pick up that book you’ve been meaning to read and try to get 30 minutes of reading in a day,” said Charlee Atkins, founder of Le Sweat TV. “It doesn’t have to be a straight 30 minutes. You could also break it up, doing something like 10 minutes of reading three times a day.”
7. Let yourself grieve losses big and small.
People are mourning all kinds of losses right now: the loss of their loved ones, their jobs, their health, their plans, their normal routines, just to name a few.
“Grieve, too, what might feel like waning sanity with the inundating stress of your health care job or three kids at home,” said Denver psychotherapist Brittany Bouffard.
Take a breath and let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment. Then, when you’re ready, grab a pen and paper and write down all of the supportive forces in your life, Bouffard suggested.
They could be “personal, professional, financial, familial,” she said. “The top-tier supportive friends, mentoring, the amazing supervisor, the kind wedding vendors, the things you do have, your personal strengths or your ability to survive difficult times before and now.”
8. Pause to check in with yourself every day.
If you feel like all the days and weeks just seem to blend together in quarantine, you’re not alone. Taking the time to check in with yourself daily can bring focus and awareness to an otherwise dizzying time.
Howes suggested asking yourself these three questions: “What is captivating your thoughts right now?”; “What emotions or physical sensations are you experiencing or feeling?” and “What do you want to accomplish today?”
Pairing this practice with an already ingrained part of your routine, like brushing your teeth or making coffee in the morning, will make it easier to stick to, Howes said.
9. Try a breathing exercise.
One of Chapell Marsh’s favorite soothing practices is called “box breathing.” The technique, outlined below, is popular among Navy SEALs and only takes five minutes:
Step 1: Inhale for four seconds.
Step 2: Hold air in your lungs for four seconds.
Step 3: Exhale for four seconds, emptying all of the air in your lungs.
Step 4: Hold your lungs empty for four seconds.
Step 5: Repeat for five minutes.
10. Work out.
Working out the way we used to (packed fitness classes, crowded gyms) may be hard to do in our current reality. That said, moving your body can do wonders for your mood and mental health. That’s why it’s important to find ways to sweat safely.
“Less movement, plus isolation, plus a stressful situation equals potential for lower mood and exacerbation of depression or anxiety symptoms,” said Chicago therapist Anna Poss. “While there is only so much we may have control over in this situation, there is a proliferation of free exercise and movement resources online.”
And you don’t need to do a high-intensity workout to reap the benefits.
“There are many free videos that are body-positive, mindful of folks with chronic pain or disease and are designed for people with physical limitations,” Poss added. “Even someone like me, who has never been a fan of working out, has been able to find enjoyable forms of exercise at home.”
11. Create a bedtime routine to encourage good sleep habits.
Getting a good night’s sleep can set a positive tone for your day and help you better manage stress and anxiety. To facilitate this, create a nighttime routine that helps your body wind down and puts you in sleep mode.
“Try including a hot bath or shower because the hot water can help lower your core body temperature, which is needed to initiate and maintain a good night’s sleep,” said Alissa Rumsey, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “That plus Sleepytime tea and a good book ― and no Instagram scrolling! ― and you’ll be out in no time.”
12. Stretch your body.
When you can’t muster up the energy for a workout, stretching is a more manageable option that still benefits your body and mind. Those who are working from home during the pandemic may be dealing with aches and pains as a result of their poor ergonomic set-ups (e.g. working from bed or the couch). Plus, it’s common for people to generally hold emotional stress and tension in their bodies.
“Choose two to three stretches that are your go-to stretches and set a timer on your phone and try to hold each exercise for two minutes,” Atkins suggested.
You can also use a foam roller, massage stick or lacrosse ball for some self-myofascial release, which has been shown to decrease activity in the sympathetic nervous system that’s responsible for the fight-or-flight stress response.
“Especially on your upper back where a lot of stress lives, use a foam roller on the ground or a peanut roller against the wall,” said Nicole Haas, a physical therapist in Boulder, Colorado. “The amount of pressure should feel good, not bad, in order to encourage your brain to let go of that heightened response of the sympathetic system.”
“Inducing that relaxation response can go a long way for managing the stress and effects on your body,” she added.
13. Keep a journal.
If racing thoughts are weighing you down, consider starting a journaling practice. Setting aside some time to self-reflect will help quiet your busy mind and clarify and process what you’re experiencing.
“If this is something you’re struggling with, try taking 10 minutes each day to reflect on how you’re feeling, writing down any worries or concerns and acknowledging that it’s OK to feel these things,” Rumsey said.
Not sure where to start? You can find some journaling exercises online or in books that contain prompts and questions designed to sharpen your introspection skills.
“Regular self-reflection helps you stay connected to yourself, which means you’ll maintain your internal balance and strength when external elements in your life begin to shift,” Patel said.
14. Be extra gentle with yourself.
Not firing on all cylinders these days? Cut yourself some slack. Chappell Marsh said many of her clients are giving themselves a hard time for feeling less motivated than usual, when really they should be practicing self-compassion.
“Instead of beating yourself up because you are not ‘leveling-up’ right now, try to validate yourself with kind self talk,” she said. “Like, ‘This is difficult.’ ‘My body is responding to an impending threat.’ ‘I’m not alone.’”
Consider what you would you say to a dear friend or relative struggling during this time. “Then say those things to yourself,” Chappell Marsh said.