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How do we take care of ourselves?
In a world that is challenging and changing all the time, it’s more than a casual question. Self-care takes on new meaning. What can I do to proactively care for myself? How can I maintain my mental health and well-being so that I can continue to rise to challenges and do what needs to be done for myself, my loved ones, and my work?
Self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. But clearly, something about it — or the pursuit of it — resonates. It represents a $450 billion market and captures shelf-space, headlines, and our attention.
What makes self-care so universally appealing, and why are we willing to spend so much effort on it? Well — to put things bluntly — many of us don’t feel all that great. When it comes to today’s workforce, about 55% are languishing at any given time. Our working parents are reaching a breaking point. And caregivers — both formal and informal — are stressed, under-resourced, and over-worked.
Self-care isn’t “a thing” just because people enjoy taking care of themselves. It’s a thing because we’re starting to see the deep need to take care of ourselves. We can’t run on empty anymore. Running our physical or mental health into the ground and trying to fix it after it’s broken isn’t a sustainable answer. Self-care, health care, and mental fitness are inextricably intertwined. And when we don’t feel good, our work and relationships suffer too.
The good news? You can create your own set of proactive self-care habits that help you maintain your mental health and well-being.
At BetterUp, we’re encouraged to spend some time every week becoming more attuned to what we need, individually, to stay healthy and thrive in a challenging environment. So we asked our fellow BetterUppers for some of their go-to practices and resources for maintaining mental health and improving well-being. As you’ll see, self-care isn’t one-size-fits-all. And it doesn't have to be expensive, unwieldy, impractical, or time-consuming in order to work.
Of course, that’s not to say that self-care is the “end-all, be-all” when it comes to mental health. Improving access to clinical care and support for more severe mental health conditions is vital. But many forms of self-care have a kind of insulating effect on our overall well-being. When we practice caring for ourselves, it’s easier to be resilient, problem-solve, and reach out for help.
Keep reading to learn what self-care is, how it impacts mental health, and what BetterUppers do to maintain their mental health.
What is self-care?
Self-care is the collective set of practices that you engage in to make sure that you’re happy and healthy. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.”
However, the common understanding of self-care is somewhat less clinical. We engage in self-care practices to maintain both physical and mental fitness. While the WHO’s definition of self-care is prescriptive, self-care is additive. It’s the practices that don’t just restore us to our baseline. They make us feel good — about ourselves, our futures, and our lives.
That being said, there’s no limit around what could be considered self-care. I tend to look at the quality, intention, and proactiveness of the action. For example, if I’m prone to headaches, self-care might look like:
- Seeing a doctor to determine the underlying cause
- Drinking plenty of water
- Getting enough sleep every night
- Managing my stress level
- Reducing my alcohol, caffeine, or sugar intake
- Carrying headache medications
- Taking breaks away from the computer to manage eye strain
- Signing off work early or skipping social plans to rest
As you can see, these are all actions I could take (either proactively or reactively). The purpose is always the same: manage the headache and the effect it has on my well-being.
How does self-care affect mental health?
The exact combination of activities and habits will be different from person to person. However, there are five areas of self-care you should take note of. These include mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social self-care.
When we talk about mental fitness, we’re talking about the activities that keep your mind challenged and engaged. These are the things that get you into a flow state — where you’re effortlessly focused on something you enjoy. Experiencing flow as much as you can, challenging your mind, and learning new things are all forms of mental self-care.
Taking care of yourself emotionally means working to understand your feelings and how to deal with them. While a wide range of emotions is healthy, it’s also important to know what they’re trying to tell you and express them in a constructive way. Part of emotional well-being is developing strong emotional regulation skills and healthy coping mechanisms.
Your physical well-being is critical to your overall well-being. When your basic needs aren’t met, you tend to be less emotionally and mentally resilient as well. The symptoms of anxiety, depression, and many other ailments mimic symptoms of dehydration. And of course, visiting the doctor regularly is a form of self-care.
Our spiritual self-care connects us to something larger than ourselves. It can be externally focused, like a religious practice. However, inner practices — like meditation and breathwork — can also provide spiritual fulfillment. Spiritual wellness is an individual journey.
The time we spend with our friends, family, and loved ones is part of what makes life meaningful. But despite how much human beings need to socialize, we often neglect it — especially when we’re already feeling low. Spending time with others who make us feel good or share our hobbies is a way to practice self-care.
Resources to help you manage your mental health
What does it look like — in practice — to manage your mental health, and where do you even start? We reached out to a number of people at BetterUp — both coaches and staff — to find out what practices they use. The results? People use a wide array of resources, and most people have a combination of resources they use on a regular basis. Not only does one-size not fit all, no single resource or practice is a cure-all.
Here are a selection of tips, resources, and practices to support your mental health:
One of the first words that came to mind for BetterUppers was “mindfulness.” Mindful practices, like meditation, mindful breathing, and gratitude benefit our mental health in a number of ways. It can have an immediate impact, helping us feel calmer, more focused, and less reactive.
However, mindfulness practices also have a cumulative effect on our mental health. Research shows that the gray matter in the brains of regular meditators actually increases. These cognitive changes help us improve our ability to learn, form and recall memories, regulate our emotions, and reflect.
Of course, developing a mindfulness practice is famously challenging. With so much to do and so many notifications clamoring for our attention, it can be hard to tune it all out for even a minute.
Jay Beaulieu, Sales Development Representative at BetterUp says, “For several years I tried seated meditation and could never really keep a streak. I eventually came across the practice of walking meditation and found that it works great for me. It’s the exact same practice of quieting your thoughts and reclaiming your attention as seated meditation, but perhaps better suited for folks who like to be on the move!”
If movement seems, well, more your speed, several BetterUppers cite exercise and physical activity as their go-to mental health habit. Leilani Garrett, one of BetterUp’s
Sr. Account Executives, says that “Yoga, workouts with my trainer, Peloton, and meditation go a long way to keeping me balanced and grounded.” Catie Farrow, Head of Storytelling at BetterUp) seconds a regular Peloton habit as a balm for mental health.
As a yoga, Pilates, and mindfulness instructor, I feel strongly about the power of mind-body practices. Yoga practice can improve executive function, relieve chronic stress patterns, and improve your relationship with your body.
Ashley Strahm, Content Marketing Manager at BetterUp, is a fan of Jessamyn Stanley, a renowned yoga teacher and advocate (and guest instructor at our first-ever Inner Work® Day!). For Ashley, "Jessamyn Stanley is a deeply needed voice and advocate for every-body movement and radical self-love, specifically through yoga and authorship. She's based where I live in Durham NC, and through taking her classes live, reading her books, and following her via her wellness brand, The Underbelly, I've learned to reframe what my body should do into what I'm grateful my body can do."
As a woman of color who is making peace with the idea that my identity transcends that of an athlete, my journey of self-acceptance began and continues to evolve in relation to my body. I have Jessamyn Stanley to thank for reminding me I am so much more than the sum of my physical parts.
Ashley Strahm, Content Marketing Manager at BetterUp
Spending time in nature
What do hiking, gardening, and vacations all have in common? Time spent out in nature. Many people find just being outdoors to be a therapeutic experience. The American Psychological Association (APA) links spending time in nature with lower stress levels, improved cognition, positive affect, and subjective well-being.
I don't spend lot of time on gardening, however I have some plants and pot trees. I really enjoy watering them and seeing how the life grows.
Mario Perez, BetterUp contractor
Madeline Miles, a Staff Writer at BetterUp, advocates “uninterrupted, unplugged exercise. A walk, a hike, something where you're not able to plug into any technology and just let your brain go on cruise control for a little while.”
If you’re looking to incorporate more time outside in your schedule, you can combine it with anything on your schedule. Try reading outdoors, eating lunch alfresco, or taking a walking meeting.
A big part of protecting our mental health is keeping our inner critics in check. Learning to pay attention to our self-talk is important. Self-criticism can kill our motivation, energy, and creativity.
BetterUp Care Coach Teregi Coleman spoke about the importance of self-acceptance:
Self-acceptance has been helpful for me in proactively maintaining my mental heath. Life is easier when we recognize there are no such people as quitters, losers or failures. We are all just humans beings who sometimes quit, sometimes lose and sometimes fails. In the same, there are no such things as winners. We are all just humans who sometimes wins or are very successful in certain areas in our lives.
Teregi Coleman, BetterUp Care Coach
At BetterUp, we regularly take time to engage in intentional, restorative, and reflective practices. We call this Inner Work®, and it’s the key to making our outer work more successful and sustainable.
BetterUp Enterprise Sales Leader Michael Tamam, says that this kind of Inner Work® helps to “loosen the contraction around how me and the world 'should' be.” He describes this contraction as the root of many mental health challenges in his experience.
Michael suggests cultivating a “daily habit of looking inwards and examining my inner landscape.”
Books and series for mental health
Atu Kyeison, a GRC Analyst at BetterUp, recommends (and absolutely loves) Who Moved My Cheese? and The Power of Habit. He says “These books really helped me understand how habits are formed and broken — and how changing one piece of the habit loop can change an entire outcome.”
Leilani Garrett recommends Deepak Chopra’s classic, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. “I’ve read it many times,” she says, “and have listed out the important points, along with other affirmations that mean something to me, which I read every morning. The pages are frayed and yellowed. I also read the morning prayer in Iyanla’s book, Everyday I Pray.”
Ryan Holiday’s work was another team favorite. Danny Codella, our Senior Writer, specifically mentioned The Obstacle Is the Way as a favorite to help him “keep [his] head above water through countless trials.” Cait Dowling (Storytelling & Customer Advocacy) suggests reading the daily excerpt from The Daily Stoic. She says, “It’s a great perspective re-fresher and helps ground me regularly — and it’s short!”
And Maggie Wooll, author and our very own Managing Editor, suggests Unwinding Anxiety. She says that the book does a great job of “teaching you how to understand your brain and get curious about what is going on as an antidote to the fear/anxiety/reaction cycle.”
BetterUppers also found inspiration and insight from video series made for on-demand. Whether that's a good cry during a This is Us marathon, a good cry during The Me You Cannot See, or a good cry with Brene Brown's Atlas of the Heart, sometimes we need the catharsis and intimacy that video provides. Video has a unique ability to invite us into someone else's experience and understand ourselves better in the process of understanding what is shared and also unique.
These almost visceral experiences, both affirming and eye-opening, move us to feel but also to act on our own behalf. They begin to stitch together a movement — a community of people, all in different situations, but all engaged in the daily work of understanding and maintaining their own with mental health despite significant challenges.
Other activities that get us out of our head (in a good way)
- Organizing things
- Meditative prayer, such as saying a rosary or other rote prayer cycle
- Volunteering with children or doing challenging manual labor
When you ask the question, “How do I proactively take care of myself so that I can thrive?” self-care no longer looks like a reactive set of products and activities. Your self-care is purposeful — you have a goal and can make a plan. Consider the role mental health days have in your self-care plan. If you're not sure where to start, check out these ideas on what to do with your mental health days.
The amazing thing about developing a self-care plan is that it becomes a kind of Inner Work® practice. To have a truly effective plan, you have to know yourself. You must become intimately aware of what you need, how you feel, and what will make a difference.
BetterUp Staff Writer