By Matthew Boone, LCSW, Director of Programming and Outreach for the Student Wellness Program at UAMS and an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry.
This is a hard time for everyone. Most of us are familiar with self-care basics: eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and balance work and play. But what if that’s not enough? Below are 7 psychological self-care practices you can add to your toolbox, with links to research and deeper dives on the subject matter.
Connect with your values. It’s easy to do things because we “should” or “have to.” Instead, consider connecting what you do to what’s most important in your life – i.e., your values. Ask yourself how your actions connect to your values across various life domains, like family, relationships, spirituality, and work. How do you want to show up in these areas? Values dignify the normal pain of living in difficult times and provide motivation for moving forward even when things are hard. And research suggests that alignment between our values and our work has at least as much impact on burnout as how overloaded we feel.
Focus on what you can immediately control. So much of life right now is out of our control. Try focusing on what you can control, like your actions, instead of what you can’t control, like what’s going to happen in the future, what other people do, or whether you feel strong emotions. Turn your attention to taking care of your health and the health of others (e.g., social distancing, handwashing, exercising). Think about how you want to support the people in your life. Nothing’s going to be easy in the near term, but you can choose actions that make a difference.
Practice acceptance of your thoughts and feelings. If you try not to think of a white bear for the next minute, what do you think will happen? Research suggests you will think about white bears a lot. It’s no surprise then that suppressing negative thoughts and feelings tends to rebound, creating more suffering. Instead, practice being willing to engage with what you think and feel, perhaps offering yourself gentle encouragement, such as: “It’s okay to feel anxious;” “Every feeling has a beginning, middle, and end;” or “Feeling this way doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.” This is what acceptance looks like. It’s not giving up, giving in, or resigning yourself. It means being willing to have what’s already there.
Cultivate self-compassion. Many of us tend to mentally turn on ourselves when things are hard, making a bad situation even worse. Perhaps out of habit, we criticize our actions and judge what we think and feel. Sometimes this works, but it also saps our motivation and leaves us feeling defeated. Try offering yourself support, understanding, and even love. It won’t turn you into a narcissist, and it might just bring you a small sense of peace during trying times. Check out these practices from the science of self-compassion.
Practice gratitude. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s good when so much feels so bad. Cultivate a practice of acknowledging, both to yourself and to others, what you’re grateful for: good relationships, supportive colleagues, devoted pets, meaningful work, and small moments of pleasure. Gratitude is best thought of as a practice – something you do – rather than something you feel.
Give yourself (and others) a break. Don’t expect more from yourself than is reasonable. You might not be especially productive right now; you might not be particularly focused. You don’t have to turn your extra free time into a radical self-improvement project. Just do what you can. And give permission to others to do the same, especially those you work and live with.
Seek social connection. There is no good way to go through this alone. Reach out to the people in your life, whether in person, via phone, or by videoconferencing. Social distancing is socially isolating, and most of us are not built for long periods alone. Share your experiences, share your worries, or just share a meal. Be with the people who matter to you.