Photo: Getty / H.Klosowska
The past few months, I've been a bit of a stress ball. I surmise the uptick in brooding is likely a combination of an increased workload and increased travels, plus other shifting life factors. Whatever the cause, managing this added angst has been both frustrating and exhausting, especially during summer, a time of year I associate with easy, carefree fun.
So when I recently received a month-long assignment to practice self-care for 10 minutes every day, I embraced the opportunity with fervor.
This could really help! I thought when accepting the job. Perhaps a daily dose of self-care is just what I need to reign in my excessive worrying. I envisioned myself becoming less tech-tethered and more zen, perhaps even adopting a peaceful, poetic hobby, like journaling or morning meditation.
In reality, things unfolded a bit...differently. Turns out, penciling in a small self-care session every day isn't as simple or even as enjoyable as it might sound. At least not for me. Here's what went down and what I learned—both about myself and about the concept of self-care—in the process.
Soon after starting the self-care experiment (read: on day 1), I realized I didn't actually have a clear idea of what the concept entails. I lightly Googled "self-care" and quizzed a few friends before landing on the still pretty vague definition of "doing nice things for myself." To ensure I didn't forget my new daily ritual, I wrote "self-care" in thick black Sharpie on a notecard and taped it to my mirror.
Then, being the type A person that I am, I decided it would help to set some self-care guidelines. Two, to be exact. The first: My 10-minute sessions couldn't include technology (minutes spent on devices often induce stress, I've realized), and secondly, the self-care should be tackled either first thing in the morning (to help set a low-stress tone for the day ahead) or before bed (to help myself slip into a more tranquil slumber).
That first week, my self-care included pleasant-sounding things like sitting in the rocking chair on my patio and admiring the mountainside view as I sipped my morning coffee, reading a magazine before bed, and listening to a podcast. These were all very nice, very lovely activities—well, in theory, that is. On multiple occasions, I found myself somehow feeling more anxious during said self-care sessions. What. The. Heck?!
Also, despite the notecard-on-mirror trick, I forgot to practice self-care on days 6 and 7 because I was "too stressed" or otherwise braindead to remember. Double ugh. I started harboring doubts about the experiment's ability to alleviate my malaise, but forged on anyways.
Week two started off on a slightly stronger note. On day 9, a Sunday, I journaled in the morning, which I found very enjoyable, and then later that afternoon, treated myself to a "bonus" self-care session by stretching on my patio after going on a run. Also very enjoyable, and I'll note, very calming. But then, the work week started, and I fell off the rails again, forgetting (or simply declining) to pencil in self-care even though the Sharpie-d notecard still loomed large.
Figuring adding even more structure might pull me back on track, I formulated a new plan. For the rest of the month, my self-care would be one specific thing done at one specific time every day. This consistency would help the self-care feel more purposeful, I figured, and thus more effective. With that new strategy solidified, I vowed to shake up my morning routine. Instead of immediately opening my laptop upon arising [a habit I'd started in the past year or two], I'd sit quietly on my patio every morning and soak in my surroundings for a sixth of an hour. It would be lovely, it would be doable, and most importantly, it would set the tone for a low-stress day.
It wasn't long before my new strategy flopped. Terribly. I kept experiencing increased stress during my morning self-care sessions, anxious over the fact that I was sitting idly instead of working, and that rush of nerves made me want to avoid the activity altogether. That's when I spoke with a professional for guidance. My main question: Where was I going so horribly wrong?
I quickly learned that what I'd been doing for self-care isn't actually self-care. At least, not exactly.
"There's such a misperception in what self-care is," Tracey Cleantis Dwyer, licensed marriage and family therapist, author of An Invitation to Self-Care: Why Learning to Nurture Yourself Is the Key to the Life You've Always Wanted, tells me. It's not about one single reward, treat, or 10-minute activity—like going to a meditation class, getting a manicure, or, in my case, watching the sun spill over the mountains—but instead is about "being in a relationship with yourself and being aware of yourself," she explains.
This relationship is constant—24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year—and essentially, is about treating yourself like you would a loved one, she explains. It's not one-size-fits-all, but instead, involves introspection, asking yourself hard questions, and being observant of your patterns to learn in what areas of your life you can better take care of yourself, she says.
Maintaining a 24/7 relationship sounds overwhelming, I tell her, even if it's with yourself. How can someone start to practice this type of real self-care?
Her suggestion: First, identify areas where you aren't practicing self-care. Evaluate your behaviors, especially those you may deem "bad," she says. Do you mindlessly scroll on social media every night before bed? Do you consistently buy a cookie on the car ride home from work? These actions in and of themselves aren't bad per se, but they could be masking an underlying issue. Maybe you scroll because your brain is overtaxed by work; maybe your daily cookie habit is in response to a difficult relationship dynamic at home. Whatever the case, getting to the root of the real issue and then addressing it is real self-care, she explains.
Our conversation both encouraged and overwhelmed me. On one hand, it was to comforting to realize that my self-care experiment was failing because I wasn't actually practicing self-care (at least as Cleantis Dwyer defines it) in the first place. I've long known that my brain works best in the morning, and so by jumping right into work, I'm able to capitalize on those firing neurons and set the tone for a productive day ahead. As I see it, working when I know my brain is at its best—and not working when I know I'm braindead, like in the evenings—is a form of self-care. By forcing myself to do something else during those precious early morning hours—even if that something else is as splendid as looking at the mountains—I wasn't really practicing self-care. Also, all of the rigidity I created around my self-care ritual wasn't helpful either. Because our needs fluctuate day to day, so too should our self-care, I learned.
All that said, chatting with Cleantis Dwyer also made me realize there are definitely areas in my life where I need to take a closer look at my behaviors and re-evaluate how I'm caring for myself. Clearly my increased angst didn't come out of nowhere, and I can quickly point to behaviors—like my tendency to pack my schedule to the brim, and my reality TV binge sessions—that are likely indicators of underlying issues I'm either avoiding or ignoring.
Unearthing and then upacking said issues will require introspection that felt like too big (and frankly, too overwhelming) a process to tackle in just the two weeks that remained in my experiment. So, I'll confess: I abandoned the original project halfway through with the resolve to practice more real, holistic self-care moving forward. Now I just need to do the dirty work to figure out what, exactly, that means for every area of my life.
It's something I'll be working on—slowly, but hopefully surely—in the coming weeks and months. And I'm prepared to give it more than 10 minutes a day.
If you're experiencing anxiety or overwhelming stress on a regular basis, you likely need more than self-care. Talk to your doctor or licensed therapist.