“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”― Benjamin Franklin
What pops into your mind when you hear someone talk about self-care? Laying around at a spa with your face covered in mud and sliced cucumbers with your head wrapped in fluffy white towels? Downing a bottle of white zin while re-watching Gilmore Girls for the 26th time? Laying on the couch all day in your underwear while you see how many bags of Cheetos you can smash through?
The term “self-care” gets thrown around a lot lately, often incorrectly.
Binging mindless reality tv shows all day while you repeatedly cycle through every app on your phone isn’t self-care, even if you make a status and throw a hashtag on it.
I’ve been providing therapy services since 2014, mostly to people from rural and underserved areas. Most of my clients haven’t had the money to spend on extravagant getaways or buy the latest widget. So I’ve had to develop simple, effective, affordable ways for them to practice self-care so they can regain control of their mental health.
Self-care is critical to maintaining a semblance of sanity amidst the chaotic storms of stress surrounding us every day. We can’t entirely escape stress, but we can recharge from it before it overwhelms us.
There are a lot of “gurus” out there touting bullshit forms of self-care, so I figured I’d do my part to set the record straight.
Effective self-care has three components:
- The point of self-care is to help us recover from the stress that’s continually building up in our lives. Self-care is something that, after you do it, you should feel refreshed and ready to take on the next obstacle standing in your way. If you don’t feel refreshed afterward, it’s not good self-care. Period.
- Self-care should be cheap or free. Getting a massage or going on a weekend retreat is fun but expensive, which limits how often you can do it. Your mental health and wellness should never be constrained by how much money you have.
- Self-care is something you actively do. It’s a skill that, if you practice it, you’ll improve in, which translates to other areas of your life. If you don’t come out better than you went in, it’s not self-care; it’s just mindless self-indulgence.
Here are five simple, effective, and affordable ways to practice self-care at home. I’ve used these with many of my clients, my loved ones, and I myself use to de-stress and come out better than I went in.
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”— Anne Frank
Great people throughout history, famous and average, have reaped the benefits of daily journaling. I follow Ryan Holiday’s advice and do it twice every day — first thing in the morning and right before bed.
Writing has a couple of benefits:
- Communicating an idea requires clarity. It’s easy for ideas to stay amorphous ephemera swirling around in your head like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, but writing them down requires you to grab onto them and wrestle them onto the page. This process helps you refine how you think and communicate — crucial skills for personal growth.
- It gives you practice examining your thoughts. It’s laborious but fruitful; too many people live their entire lives without taking a hard look at the thoughts they carry with them. Journaling also lets you look back at your mental state during different points in your past so you can examine how you made important decisions. Did your thought process lead to a good outcome? Cool, maybe it’ll help you in your current situation. Did it lead to catastrophe? Learn from it and move on.
Here are a few ways you can add writing to your self-care toolbox:
- Write a letter to your past self about all the lessons you’ve learned and reassure them things will turn out alright. Sometimes we get caught up in the moment — we catastrophize and believe the world as we know it will end. Think about that bad breakup you had in high school and how it felt like you’d never recover, yet here you are living life. Looking back at how much we’ve overcome can empower us and act as a reminder we can get through whatever current calamity has befallen us.
- Write a letter to your future self. Ask them questions about things you’re currently going through; this can help prime your mind to look for solutions rather than focus on the problem.
- Write a letter to a real person, then send it to them. Email and texts can’t replicate the intimacy of a hand-written note. An email isn’t a keepsake in the same way a letter with someone’s personal handwriting is. Imagine if you had a handwritten letter from someone who has since passed away; how much would you cherish it? You can give that gift now to someone you care about.
- Write an article on a platform like Medium or a personal blog about your experiences or topics you’re passionate about. You’d be surprised how many people your message would resonate with; at the end of the day, we all want connection and need to feel understood.
If blogging or journaling isn’t your thing, there’s always fanfic. Here’s the thing about writing — people only see it if you choose to show it to them. So write the fanfic you wish could be canon in your favorite story. It doesn’t have to be good, well-written, or even coherent from a story structure perspective. It’s your story! And who knows, maybe you do share it with others, and it becomes the next 50 Shades of Grey.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
You’ve probably already got books lying around. If not, they’re cheap on Amazon or free from the library. Fiction and non-fiction offer unique benefits, so vary your reading by trying out both.
Fiction takes you to different worlds. The fact I can’t cast a fireball or travel at warp speed is a truly disappointing aspect of the muggle world. Thankfully, I can travel to other realities anytime I want; all I have to do is open a book and *WHOOSH* like a portkey, I’m transported somewhere else.
You can travel down the Mississippi with Huck Finn, if you prefer more realistic fiction.
Maybe you loved watching Game of Thrones. Guess what? You can read the books. (Fun Fact: The book is almost always better than the show or movie.)
Bonus points if you start a series — because once you start, you don’t have to worry about finding something else to read — you’re already caught in the slipstream.
Here are a few of my favorite series, in case you’re looking for recommendations:
- The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini: Dragon riders, ancient elves, gem-encrusted subterranean dwarven architecture, and a magic system based on true names; a riveting trek through the land of Alagaesia.
- The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling: If you don’t know what J.K. Rowling’s magnum opus of a series is, you’re clearly a time-traveler from the past or have just emerged from a subterranean existence. Either way, do yourself a favor and pick up this series.
- The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind: One of the most powerful wizards in the land, a woods guide with a magical sword that gives him immense powers from all who’ve wielded it before him, and a woman with the power to utterly and irrevocably dominate the free will of anyone she touches — and that’s just the main party. Add in a dark lord intent on opening the “Boxes of Orden,” that have the potential to either give him dominion over the world, kill everyone, or kill himself. And that’s just the first book in the series — Wizard’s First Rule. Pick up the series and buckle in for an emotional rollercoaster.
Non-fiction helps you gain knowledge about the world. You can learn about the life of Theodore Roosevelt and his death-defying trek through the Amazon river or pick up something on your favorite serial killer.
Maybe history isn’t your thing. You can learn about business, philosophy, astronomy, or another topic. There are metric tons-worth of books at your disposal. And each one will help you grow as a person in some way.
Here are some books I’ve read recently:
- On Writing by Stephen King: This is a popular book about the craft of writing and storytelling. If you like Stephen King, or are curious about how great writers approach their craft, King does a great job describing his thought process behind some of his most prominent stories. The book is also replete with advice on writing and life, and filled with King’s unique voice throughout. Insightful, enjoyable, and a modern classic.
- The Lean Startup by Eric Reis: This business book has revolutionized the way many entrepreneurs approach their businesses. It describes how to maximize efficiency to reduce wasting time and money on things that ultimately don’t move the needle forward, how to iterate quickly based on feedback, and how to focus on what matters instead of getting caught up in “vanity metrics.”
- The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday: We all have obstacles in our lives. Instead of seeing obstacles as something to be avoided or overcome, this book teaches you how to leverage the obstacles in your way into triumph and success. It’s full of practical and entertaining stories of how this philosophy has helped people throughout history achieve success; one of my favorites is the story about the “Banana King.”
No time or money to read?
If you think you don’t have the time or money, Ryan Holiday has some good advice:
“Do you know how much time you waste during the day? Conference calls, meetings, TV shows that you don’t really like but watch anyway. Well, if you can make time for that you can make time for reading. (Or better, just swap those activities for books).”
“The purpose of reading is not just raw knowledge. It’s that it is part of the human experience. It helps you find meaning, understand yourself, and make your life better.”
“Whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point. Benefit from that perspective.”
You don’t have to be a fast reader to enjoy books. The longer it takes you to read something, the more time you spend in that world or learning that concept. There’s nothing wrong with that. Go at your own pace and enjoy the journey.
“Allow yourself to enjoy each happy moment in your life.”― Steve Maraboli
Mindfulness isn’t woo woo “guru” stuff. It’s an evidence-based secular practice, meaning it works well, and you don’t have to be trying to reach enlightenment to reap its benefits, which include decreased stress, improved memory, improved mental clarity, cognitive flexibility, and improved overall quality of life.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be sitting on a poof chanting “Om” over and over, although that’s one way to do it.
Practicing mindfulness is about focusing your awareness on the present moment. A great introductory book is The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh. One of the examples he gives is how you can wash your dishes mindfully:
As you wash your dishes, focus on your senses: the smell of the soap, the sound of the water running, the texture of the dish as you run your hands over it or the temperature of the water, how the light glimmers off the dish as the water runs off it.
This is the opposite of how we typically do the dishes, where our mind is everywhere but in the present moment. What am I going to eat later? I wonder if anyone still remembers that time in high school I sat in melted chocolate and walked around all day with a big brown spot on my pants. I wonder how much I’d weigh if I stood on the moon.
Depression lives in the past: we rehash negative experiences and feel defeated and worthless all over again. Anxiety lives in the future: we worry and catastrophize with “what if” types of thinking. But the present can be our refuge; we just have to train our mind to focus our awareness on the here-and-now; practicing mindfulness is how we do this.
You can also practice mindfulness by taking a bath, making a cup of coffee or tea, or throwing on a guided meditation video and playing along. You can mindfully do any activity you’re already doing. It shouldn’t cost you any money to practice, but doing it will earn you something money can’t buy: peace of mind and control over your thoughts.
“Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”― Edward Stanley
Before you groan, just hear me out. I’m not saying exercise to get ripped. When I recommend exercise to my therapy clients, it’s not about getting stronger or leaner. I recommend it because it has significant benefits for your mental health too.
Psychologists call it “behavioral activation,” which roughly translates to “get off your ass and do something.” Moving, being active, doing a few pushups, taking a couple of laps around your block, doing some yoga poses, vigorously vacuuming your living room as you belt out the lyrics to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — these can all release endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin in your brain which leads to you feeling better mentally and physically.
It also, paradoxically, increases your energy levels and improves your sleep.
There are a ton of free videos online you can follow, if you need someone to guide you through a workout. Or you can just throw on some music and dance like nobody’s watching.
So move your ass and thank me later.
Find a Hobby
“The best hobbies are the ones that take us furthest from our primary occupation.”― Vogel on Dexter
Yes, some hobbies (coin or card collecting) can be money pits, but there are plenty of cheap options.
Crocheting and knitting require a hook or two needles, and some yarn; that’s it. Cross-stitching requires thread, a needle, fabric, and a frame.
These three hobbies can easily take up hours at a time where you’re in a flow state which, to quote Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book Flow, involves:
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Think of flow like a heightened form of mindfulness. You’re not focusing on being mindful, but you get so caught up in the activity itself that everything around you — all the stress and distractions — melt away and you’re left in the moment, hyper-aware of only what’s immediately in front of you.
Here’s a short list of some other cheap hobby ideas:
- Baking — here’s my current favorite recipe for Brazilian cheese buns (aka, pao de queijo)
- Penmanship or calligraphy — I use an entry-level (aka, cheap) fountain pen for my daily journaling to combine two forms of self-care on this list.
- Watercolor painting
- Card tricks
Don’t see anything you like? Then search online for more ideas; you’ll come across something intriguing eventually.
Self-care is critical for our mental wellness and overall quality of life, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. Everyone’s self-care looks different, so try out some of these and see which ones fit your interests and needs.
Let me know which ones work for you, either from this list or ones you’ve discovered on your own!