When I was growing up, self-care wasn’t even a thing.
I grew up in a town with an excellent public school system, and where most people have access to healthcare and leisure time. Even in that incredibly privileged context, I never encountered the idea that people can choose to take care of themselves.
I didn’t encounter the idea of self-care until many years later, when I was working on my PhD at Duke and attempting to get relief from PTSD.
One therapist mentioned that self-care is a basic way to rebuild your energy, improve your mood, and function better. It’s a survival skill.
She was a specialist in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), which is a field of psychology that focuses more heavily on behavior. Just as our mood can affect our behavior, our behavior can affect our mood.
She also suggested that people can (and should) use rewards for behavior that is difficult but values-based. An example of difficult values-based behavior might be doing your taxes, preparing for final exams, or writing a final paper.
These tasks are clearly unpleasant but have obvious benefits for long-term success. Even though finals are boring, stressful, and depleting, we deal with exams because we want that college degree and the privilege that comes with it.
The problem is that when we are always thinking of the future, our current selves get very tired.
It’s a good idea to have a collection of self-care activities waiting for you when you have the time. I know college is a very busy time, and that it can be overwhelming. We can’t afford to take a month off, even if we really want and need it.
We can definitely afford to spend 5 minutes on self-care. Even if you are in the midst of finals week, I challenge you to find 5 minutes for yourself today.
Then, try to find 5 minutes for yourself every day. When you are ready, start inserting 5 minutes of self-care throughout your day, whenever you feel depleted and need a little boost.
If you have days or weeks when you can find more than 5 minutes at a time, go for it! 5 minutes is not a limit – it’s a minimum.
When I first started self-care, I struggled to know what activities would be comforting, enjoyable, or worthwhile. Here are a few favorites to get you started!
Coloring Books and Pretty Pens
I was on the fence about adult coloring books when they exploded in popularity a few years back. DBT therapists recommended this to me as a way of practicing mindfulness, but I was skeptical because I’d had some bad reactions to mindfulness.
As a trauma survivor, I found mindfulness that is focused on the body to be overwhelming and very upsetting. Many therapists and online mental health publications don’t like to admit that mindfulness can be triggering.
If you have a trauma history like I do, I recommend mindfulness techniques that focus outward. For example, you can try to focus on the movement of the pen as you draw, or you could focus on the feeling of the pen against the paper, or on the colors filling up the page. You can also try this with a pretty object (I finally caved and bought myself crystals for this purpose).
I’m a fan of coloring books by Zoé De Las Cases, an illustrator whose drawings have a beautiful, recognizable hand-drawn look.
I own Secret Paris, which is full of cute things like macarons and little jars of mustard, but you might also appreciate Secret New York, New York Street Style, Tokyo Street Style, or Paris Street Style.
For coloring, I recommend Staedtler Triplus Fineliner colored pens because they come in a fine tip and a lot of colors. Stabilo colored pens are another favorite in the stationary world, though I haven’t had a chance to test them.
Pens tend to bleed through the page a bit, so if that bothers you, try Derwent Studio colored pencils, Derwent Inktense colored pencils, or Prismacolor Premier colored pencils. These products are considered artist-quality and will be a pleasure to use.
I’ve written more extensively about my morning tea routines in my article, How to Relax, so this is the short version. Matcha, mint, and rose tea are all worth trying. If you have problems with high heart rate or anxiety, skip the matcha due to the caffeine content, and go with calming mint or comforting rose bud tea instead.
Some rose teas have additional caffeinated ingredients (such as actual tea) so you’ll want to read the label carefully if that’s important to you. The brand of plain rose buds I bought isn’t currently available.
The goal is not to chug the tea while doing other things. Use it as an excuse to take five minutes for yourself.
Take a walk
I’m a fan of free things. Sometimes you’re broke and you need a break. If that’s you, fresh air is a gift that is always available if your city or town is relatively unpolluted.
If you’re reading this during the pandemic, please don’t be an asshole – wear a mask during your walk. It’s not just for others – it protects you, too! I know it’s a pain in the ass, and I don’t like them either, but you can save a life, and last time I checked, saving lives is a big deal. Get a cute one if it motivates you, or pretend you’re a sexy video game assassin.
Wear. That. Mask.
Have a bite of chocolate
Chocolate is on my list of true loves along with sunlight, hand-dyed yarn, wooden spoons, and Kang Haneul.
In case you didn’t know, you can get high quality Belgian chocolate in bulk on Amazon. Yeah, I was excited too. Get the bitter stuff if you want some iron and magnesium in your treat 😊
I bought the giant brick but you can also get Callebaut chocolate callets, which are similar to chips (technically, they melt more easily). They’re a little easier to manage for things like snacks or trail mix.
I look for excuses to knit throughout the day. I thought it was just a crazy passion, but it turns out that knitting can calm your nervous system and your heart rate.
This one probably deserves its own post. Whenever online articles tell me to journal, I roll my eyes and think, “how? about what? have you ever really solved anything that way?”
If you’re anti-journaling, by all means – skip it. Or journal about how much you hate journaling. But if you’re open to it, it can be a good way to process emotion. If nothing else, you’re honoring your emotions by spending some time writing about them, and that’s significantly healthier than stuffing your emotions inside until you feel as dead as a taxidermied deer.
If you are looking for a lightweight notebook with really nice paper, a friend of mine likes Moleskine Cahier. It comes in a set of three, so you can use one for journaling and the other two for school.
Punch a pillow
If you have anger you don’t know what to do with, don’t wait until you explode and yell at someone you love. Get it out of your system safely. If you are alone, punching a pillow can allow you to express and process anger without hurting yourself or anyone else.
Do not punch a pillow in front of another person unless you have asked for their consent. Even though you aren’t physically hurting them, punching a pillow can upset other people, which is why I’m asking you to please be considerate of your loved ones.
The other option is to get all the people in your household together on a day when you’re calm, tell them you’ve had a hard time lately, and see if they’re open to everyone punching their own pillow.
Throw some socks
This is another safe way to express anger, but again, please ask the consent of the people around you before you start tossing laundry.
To make sure you don’t startle the people around you, try this script:
“Hey, I learned an anger-management technique that involves throwing socks, and could really use that technique right now. Are you cool if I throw some socks at the wall?”
Or just throw those socks when you’re alone. Again, please be considerate of your loved ones. Tell them you are processing anger, and give them the chance to leave the room if they don’t particularly want to see you fight with your laundry. Don’t just start throwing things, which can be scary for other people near you.
Tear some paper
This one is weirdly satisfying, and other than die-hard minimalists, most of us have scrap paper or junk mail lying around. I like to tear paper into very tiny strips. You can imagine that you are tearing up your stress so it can’t bother you, or you can even pretend the paper is finals week. Have fun, and sweep up afterwards 😊
Pop some bubble wrap
A lot of people like to pop bubble wrap, but I can’t recommend buying bubble wrap just to pop it (the environmental cost of bubble wrap doesn’t seem worth it). Instead, you might like to try a sensory toy for popping bubbles. It’s made of silicone and can be popped as many times as you’d like. And yes, it will still be wrapped in plastic packaging, like most items these days, but it’s so much better than buying a big roll of single-use plastic bubble wrap.
Self-care supports mental health but is NOT a substitute for medical care. If you are struggling with mood, sleep, addiction, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts, please contact your health care provider. In a psychiatric emergency, call your local emergency phone number or go to your nearest emergency department.
Image credit: Gordon Plant