Most initial thoughts of self-care are pampering yourself, being wrapped in a cozy blanket or even possibly binge-watching Netflix. Self-care extends well beyond the simple gestures of caring for your physical self but into overall wellbeing. Sadly, this can be complicated for some individuals as these moments of self-kindness can be a struggle. It can feel anxiety-inducing, undeserved, uncomfortable and rough. I hope to be able to help challenge those feelings while also offering some options to explore in your environment.
To begin, what does self-care actually mean?
Self-care is defined as the practice of acting to preserve or improve one's health. It can be any activity we do deliberately to take care of our own mental, emotional and physical health.
If self-care sounds so easy, deserving and healing, why is it so difficult to practice?
For those who have been affected by trauma, self-care may not come easy. Trauma in itself is complex and is known to have an impact on self-perception. To elaborate, the effect of multiple, repeated, and prolonged exposure to trauma or overwhelming experiences in childhood can lead to the disruptions to affect regulation, disturbed attachment patterns, rapid behavioural regressions and shifts in an emotional state. The repetition of the activation of the stress response system can impair an individual's self-regulation and affect modulation and rupture the individual's capacity to tolerate or contain emotions appropriately. The lack of affect regulation means that the individual has a hard time self-soothe leading to a sense of feeling numb or overwhelmed.
For those who have experienced recurrent childhood trauma, they may often feel like they are left with a negative self-concept and negative-world view. The trauma in itself can make the person feel terrible, worthless, shameful, and even the one to blame. With this, there is a loss of autonomy, possible feelings of aggression against self and others, and failure to achieve developmental competencies later in life. It is also associated with loss of bodily regulation such as sleep, food and self-care.
Living after experiencing trauma is a challenging journey, but it is also empowering. The trauma in itself can act as a glimmer for you to learn how to better engage in self-regulation and self-care behaviours. It can also give you access to connect with others who have experienced trauma and who may have been where you are. In this, it is validating to know that the process of healing can occur out of therapy.
Here are a few tips that can help you on your healing journey.
Eating: What we eat can have a significant impact on our physical health but also emotional wellbeing. It can be helpful to eat regular, healthy and balanced meals by focusing on our Canada's Food Guide. Eating healthy is more than the food you eat but about where, when, why and how you eat. Here are a few ideas:
Incorporate mindfulness in your eating habits;
Cook foods you enjoy more often;
Cook meals with friends, family and loves ones;
Eat meals with others.
Get adequate sleep: Getting enough sleep is another essential self-caring act as it is just as important as eating and drinking enough water. Once you begin to develop your regular sleep habits, consider including the following guidelines:
Don't nap during the day; get exercise every day;
Reduce evening activities that disturb your sleep (caffeine, alcohol, watching TV);
Develop a bedtime routine (calming drink, face washing, teeth brushing);
Go to bed at the same time every night (for example, before 11 pm) and wake up at the same time every morning;
If you are having a difficult time sleeping and you are not asleep within 30 minutes, get up and do something rather than lying there tossing and turning (repeat as necessary).
Breathe: The technique of breathing can be a subtle sensation when faced with powerful emotion. With time and practice, breathing techniques can become an ever-present skill to have and an alternative focal point. When you focus your attention on your breath, breathing will usually slow down, which in turn slows down the heart rate and mind "chatter".
Positive affirmations: Have you notice how in your mind there's an inner critical voice possible putting you down or criticizing you? While experiencing trauma during childhood, the thought patterns may have been programmed to have destructive automatic thoughts due to being affected by abusing words or actions that had taken place. These critical thoughts can stimulate self-sabotage and hold you back from embracing all the power and agency you have to rebuild your life. Positive affirmations can help your inner critical voice. Daily positive affirmation can gently interrupt the pattern of ruminating over such harsh comments by replacing the toxic thought with a loving one. Hence, this should be tailored to your particular experience and thoughts. The implication of this can help you rewrite the narrative that may have been written for you from your abuser.
Harvard Health Publishing. 2009. Sleep and mental health: Sleep deprivation can affect your mental health. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health
Health Canada. 2019. Canada’s Food Guide: Healthy Eating Recommendations. Retrieved from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/
Sanderson, C., 2010. Introduction To Counselling Survivors Of Interpersonal Trauma. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Urquhart, C. and Jasiura, F., 2013. Trauma-Informed Practice Guide. Victoria, B.C.: BC Provincial Mental Health and Substance Use Planning Council.