Happy Mental Health Awareness Month! This month I challenge you to ask what self-care looks like to you. I’m sure it’s different for every single person, and we may each have our own individual methods for coping with separate aspects of our mental health–I know that the way I manage my anxiety is different from the way I address my depressive episodes. But regardless, taking care of myself during these times is always an active choice.
One of the most common symptoms of depression is losing interest in things that used to bring pleasure. When my depression is most severe, I am not only lethargic, but also I find it impossible to derive joy from anything around me. The world seems to lose color, and the bleakness makes me want to hide underneath my covers. And when I stay in bed all day, I begin to ignore basic self-care and hygiene.
I’ve found that while we often hear that self-care is the key to addressing and managing our mental health, we don’t always know what it is, or what it looks like. I’ve also felt that self-care is so difficult to prioritize because there’s no one way to apply it in our daily lives.
So how do you take care of yourself, especially when you aren’t in the best place mentally and emotionally? I know that as college students, it’s easy to laugh off self-care with self-deprecating jokes about how we’re a mess or don’t have any time. I’ve learned that self-care is deliberate, and it has to be something I enjoy doing. It’s easy to convince ourselves that taking care of ourselves is selfish, that it takes us away from the present. But I’ve come to realize that if I’m not in a good mental space, I can’t be there for the people I love in the capacity I want to.
There are basic components that we adhere to in order to lead a healthy lifestyle. A balanced diet, exercising, and getting enough are at the top of that list. Self-care has to be something we choose instead of something habitual. I used to think it was ridiculous to have to specifically partition out time for myself — it wasn’t until I realized that I probably wouldn’t ever “get around” to reading that book on my shelf or writing calligraphy if I didn’t choose to make time for it.
During the school year, we all tend to be rather high strung. I have a hard time admitting that I’m stressed even when I’m stretched thin, and I have an even harder time admitting that I need a break. Once, while discussing feeling burnout with my therapist, she asked me, “Do you know how to relax?”
I scoffed and said, “Yeah, I just don’t have time to.”
I paused. Maybe it wasn’t even a matter of time. Maybe I actually just didn’t know how to relax.
For me, relaxing was always a luxury I couldn’t seem to afford. If I wasn’t studying for school, I was working up to 60 hours a week to save up money for life post-graduation. Relaxing was a foreign concept which felt parallel to weakness. At least, that’s what I’d convinced myself of.
“If you had an entire day to yourself with no responsibilities or impending deadlines,” my therapist asked me. “How would you choose to spend it?”
I remember sitting there on the couch across from her, jaw hanging slightly open as I thought long and hard. If I could do anything? That was a lot of autonomy. It was autonomy that I wasn’t used to.
“Uh…maybe play my piano,” I responded after a while.
“What else?” she asked.
“Probably finish that book I started and never finished. Do more personal writing, finally get around to that TV show my friend recommended to me. Oh, and skincare. I’d cook, or get comfort food for takeout. I’d call my grandparents, and if we’re really just talking about everything I want to do, hell, I’d go watch a sunset, too,” I told her verbatim.
“So why don’t you ever get around to any of these things?”
“I have too many other things to do that take priority in my day. And by the time I do have a spare minute, I don’t have the energy. I just want to sleep, and sometimes I don’t even get enough of that,” I laughed.
After that session, her words rolled around in my head and I started reflecting on how I used my time. I tended to alternate between extremes of working excessively or running on fumes at the verge of burnout. I would pack my schedule when I was in a decent headspace because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get anything done during my episodes. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized living this way wasn’t sustainable. When that thought hit me, I also realized then that I was always so preoccupied preparing myself for the future that I often failed to actually live in the present. As a matter of fact, I had never considered what living in the present really meant to me.
I asked myself the same question my therapist asked me. Then I asked myself, if I really wanted to, could I make time for everything I like doing?
I started with the basics when it came to prioritizing my mental self-care. I stopped responding to work emails outside of work hours. I set aside time weekly to meal prep, and I developed an exercise regimen that worked for my schedule. I also decided that the weekends would be time exclusively set aside for me and my own decisions. If I wanted to go outdoors and climb, I could. If I wanted to lie on my couch and binge Netflix all day, I let myself.
I also started to incorporate grounding exercises in my daily life. Whenever my day got stressful and I needed a minute, I gave myself permission to take a breath outside. I practiced mindfulness. It is one of the primary components of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which is a form of psychotherapy that helps people with BPD. Mindfulness is our ability to be fully aware and fully present in the space that we are in—it is a trait which humans naturally possess, but often don’t pay much attention to. While most people tend to associate mindfulness with meditation, I’ve found that the simplest way of pulling myself back to the present — especially when I’m anxious—is simply to observe my senses. When I hone in on what my senses are detecting and how it’s making me feel, I feel more grounded in reality.
When I started making time for small moments of mindfulness and self-care I became much more cognizant of how much time I do have. My mental health and the way I was raised always made me feel like I never had enough time to balance everything in my life — from work, school, family, social and romantic relationships, to myself. And because I never prioritized myself, my mental health ultimately took the greatest hit.
During moments of mindfulness, I began to notice that life seemed more manageable and less hectic. When I was in a healthier headspace, I became more present and engaged during social interactions, and slowly, I began to enjoy the things I used to. It was like rediscovering a lost part of myself, because I was more inclined to make time for self-care when I was choosing to do what I liked.
If we really pause and think about it, we have so much time ahead of us. We’ve all been raised in the hustle culture, where everything is go, go, go all the time. But our lives don’t always have to be that way. It’s probably cliche to tell you to stop once in a while and smell the flowers, but honestly, if you really wanted to, you’d have enough time to go outside and do just that.
It’s nice to finally breathe from time to time. I hope you catch a breath of fresh air soon, because I’ve learned that life is much more fulfilling that way.
Just one more column before the end of the school year! It’s the final stretch, and I hope you remember to prioritize yourself as Spring Quarter draws to an end. Take care until next month!
Ella Chen is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.