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Self Care 101

Self care is the art of looking after oneself. This can be as simple as taking time out to read a book or have a nice, relaxing bath. However, there are also people who, due to physical or psychological barriers, frequently need to engage in self care activities in order to get by day to day. Simple self care techniques can help with executive dysfunction, can ease anxiety, make daily tasks more manageable for people with low energy levels, and can improve your general mental health and wellbeing. It’s important for everyone to engage in self care from time to time, regardless of what mental state you are currently in.

As someone who has multiple disorders and mental illnesses, self care has become a vital part of my daily life, although it has taken a great deal of time and effort to find what specific techniques work best for me. I have compiled a list of things that I personally find to be incredibly effective, particularly for symptoms such as lack of motivation and/or energy, negative thinking patterns, panic attacks, executive dysfunction, poor concentration and distractibility. However, not everybody will respond to certain activities in the same way. I suggest using this piece as a starting point; you may find that some tasks work for you but not others, or that you may need to modify some of the tasks to suit your specific needs. You might even find that none of the tasks work for you, and that’s perfectly okay! Maybe try thinking about why they don’t work and creating your own self care techniques based on that, or jump on google and search for other ideas.

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The Hug Bucket

Humans thrive on physical contact. It is a proven fact that simple physical contact can vastly improve your mental health, and people in general don’t get as much contact as they should. Infants can actually die from not receiving enough touch.

A simple and effective way to ensure you are getting a substantial amount of physical affection is to visualise a bucket. Whenever you receive a hug, that hug goes into the bucket. If you don’t get enough, the bucket becomes empty. This also helps you to become more assertive about the amount of physical affection you’re receiving. Instead of passively waiting for physical contact, you can ask for it. Explain to your friends and family about the hug bucket, so you can say, “Can I have a hug? My hug bucket is empty”. Obviously, make sure you are asking for consent first! Other people’s hug buckets might be full, in which case they may not particularly want to engage in physical contact.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be about hugs, either. If you don’t particularly enjoy physical contact, you can envision a “high-five bucket” or a “sitting in close proximity to another person but not actually touching bucket”. Remember, it’s your personal bucket, so what goes into it and to what capacity is completely up to you.

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Safety Words

The concept of triggers and trigger warnings are becoming more prominent in today’s society, which is a great thing. A trigger is something that can cause strong, visceral reactions, such as panic attacks or trauma flashbacks (this is not to be confused with a “squick” – something that makes you feel uncomfortable but won’t necessarily provoke a physical or psychological reaction). As such, trigger warnings are often given when a subject matter that may be triggering is about to be spoken about, giving anyone involved time to prepare themselves, or exit the situation if that’s required. However, it is rare for trigger warnings to be given in every day situations, and even if they were, there a lot of people who have what’s known as “obscure” triggers; that is, words and subjects that might not be commonly thought as triggering, but hold personal significance to the individual. So how do you avoid becoming triggered in everyday situations, especially if your triggers are obscure?

Something I’ve taken to doing is using a safety word. Commonly associated with BDSM, a safety word is a specific word that signifies the individual is feeling uncomfortable with the current situation. A good safety word is one that would not come up in every day conversation; the one I’ve started using is “forsooth”.

If you explain your safety word to whomever you feel comfortable disclosing the information to, then whenever a topic is brought up that could potentially be triggering, you can use the word. This means that people around will know they’ve brought up a sensitive subject, and change the topic immediately. The good thing about safety words is that they demand respect and immediate action, and generally mean you don’t have to explain why a particular topic is triggering if you don’t wish to.

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Stimming

“Stimming” is the process of stimulating your senses in a calming way. It is a technique that is commonly used for people with anxiety, autism and/or ADHD, but can be effective for just about anyone. The idea is to isolate a particular sense that you find to be enjoyable or soothing, and use it as a distraction in potentially overwhelming situations. There are many examples of this; there are scented necklaces, chewable necklaces, and textured toys and blankets to name a few. There are also what’s known as “fidget” toys and jewellary, such as rings that spin, for those who have difficulty sitting still.

There are multiple websites that sell stim toys and jewellary, which I will include below, but if you can’t afford to buy items specifically for stimming, there are many simple ways to do so on your own. It’s all about finding what works for you. For example, I have one side of my head shaved, and I often find myself rubbing that side because I find the texture and sensation incredibly calming, and it helps me focus on whatever task I’m trying to complete (I may or may not have spent the majority of the time it took to write this paragraph intermittently rubbing my head!). Another thing I find helps me is looking at bright, vibrantly coloured images. It doesn’t matter what the image is of; it’s the colours that are the important thing. Whenever I come across a beautifully coloured image, I save it to a folder simply named “colours”, so I can look through it whenever I need.

The fantastic thing about stimming is that there are limitless ways to engage your senses. If you have a soft toy that is a particularly soothing texture, chuck it in a bag so you can access it wherever you are, and if you’re ever feeling anxious or overwhelmed, just stroke or hug the toy. Do you have a favourite scent? If you have access to that scent, keep some with you in a bottle, or rub a tiny bit under your nose before going out.

There’s a good chance you’ve stimmed before without even realising it. Do you have a favourite song, playlist or soundtrack that you listen to when you’re stressed? Or a “nervous habit” you often do without realising, such as wringing your hands or biting your finger nails? That could be considered stimming!

[ Suggested stim jewellary/toy websites:

http://www.stimtastic.co/

https://www.therapyshoppe.com/ ]

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Motivation And Rewards

Particularly when living with mental illness, sometimes the hardest thing is simply to feel motivated. Whether it’s to do that incredibly boring assignment, attend those yoga classes you’ve been really looking forward to but haven’t gotten around to actually locking in yet, or even just to get out of bed in the morning. Everyone suffers from a lack of motivation at some point; whether for something specific or for absolutely everything in your daily life. The trick is to find ways to get that motivation back.

For me personally, I’ve found that turning simple tasks into a game or competition is a sure fire way to get me to do them. I was recently recommended the Habitica app by a friend; if you don’t know it, it allows you to create various checklists and awards you experience and gold for completing the tasks you set. From there, you can go on various quests, equip and outfit your little character and even adopt pets. And, if you have friends who also have the app, you can join up with them and form parties to complete quests together and keep each other on track. 

There are three different types of checklists you can have: your daily checklist, which will send you reminders for whatever daily tasks you feel you need a little nudge with (for me, that’s basically everything from “brush teeth” to “do something creative”); your “habits”, where you can list anything and everything you want to continually accomplish that’s not necessarily on a daily basis (reading, writing and Pokemon Go are the ones I’ve ticked off most frequently); and your “to-do” list, for those one off or rare tasks. With each task you set, you can also determine the difficulty, and the harder things are the more rewards you get! For example, I’ve got listed “water plants” as trivial – since I’m technically referring to a different app I have on my phone and not actual, living plants – and “laundry” as hard because there’s literally nothing I want to do less in life.

While Habitica is great, I’m well aware that it is something that not everybody will have access to, but the concept is still the same: find a system of motivation and reward that works for you. You don’t need a smartphone to write a checklist, and if you’re good at self direction you can work out your own reward, whether that’s allowing yourself your favourite junk food or just affording yourself time out to relax and do something you enjoy once all your tasks have been checked off. And if you’re NOT good at self direction (like me!), there are ways around that as well. Before I got Habitica, I used to make checklists and send them to a friend, then notify them every time I completed a task. That friend didn’t actually have to do anything, besides receive my constant updates; I didn’t expect them to hound me or constantly check in on my progress. Just knowing that someone else was aware of my goals was enough to motivate me to complete them. For me, although it’s probably not the best way of thinking, I sometimes feel like if I break a promise to myself, it’s a victimless crime; whereas if I’ve told someone else of my plans, even if it doesn’t affect them, there is another person there to witness my apparent “failings” or shortcomings. I guess I’m just a naturally competitive person.

[ Want to jump on the Habitica bandwagon? Go for it: https://habitica.com/static/front ]

Learn Not To Compare Yourself To Others

Now I’m aware that this particular point might sound more like a general piece of life advice rather than an actual self-care technique, but in reality, it’s both. We are trained from a very young age to compare ourselves to those around us, through schooling, work, hobbies and almost every aspect of life. It becomes inherent and internalised, and it takes a considerable amount of self reflection and mental training to be able to unlearn this problematic concept.

The first step is to acknowledge that every person is different and has a different story. My first truly memorable experience of this was when I joined a calisthenics team in primary school. It was roughly around Year 3, and I had made a friend who introduced me to it. Up until that point, I had never heard of calisthenics before, but I had always been interested in dance and drama so it seemed like the perfect activity for me. I was so excited to join the club, but when I got there I found that most of the girls had been doing calisthenics since “Munchkins” – preschool. You can imagine how inferior I felt coming in as an already long-in-the-tooth, one-foot-in-the-grave eight year old! I lacked a lot of the basic skills, such as timing, coordination, and most of all, flexibility. And as much as I loved getting to learn them all and having the opportunity to perform, I couldn’t help but feel humiliated by how far behind the rest of the team I was.

This is a feeling that everyone experiences at one point in their life; like they’re coming in to an already well-established and talented club with less than basic training. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that it really wasn’t fair of me to try to compare myself to those other cali girls when they had been doing it far longer than me, but in the moment it’s hard to put that logic into practice. But it’s not just experience that comes into play here; every person’s body is built differently, and sometimes there are things that a body simply cannot do. I’ve learnt that there are certain areas of my body that just aren’t flexible, no matter how hard I train. After three years of calisthenics, two years of contemporary dance and eight years of circus, I have still never been able to do a full split. My body is just not built for it. I’ve found that I’m incredibly flexible and fit in other ways, but for some reason my feet just simply don’t want to be that far apart. Being able to accept your limitations and focus on your strengths is a large part of training your brain not to compare yourself to others. Once again, this is easier said than done and will take some time and willingness to work on it.

Another factor to consider is mental capacity. Not only are our bodies all built different, but our brains are too. We all have different talents, different fears, different learning techniques, different coping strategies. It’s important to recognise this and learn to focus on what works best for you personally, rather than what everyone else is doing. Unfortunately, we have a school system that more often than not reinforces the idea that we should all be on the same page. While there are definitely some programs available to help children with learning disabilites, there is often not enough focus on individual progress. I was lucky enough to attend a primary school that focused less on the overall, bell-curve achievement concept and promoted aiming for a “PB” – personal best. Admittedly, at the time I thought this was really naff, although as I’ve grown older I can appreciate the value of it. But even still, I could see the ideology of needing to be, at the very least, just as good as everyone else setting in, and more importantly I could see the affect that it was having on my fellow classmates. It is an unfortunate fact that a lot of children with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia or similar learning disabilities or disorders feel as though they are “stupid” because, in some aspects, they are unable to “keep up” with the other students. Whether you have a learning disability or not, after 13 years of being subconsciously subjected to this ideology, it can be incredibly difficult to break that pattern of thinking.

While being able to acknowledge and accept your limitations is a big step towards being able to change this way of thinking, perhaps an even more difficult one is learning to be unaffected by what other people think of you. Because unfortunately, while you may be making a valiant effort to realise it is unrealistic and detrimental to compare yourself to others, not everyone will have come to the same conclusion. A large part of this is having the strength to separate yourself from toxic people or people with toxic views. This can be especially difficult if that person is a family member or close friend, but surrounding yourself with supportive and accepting people is a key step to being able improve your mental wellbeing. On the flip side, something equally as important as being able to be unaffected by other people’s judgements is realising that a lot of the time, those judgements simply don’t exist. If you perceive yourself as having a specific shortcoming, then often you will be focused on that particular aspect of yourself, and as a result will believe that everyone else will be focused on it as well. A personal example of this is the fact that I have quite severe aquaphobia, to the point where simple, every day hygiene becomes a literal nightmare for me. This was something I used to be quite embarrassed about, and would often try to cover up, but I was constantly paranoid that somehow people would find out. I was paranoid that everyone around me perceived me as dirty and smelly. What would people think of me if they found out that I had panic attacks when I tried to shower?!

But do you know what the answer to that was? Absolutely nothing. Nobody cared! Nobody found me dirty or smelly, nobody cared when the last time I showered was, or how much it made me panic. If anything, they were proud of me for maintaining my personal hygiene despite this debilitating fear. That in turn lead me to be able to be proud of myself, too. But even if I wasn’t comfortable disclosing that information, if hypothetically I hadn’t told anybody about it (or written about it in a public article), who would ever have to know that in Habitica I set the difficulty level for “showering” to hard, or that I actively have to set reminders to myself to brush my teeth twice daily (which is also set to hard)? One of the most refreshing parts of learning not to compare yourself to others is realising that in the end, the only person who is really aware of and cares about your limitations is yourself. And anyone who does make you feel bad for those limitations probably doesn’t deserve to be in your life in the first place.

It’s human nature to perceive life as a running race, but in reality all this will achieve is to make you feel like you are constantly falling behind, or to drive yourself to the point of exhaustion in trying to stay ahead. I think it’s much more accurate to view life as a playground. You might be perfectly happy playing on the swings and just the swings. You might be afraid of heights and prefer the merry-go-rounds instead. You might love climbing on the monkey bars, even if you always fall off. You might want to try out everything and get bored if you stick to the same thing for too long. Or you might prefer to lie in the grass and watch the sky or the other kids playing. In the end, it’s all about accepting your own limitations and capabilities and doing what you enjoy.

Written by K.C.

Illustrated by Charlie Osborne