Mental Health, Self-care

Pillars of self-care for when you’ve been neglecting yourself

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During periods of stress, the first thing I stop doing is taking care of myself and my basic needs. Even the most basic elements of self-care, like, you know, feeding myself, take second (more like fourth or fifth) place after all the other things I “have” to do.

Do that long enough and you may start forgetting what you need to feel good altogether.

And when you forget what you need to simply feel good, it makes it that much harder for you to give yourself those things you need to feel better (or thrive). This inevitably takes a toll on your mental and physical health.

You may not even realize that you are neglecting yourself because you actually forgot what self-care looks and feels like.

You think it’s normal to neglect some, if not all, of your most basic needs.

There is nothing admirable about consistently neglecting yourself or denying yourself the essential things you need to flourish as a human. Not even “for” others

I know, it can be particularly hard to take care of yourself when you are depressed, at the end of your rope, or emotionally and physically exhausted. And it can seem easier to just blame others for your self-neglecting habits.

But there is nothing commendable about consistently neglecting your most important needs in order to (or so you think) take care of others. Especially if you’re gonna end up blaming others for your misery.

Related post: Victim or martyr: the one mindset shift you need to change your life

The truth is, self-care is scary and hard.

When you don’t know what you need or where to start, self-care can seem and feel just as frustrating and pointless as chasing a ghost.

It can also be tempting to blame your self-neglect on a “stressful period”. The problem is, at times it seems like I’m always in periods of stress and it’s probably the same for you.

That’s how one day you wake up and realize that this stressful “period” has been going on for years, and you haven’t taken care of yourself in a decade.

So, where exactly do you begin to practice self-care when you are lost, sick, depressed, or alone? What are some of the most basic steps you can take to practice self-care for your mental health?

What is self-care?

self-care definition

I see three important elements in this definition:

  1. Taking an active role
  2. in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness
  3. In particular during periods of stress.

You could say that self-care is about choice and responsibility. The responsibility you have toward yourself to protect your own well-being ESPECIALLY when things are so hard you feel tempted to let yourself go.

Self-care is also a commitment to action: you have to take an active role in making it happen.

This definition highlights everything I was doing wrong with self-care. For starters, I was waiting for it to happen on its own, or for other people to take care of me.

And secondly, self-care was out the window as soon as anything else showed up. I was (and still am) the one putting everything else ABOVE my basic needs and my happiness during periods of stress.

This leaves me with the third important element of this definition: happiness and well-being. What exactly are our basic needs and what do each of us need to be happy?

If you don’t know what happiness looks like for you specifically, it makes it that much harder to identify the most basic elements of self-care you need to attain and maintain this happiness.

Of course, we all need shelter, food, and sleep, and if you are confused about your own basic self-care needs, that’s a good place to start.

But that’s not all there is to it.

basics of self-care fro mental health

The basics of self-care… why does it matter?

Changing your life, or simply building a good life for yourself is just like building a house. Yes, it’s fun to pick out cute curtains and wallpaper, but you have to start with the foundations. And preferably, solid foundations.

That’s because your house will i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-y be exposed to external elements (and/or disasters) that will weaken it. Or even lead to its total collapse.

But, the stronger your foundations, the stronger the house.

Well, self-care is the foundation of your life. If you are an optimal human both physically and emotionally, you are more apt to face challenges and help others.

And how do you become an optimal human? You do so by taking an active role in protecting your own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.

The problem is: even when you learn a lesson, you forget.

Because the (sad) truth is, even if you know what you need to do to take care of yourself, it does not mean that you don’t fail or face setbacks.

And even if you’ve found the way out once, does not automatically imply that you will remember the way a second or third time.

So, when you find yourself back in a phase of self-neglect, you may need to consciously remind yourself of the most basic elements of self-care you need to find your way back to your happy place.

My perfect trifecta when it comes to self-care and mental health:

Eat, Run and Write

self-care and mental health
Source: World Health Organization

It took me over a year of consistently prioritizing and working on my mental and physical health to finally get a glimpse of what my most basic needs in terms of self-care were.

Related post: 26 habits that helped me overcome depression without medication

These are the things I need to do DAILY to maintain healthy, consistent habits to take care of my mental health and live a better, more fruitful life. Things I have to do when I lose focus of what matters and start to feel overwhelmed by all the other things I have to do.

For me, the pillars of self-care are: eat, run, write.

In that order.

(I should, however, add a fourth one: mindset. But more on that later).

Now, this may sound pretty straightforward, but it’s not that easy to put into practice.

The reason for that is there a many, many bottle-necks or daily challenges that emerge (and quickly accumulate) throughout the day that make these seemingly simple elements a real challenge for me.

Also, I’m just lazy. And human.

That’s how inevitably when things start going well for me (i.e., I get some momentum), I guess I become sort of “cocky” and slowly start to neglect (and later, forget) those basic elements of self-care.

Without noticing it, I find myself again and again in a position where I have to search for and remind myself of the basic things I need to feel ‘okay’ in life.

And I’m left having to start all over again in this never-ending dance of self-care, finding balance, and dropping the ball.

And just so we’re clear, these are the elements of self-care that constitute a base for me. I just thought perhaps this list might inspire you.

I encourage you to figure out what constitutes a base for you through your own trial and error.

On a side note: I won’t get into the why (as in why these needs specifically?). That is a topic for another post. But I will get into the how: how I meet or fail to meet those needs daily.

The 16 basic elements of self-care I need at all times for a well-balanced mental and physical health

A- Eat

Basics of self-care_Eat

You would think that I would start off talking about food.

Well, no.

Eating well for me starts with this:

1. Clean dishes

Ah. Dirty dished. My beast. The biggest obstacle to my consistently maintaining a proper diet. And one of the biggest, most permanent pains in my butt.

Dirty dishes (or my constant refusal to do them) are one of the things that hurt my efforts the most, to this day. 

I know, I know. Boohoo. First World problems.

Still, a problem for me.

I hate cooking and I hate doing the dishes.

Sometimes it seems like I’m always either thinking about food, cooking the food, or cleaning up the mess.

I have a very specific diet (more details to come), and so I (have to) cook a lot. As a result, the pile of dirty dishes in my sink never seems to decrease.

It gets on my nerves so much that I sometimes skip a day of doing the dishes. Well, and since I have a tiny apartment, this leads to more dirty dishes the next day that quickly leads to dirty dishes on the countertops, tables, and even the floor.

This then leads to even more denial on my part; another day passes, more dirty dishes….

You get the picture.

One of the most (if not THE most) basic steps I have to take every day for proper self-care is to do my dishes EVERYDAY, no matter what.

A pile of dirty dishes in my kitchen is a pretty good telltale sign that I’m neglecting myself, my mental health, and my most basic needs (i.e., eating right).  

2. Have healthy appropriate food ready to eat/aka meal prep and follow my diet every day with NO exceptions

I follow a very specific diet. One of the best things I’ve done for my mental health AND dealing with the pain of Rheumatoid arthritis is switch to the Wahls diet.

This is my most true, most basic need in terms of self-care: eating the right type of food in adequate quantities.

But in order to cook said food in my tiny kitchen, I need clear space and clean dishes.

I hate cooking so much, if I have to do the dishes for an hour before I can even begin to think of something to cook, then I won’t do it.

I will just procrastinate, and eat crap.

The other way to ensure I eat properly is to keep appropriate food ready to eat in my fridge at all times. This also implies that I have to keep the “bad food” out of my house.

B- Run

self-care basics

To maintain proper levels of self-care and keep my mental health in check, I have to run regularly. That is, more often than just 1 or 2 times per week.

I can’t tell you why runningspecifically, but after over 3 years of trying out different things, I figured out I need something that involves cardio. And running works for me.

Also, running has had a major impact on both my mental and physical health, and it has definitely transformed me.

Weirdly, I used to hate running. Seriously. I’m not a runner per se, and to this day, I still struggle in some ways.

But, again, being able to run consistently 4-5 times per week takes not only discipline but also implies certain prerequisites.

Things like:

3. A good night’s sleep

This means, at least 8 hours of sleep per day. That’s the minimum I need.

Do you know how many hours of sleep you need per night to feel well-rested?

4. A clean bed, with clean sheets, ready for sleep

I have a weird relationship with sleep and struggled for many years with insomnia.

A tidy, freshly made bed is welcoming.

If, on the other hand, every time I walk by my bed during the day or when it’s time to go to bed and I see a chaotic-looking bed/frumpy sheets, it’s low-key anxiety-inducing.

A relaxed night is the first step to a good morning. So, find ways to associate positive-peaceful thoughts with your bed so that when it’s time to go to bed, it is a pleasure.

Related post: 11 Things to do in bed tonight for mental self-care

5. Sleep at night

There are times where I get so excited about what I’m working on, that I just work through the night and sleep until late the next day.

That does not work. It affects my mental and physical health immensely. Even if I think I can do it and even want to do it, my body cannot.

I must make myself stop work and go to bed at a reasonable hour, and sleep during the night.

6. Wake up early

No matter how many times I’ve tried, if I don’t wake up early, I am miserable.

There’s just no way around it.

My mood and my capacity to make good decisions about self-care are directly related to the time I wake up in the morning.

Moreover, waking up late for me automatically implies that I won’t have enough time to do the things I need to do to take care of my basic self-care needs. Like eat breakfast or go for my morning jog.

basics of self-care_mental health
Image from Canva

7. Stretch in the morning

Stretching is one of the basic ways I practice self-care daily.

If I don’t stretch in the morning, I am more likely to hurt myself while running. It also affects my posture and I feel much more pain in my neck and back throughout the day while working on the computer.

Also, you will not believe the number of headaches I have “healed” by stretching just for a few minutes. Sometimes (most of the time) directly in my bed because I’m that lazy.

Stretching daily = less grumpy, less tired, less chronic pain, and less post-workout pain = better Me!

8. Protect my time in the morning

Stretching and running immediately after waking up implies that I need to protect my time in the morning.

This means: I don’t check my phone for emails or texts, I don’t answer calls, or go on social media. For the first couple of hours of my day, I need to stay focused on my own basic self-care needs and prioritize myself over (almost) everything else.

(Of course, I don’t have children so it’s probably easier for me to do that than for a parent. I don’t know. I’ll comment when/if I have kids someday).

If I allow myself to get sidetracked by other people’s stuff first thing in the morning, best believe that I will get distracted, become overwhelmed, anxious and resentful, and will inevitably start avoiding the things I need to do for myself.

This means: Hello escapism and avoidant, insidious, self-destructive behaviors.

C- Write

basics of self-care

At a time where I was struggling with severe mental health issues and finding very little to no support, writing (and later, running) saved my life.

I have a “head filled with words”, and I’ve noticed that when I don’t find a healthy way to express these words, they come out anyway but in different forms. Usually, as negative energy like anxiety, worry, judgment, impatience, whining, dissatisfaction, etc.

So, I need to write (either through journaling or blogging), and ideally, daily.

But there are 2 things absolutely crucial in making this possible:

But there are 2 things absolutely crucial in making this possible:

9. A clutter-free environment

There’s no going around it. For me, cluttered space = cluttered mind.

If my house is messy, I quickly start to sink and revert to my bad habits, like avoidance and procrastination.

This also implies mindlessly consuming content (to avoid reality), smoking, drinking, and not working on myself and my goals.

One of the best ways for me to practice self-care when I’m overwhelmed is to start by decluttering and cleaning my living space.

Related post: All that “stuff” you own is ruining your life: here’s how.

10. Turn off phone notifications

As mentioned previously, sometimes, for me, self-care means shutting up the rest of the world. Especially if I want to write or create something.

The problem is, we often don’t give ourselves permission to do that. That’s why many of us avoid people but feel guilty doing it. Hello, anxiety!

This is why I try to block “personal time” in the morning. Almost no one is allowed in that bubble during those first few hours of my day.

But it’s hard, I mean, the world exists and no man is an island. But one thing is clear: as soon as I start bending this rule, my mental and physical health start to go south.

Now, for me, writing constitutes self-care; but for you, it might be gardening, singing, painting, sewing, dancing, or even starting your own business.

It could be anything you put out in the world that is creative and allows you to express yourself. (Versus you know, simply consuming content).

Creativity and self-expression can be so many things but I strongly believe they can be beneficial and healing for the soul.

Related posts:

How to start journaling and why you should

How to become more creative even with no artistic skills

Other pillars of self-care:

Now, I will add a few extra elements to this list that go beyond eat, run, write.

They also constitute the basis of self-care for me and I need to make sure I always make enough room for those things in my life to maintain proper mental and physical health or reclaim control over unhealthy behaviors.

D- Create the proper mindset

pillars of self-care_mindset

Notice I said CREATE (not sit on your ass and wait for it to happen).

One of the bases of self-care for me has to do with cultivating the right mindset for self-care. I do this through:

11. Expressing daily gratitude.

It’s not enough to think about gratitude once or twice in passing. You have to take a moment to truly feel that gratitude in your bones and express it (out loud or in writing).

Preferably in the morning.

12. Listening to empowering audio

One of the ways I rewire my thoughts and my brain is by listening to what I call “positive audio”: audiobooks or seminars, presentations, tutorials, interviews, etc.

The purpose here is not entertainment. The purpose is inspiration or education.

I pick a topic that serves one of my goals or that addresses one of my weaknesses, and I let the audio play in the background while I do something tedious (like my dishes!).

This blocks the noise (and negative thoughts) in my head and replaces it with something that serves me and my goals.

It’s super effective… if you do it consistently for at least a few days/weeks.

13. Don’t watch crap and stop mindlessly consuming content

Consuming content makes me (slowly and subtly) anxious and depressed.

When I feel like my mental health is taking a dive, I have to stop and reflect on my behavior. Have I been consuming content (like streaming crap for hours for the last few days/weeks), especially before bed?

We tend to associate resting with lying down on a sofa, watching show after show.

That’s not rest. And that’s not self-care.

It actually makes your mind even more tired and miserable.

Related post: Self-care for the mind: how do you heal a wounded mind?

So, when I start feeling overwhelmed or notice I have been neglecting myself, my needs, and my good habits, I try to stop consuming crap and instead make room for creativity and putting stuff out into the world instead.

14. Basic hygiene

Yes, daily self-care starts with basic hygiene but you knew that.

You may think it’s not important or that you “don’t care about that stuff”, but it matters.

If you don’t care the least about cleaning your body, hair, and nails, and neglect yourself, you send the wrong signal to yourself about yourself.

You are implying that you’re not worth being taken care of.

Also, if you neglect these super basic but necessary things, you are more likely to neglect yourself in other areas too.

So, make time to clean and moisturize your face before bed; put some lotion or oil on those dry hands and feet; cut your nails; file them in a clean shape.

Find a good deodorant.

Smell nice. It’s good for your mood. And your confidence.

Related post: How to become a more attractive person? P.S. it’s not about make-up.

15. Watch your posture, stand/sit up straight

Yep. A good posture has to do with self-care too.

Stand up/sit up straight, all the time, everywhere. It impacts your self-esteem more than you think.

16. One final word on consistency

You are the sum of all the little things you do every day.

Consistency in itself is a category.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter what you do, if you don’t do it consistently, i.e., a little every day, it’s almost automatically pointless.

This means you have to do a little bit of all those things every day. And you should NEVER stop trying because you will experience setbacks and you will fall.

When that happens, pick yourself up and try again.  

Final thoughts

There you have it, the pillars of my self-care needs. These are the most basic elements of daily self-care I have to turn to when I (inevitably) lose balance and start neglecting myself.

I’m realizing now how ignorant I was when it came to identifying my needs and listening to them. But I’m slowly learning.

Also, although self-care sounds easy, learning how to properly take care of yourself can be a long road with many obstacles.

But I’ve seen the benefits of these actions so I keep trying, even if I do a poor job at it.

What are your most basic needs are when it comes to self-care? Don’t hesitate to share ????

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About Steph

I am a personal growth/self-management enthusiast. I was able to completely transform my life using everything I share here. I hope this blog helps you transform yours as well.
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