Podcast: The Mental Benefits of a Self-Care Regimen

Jenn talks to Dr. Ana Trueba Yepez about why self-care is so valuable. She explains which methods are mentally helpful, talks about the myths and misconceptions behind self-care, and shares how self-care doesn’t have to be all-consuming to be effective.

Ana Trueba Yepez, PhD, is an assistant in psychology at McLean Hospital and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She focuses on cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and integration of mindfulness into treatment.

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Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Hi folks, and thank you so much for joining us, wherever you are and whatever time it is there for “The Mental Benefits of a Self-Care Regimen.”

I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager at McLean Hospital. And today for my chat, I am joined by Dr. Ana Trueba Yepez and we’re talking all about self-care. Self-care seems like a really fun and pretty frequently used term as of late. We’re all living in a world that’s constantly “on.”

We’ve all got jobs that are stretching folks to our limits, whether you’re a parent, a full-time employee, both, and there’s global crises occurring, no matter where we look. So it seems like everywhere we turn, self-care is being suggested as a solution to whatever might be burdening you in the moment.

But long before, that was the fun and trendy thing to do, mental health experts had actually been encouraging patients and their peers to be immersed in their own care routines. There’s been research out there that’s shown that a good self-care regimen can lead to a better balanced life, improved mental health and markedly improved emotional regulation.

So about over the next hour, Dr. Ana Trueba Yepez and I are going to chat all about self-care, it’s values, what’s helpful, what’s actually more marketing hype than benefit, and how we can effectively look after ourselves, even if we don’t have a lot of time to do so.

So if you are unfamiliar with Ana Trueba Yepez, PhD, allow me to introduce her to you. Not only is she a delight to talk to, but she is also an assistant in psychology at McLean and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

She focuses primarily on cognitive behavior therapy, which we call CBT, and integration of mindfulness into treatment. So Ana hi, thank you so much for joining. And I wanted to start just by asking you I’ve alluded to this already, but self-care has become really popular especially since the rise of the pandemic and people are trying to look after themselves, even when things are seemingly out of our control.

So can you provide folks with a little clarification about what self-care is and isn’t when we’re trying to consider it for our mental health?

Ana: Of course Jenn, thank you for having me here. So I think what’s important to understand about self-care at its core, it’s about practicing and doing things that promote your wellbeing, physically and mentally.

Sometimes there’s confusion about this in the sense that, and we’ll talk more about this, I think throughout the webinar, but one thing that’s important to understand is that sometimes things that are self-care might not feel that great in the moment, like exercising, socializing when you’re feeling down and wanting to isolate.

We have to remember that self-care is about doing things that are the best and good for us and promote our health and wellbeing in the long-term, not just the short-term. So I think that’s an important distinction.

Self-care isn’t just self-indulgence, doing things that make you feel good in the moment, but can have bad long-term consequences. So I think that that’s a very important distinction that sometimes get I think lost in the message when we’re talking about this topic.

Jenn: So can self-care be as simple as eating three square meals a day, drinking water and taking five minutes to breathe?

Ana: Yeah, it can be that simple. And I think that’s why sometimes we forget to do it. It seems simple, it seems obvious. And I think as adults, we sometimes can push the limits, like we can skip breakfast, we can skip lunch and we are seemingly fine.

‘Cause we’re on the go, we didn’t have time, we were rushed, and it seems like it didn’t impact us. But I think we don’t realize how much it takes away from our vitality, our energy to skip breakfast.

I think when we see our kids, like if anyone here in the audience has children, if you have a five or six year old, you certainly see immediately the effects of them skipping a meal or having not napped enough or slept enough last night.

But when it comes to us as adults, we think that we can manage and we can to a great extent, but it does take a toll and we actually are more irritable, just like a five or six year old is. We can regulate it more, but we’re more irritable, we have less vitality, less energy, our patience is thinner.

So I think we need to sort of treat ourselves as if we were five or six years old. That’s how I see self-care. Treat yourself like a toddler.

Go to bed at your regular time, get regular meals, have structure, have a schedule, just like you see at preschool, like they have a set schedule and no meal is skipped because that’s what’s best for our mental health, our sleep architecture, all the hormones that are flowing through our body and as adults, we’re no different, we can regulate ourselves a little bit more.

Maybe we don’t have like a full meltdown, maybe we do, but I guess more rarely than children, but it certainly still has an impact.

Jenn: So I’d love for you to touch upon some of the more common myths and misconceptions about self-care. And I know since you’re so heavily involved in practicing self-care, as well as prescribing it, somethings that you’ve been surprised by.

Ana: Well, some of the things I’ve been surprised by with self-care is how hard it is to do sometimes and how much resistance, ‘cause it seems like you’re pampering yourself. It sounds like that but it really is not about pampering yourself necessarily like there’s components of it.

And we’ll talk a little bit about specific examples. And it’s not self-indulgence either. It’s about sort of filling your tank and getting your needs met. So for example, while getting a manicure or pedicure can be self-care, I think it’s not one of the most essential self-cares.

I think it’s a nice thing to do for yourself, but simpler things like you said, Jenn, like eating regular meals, getting all the water that you need, making sure that you have a little bit of time to exercise, stretch, do your yoga, meditate, even having time to just do things that you enjoy.

If you have a job that’s really demanding and you have no breathing time, you never watch your favorite movies or series, you don’t have time to see friends. Well, that’s an important part of self-care.

So I think one of the things that surprised me about self-care is sometimes the resistance that you have to do it because you sometimes feel guilty about giving yourself that space and time and how hard it is sometimes to engage in these activities.

In part, it can be hard because if you’re feeling a little depressed or down, it might be difficult to socialize. And yet it is part of self-care to go out and socialize and see your friends, even though it might not feel great, right?

As you’re walking out the door, you might feel like, this is like the last thing I want to do. I just want to stay in my Pjs and watch some Netflix. It might not be the best for your mental health. And so well I’m surprised, when I engage in self-care is how hard is sometimes uncomfortable it is to do like those first five, 10 minutes.

But once I’m at that party or social gathering, I’m like, alright, this is really good for me. I feel a lot better. It’s better to be out and about and see my friends than if I would’ve stayed home. So I think that that’s a big thing. And the same with exercise, right?

Exercise is a great self-care, but the first five or 10 minutes might not be that comfortable. You’re like I would have wanted to stay at home instead of being here at the gym. But as you progress you start saying, okay, this actually makes me feel better and is positive for my mental health.

Jenn: Yes, as a runner, I can relate to this completely. I always joke that the first mile is the worst. And then by the end of it, I’m like, what was I even complaining about? That was so much fun. I can’t wait to do that again, but it’s always that first initial step that is usually the most like literally and metaphorically painful.

Ana: Right, right. Yeah, exactly. And it’s one of those things that, sometimes the thing that’s good for you doesn’t feel that great. And the things that are bad for you actually feel amazing. Like for example, you might have had a really rough day at work and you might think, you know what, for self-care, I’m going to eat an entire chocolate cake.

Like I deserve it. I had a bad day. But this would be something that’s self-indulgent and not out of self-care because it’s not good for you in the long-term. So that’s sort of something that you need to keep in mind when throwing around the term self-care.

It’s not just about sort of pampering yourself or indulging in things, it’s more about promoting your wellbeing in the long-term.

Jenn: I think that’s a super, that’s such an important differentiation too, because at the end of a long day, a lot of folks will say, I’m going to eat something bad or I’m going to open a bottle of wine.

They’re not going to go, I think I’m going to have a salad and get into bed at a respectable time. That’s not where people’s minds go.

Ana: No, not at all. And it’s even as simple as like, I’m going to watch another episode and then they stay up until two or three in the morning. And you think I had a rough day at work.

I want some me time and it seems like self-care, like I’m going to watch “Game of Thrones” until two, three in the morning, but that’s actually not self-care because when you have to wake up at six the next day it’s going to be messy.

So I think that that’s very, very important to understand that sometimes it doesn’t feel that great in the moment to do self-care, but it’s great for you in the long-term.

Jenn: So, I know, I think I know you a little bit better than the average audience member. You are full-time employed. You are a parent of multiple children. You are looking after plenty of other people, both paid and unpaid in your life.

A ton of people who are in similar shoes to you, just bulk at the idea of self-care. I don’t have time. Other people need me. I’ve got more important things to do, or they just feel guilty.

So how do we start lessening the guilt around taking a moment to look after ourselves if we have so many other things and people to look after?

Ana: I think Jenn, you touched on such an important point here because guilt is a main barrier, I think to self-care, especially when you’re a caregiver and you feel like all your time should be spent on other people and making sure that their needs are met. And how can I be useful to them?

Especially when you have children, you feel like you’re at work all day, you haven’t seen them. And so now the time that you do have free should be devoted to them. And while I think that’s important to have quality time with your kids, it’s also important to remember that you’re also a person, a woman, man, that has their own needs, and those need to be met.

I like to equate it every time I feel guilty to what they say on the plane, when there’s a change in cabin pressure and the masks come down, the first thing they say is before assisting others, you have to put the mask on yourself and take care of yourself first, because you can’t really take care of others if you haven’t taken care of yourself.

You can’t show up as a parent, even studies show this, if you’re depleted. So I know as a mom, if I haven’t slept well, if I have not eating well, if I’m dehydrated, I’m not going to be able to have the patience, the tolerance that I need in order to be a good parent and show up and be fun and connected to my kids.

So I think that that’s why it’s so important every time I feel guilty, sort of remind myself this isn’t selfish. I’m actually in a way I’m doing this for others. Because in order for me to show up as a good mom, I need to take care of myself.

And the same with my patients, if I’m depleted, I’m not going to be able to show up at the professional level and the competence that I want to show up to, right? The other important thing was guilt in general is you always want to make sure to check in with your guilt and see, is this appropriate guilt or is it inappropriate?

Inappropriate guilt or what we call excessive guilt is when you feel guilty about things that you shouldn’t, because you haven’t actually done something that goes against your values. Guilt is only appropriate when you’ve done something that has broken a value that you have.

And so it, when you’re doing self-care, you’re really not violating any of your core values, right? Or principles. So you shouldn’t feel guilty. And what that means actually is that you should be doing more self-care.

If you feel guilty of self-care, it means you need to do it more so that your brain realizes there’s no reason to feel guilty about this. But this has happened to me.

So, after my first pregnancy I felt guilty about exercising ‘cause I felt like I needed to just be with the baby, especially during my maternity leave, because I’m like, I’m thinking to myself, I’m going back to work and I need to maximize the time connecting with the baby.

But after the first couple of times, I sort of forced myself to exercise. I realized, wow, I show up, after that exercise session, a lot more refreshed, revitalized, energized, ready to conquer the day than when I don’t.

So the more you do it, the more you realize, huh, this isn’t I’m just doing for myself out of selfishness. It’s really something that benefits me and benefits everyone around me.

Jenn: So I guess a good follow-up question, especially since you mentioned pregnancy, one of the things that comes to mind for me is a lot of folks who are first-time parents, when the baby is, the thought concept is when the baby’s sleeping, you should be sleeping, but a lot of people feel like I should be so productive during that time.

Do you have advice, and it’s not just for parents, but do you have advice on lessening the stigma around self-care? ‘Cause I feel like even if you don’t think it’s selfish and indulgent, there’s always somebody else who’s going to be thinking that for you.

Ana: I agree 100%, Jenn. I think we live in a culture where productivity is a measure of your worth or your worth is measured by the level of productivity that you have and looks sort of like a hustle culture where that’s rewarded how productive you are.

And so I think being aware of that and mindful of when you’re getting swept away by those sorts of thoughts, and like you said Jenn, maybe you don’t think it’s selfish, but you definitely feel that pressure from others, is sort of reminding yourself like, they can believe that but I’m going to hold to what I need.

I know that I need this. I know that this makes me show up better and not allow those thoughts to influence your behavior or how you sort of divide up your time. So I think as first-time parents, if you haven’t slept well the night before, it’s not self-indulgent to sleep while the baby naps, and maybe there’s a ton of dishes, piling up and diapers, but that can wait.

If you haven’t slept, you won’t be able to do those dishes and take care of the baby anyway. So I think, and another thing that’s important that goes into this too, is sort of checking in to see if your standards are way too high.

Sometimes people that have perfectionistic tendencies are the ones that have the most difficulty with things like self-care, because they have such a high standard of how they like things to get achieved.

When you become a parent or you’d have like a big adjustment like this or even when you’re not, I think it’s important to recognize when I’m having unrealistic expectations, that I’m just imposing on myself, just unrealistic high perfectionistic standards that maybe I need to adjust or be more flexible with.

Jenn: I’m curious about how you yourself became interested in self-care and as somebody who actively cares for their patients and their family, how you yourself are incorporating it into your everyday routine.

Ana: So I think for me, one thing that I got, why I got so interested in this topic is that during my graduate studies I got really involved in trying to publish as much as I could and really trying to get higher, higher in my career and really career focus that I did feel like it was impacting my health.

And I didn’t feel like I had a good balance in my life. And that’s when I started taking a step back and saying, why is there such a disbalance in my life? Life can’t be like this. I’m going to burn out at some point.

When you start feeling, when you haven’t been doing self-care is a little bit of burnout, you start feeling less connected to the work you’re doing. You start feeling like it’s a drag to go to work because of course it’s taking away from your vitality.

And so I think that that’s when I hit pause and said, there are other aspects of my life that are getting neglected because of this one thing. And that’s where I said I need to re-think of my schedule and really learn to say no which is another hard thing and it’s part of self-care.

And it’s hard to do, to say no to people at work asking for more things or even friends and family that may ask for favors or more of your time.

Learning to say no and not feeling guilty about it can be very hard, but it’s an essential part of self-care, especially if you’re one of those people that does favors for everybody and is showing up for everyone, learning to carve out space for yourself is very important.

Jenn: So how could someone like me get started on my own self-care journey? Where would you advise that I start?

Ana: So I think the starting point is always to look at, first time we’d say, are you eating regularly? Are you getting enough sleep? I think that those eating and sleeping are probably one of the most basic ones.

And then looking at if you’re treating your medical illnesses, another thing that happens with self-care and busy schedules, like I should go to my OB/GYN, but I’ll go next month. I’ll go next month. I need to get my knee checked, but I don’t have time this week, I’ll go. And or I have to go to the dentist.

And this makes me feel I haven’t gone to the dentist I think in four years ‘cause I kept pushing it off. And then I was like, I can’t believe that I did this to myself. But it’s just one of those things that you keep pushing off. And it’s like a basic part of self-care, right?

So I think making sure that you get, you’re going to your regular doctor’s appointments. If you have a physical illness that you’re treating it, you’re going to your regular appointments. And the same for mental health. Going regularly to see your psychologist, making sure that you’re up to date on your medications.

All that is very, very important because without that, if you think about it, like if I have chronic pain in my back that I haven’t really gotten checked out, or I have chronic pain in my knee and my doctor has already said, I need knee surgery, but I keep postponing it and postponing it.

And for good reason, right? Because going through surgery is painful and the recovery is difficult. But if you think about how much you restrict and how much satisfaction gets zapped away by every day feeling this pain, it’s worth it to sort of confront it and say, I really need to go to the doctor, get this checked, get the surgery that I need, get this treated.

So I think that that’s very, very important that you are aware if you have any physical ailments, discomfort, pain that you get that treated first.

Other smaller things that are important to take into account is if you’re in an emotionally vulnerable moment in your life, making sure that you limit how many mood altering substances you’re taking like alcohol and other drugs is also important.

Because again, these sort of keep us in this balance. Having a regular schedule for sleep. I know it sounds super boring, but waking up every day, almost at the same time, going to bed, sort of at the same time. I think that that’s one of the hardest things for me is going to bed. I always promise myself, I will.

That gets derailed, but it is very, very important. Yeah, eating regular, drinking all your water and vitamins, exercising once a day. And again, flexible. So sometimes we sort of think, well, if I’m going to exercise, I need at least an hour and it needs to be at a gym and it needs to be under certain parameters or else it’s not a workout and I shouldn’t bother, and this is not the attitude.

You should say, okay, I can’t go to the gym. I don’t have time for the gym. Then maybe I’ll go up the stairs instead of use the elevator, maybe at my lunch break, I’ll take a walk and go to the sandwich shop that’s like three blocks away and get a walk incorporated into my lunch break, even taking regular walks during the day.

They find that this is healthier even than doing an hour of cardio is every 50 minutes getting up and just walking around doing 250 steps or so it promotes health, especially if you have a job where you’re sitting at a desk all day.

So making sure that you’re being as active as you can be is important. Making sure that two hours of your day is dedicated to something that you’re competent in.

Especially if you’re retired, if you are in a situation in life right now between jobs, making sure that you have some structure in your day and that you’re doing at least two hours, something that you feel competent and you feel like you’ve achieved something in the day can be extremely important also for your mental health and the sensation of wellbeing in general.

Jenn: I also struggle with going to bed at a regular time every night until somebody pointed out to me that, if you go to bed like two or three hours later on the weekends and effectively, even if you’re waking up at the same time, it’s what some folks call social jet lag.

So you’ve basically get the same mental and physical brunt of flying halfway across the country because you’re in a jet lag cycle. And until then I was like, I don’t need to do that. And then when that happened, I was like, oh my gosh, I need to start being better about going to bed at a normal time.

Ana: Yeah, I think you bring up such an important point. I think like as adults, we feel like we can handle or manage anything. And sure you can handle it but I think we don’t even recognize how much vitality it takes away, right?

So you’re able to survive, sure. You’re able to get on time on Monday to work, but you don’t realize how much of your productivity, vitality and well-being gets sucked away when you do that. Like binge sleep in the week, yeah.

Jenn: Yep. So if folks are getting started on their self-care regimens, they’re just picking up on this journey. What advice do you have for them if they don’t know what they themselves perceive to be rejuvenating, refreshing or a good part of their routine.

So the long and short of it is, do you have any advice for folks to discover what works for them versus what doesn’t?

Ana: Yes, I think that this requires some exploring. Especially, if you’re someone that works really long hours and you have a hard time disconnecting after work and finding a way of sort of decompressing and doing something that’s not work or not productive. I think trying different things.

So, and the same goes for anything. Like if you want to start a new exercise regimen and you feel like, okay, this might be a good way of unwinding. Some people love to run like Jenn, you were describing that you’re a runner. Some people love yoga.

For me, it’s difficult to do yoga. I like things that are a little bit more active and more cardio sort of. But for some people, they don’t like cardio. Asking them to run is torture. So maybe doing something like yoga.

For some people, swimming is their favorite sort of activity. And so you won’t be able to know what exercise you like until you sort of try them. Start with things that seem more appealing and try it out, see if it’s a good fit for you and if not, try something else.

And this is with exercise, but it’s with other things as well. But what you want to avoid, and again, I think we said this at the beginning, self-care is not about opening that bottle of wine or eating the chocolate cake. And if you are currently doing that as a way of unwinding, you want to find replacements for it.

So why some people are not able to eliminate bad habits is because you eliminate that, but then you don’t find a replacement. You need to replace that because surely the chocolate cake or that bottle of wine was doing something for you in terms of helping you unwind, sort of like a reward at the end of a hard day.

So we need to find a way of replacing that with something that’s healthier. And that promotes more self-care. That still gives you that sort of gets the edge off of a hard, busy, stressful day, but doesn’t give you any of the negative consequences. So this might mean trying different things.

Jenn: So how would you encourage folks to sort of take an audit of what they’re doing in their life and figure out whether that’s working for them, not working for them, and working toward a solution, toward remedying that.

Ana: So I think mindfulness is the first step. So it’s like taking a step back and really mindfully looking at what you’re doing every day. Okay, so I get to work at this time. What did I have for breakfast? Even backtracking from that, what time did I wake up? Do I give myself enough time for breakfast?

Because I know people that are like, I’d rather sleep in and not have time for breakfast and just go to work and have a coffee. And so I’m like, okay, let’s take a step back. Why do you need to sleep in? Is it because you stayed up, alright then.

So when you do this, and we call this sort of like a chain analysis, we look at one behavior like, okay, I don’t have breakfast because I sleep in, alright. Let’s take a step back. Why are you sleeping in? Okay, you stayed up late the last night.

So you can see sort of a pattern of how these negative things start and then how they sort of snowball into more and more negative things throughout the day that take away from self-care.

So for example, I find that the thing that would solve most of my self-care issues is if I would get to bed at a reasonable time. Like that would solve most of it ‘cause then I would feel refreshed in the morning. I wouldn’t feel like I need to sleep in and then not have breakfast and have enough time.

And I’m also a person that I really resent the fact that I don’t have a little bit of time of just, in the morning of just like 15 minutes, I’m just going to look at social media and just, with my coffee. Instead of like rushing, pour your coffee until the half, okay.

I’m running out to the car. And I could do this if I woke up a little early, and maybe then I would have time to pack myself a healthy lunch instead of just eating Doritos from the vending machine or just skipping lunch because since I didn’t pack it and I don’t have time to go to the cafeteria and buy it.

So I think when you look at your schedule, then ask yourself, okay, why is it that I’m not having lunch? Or why am I eating from the vending machine? Why is it that I don’t have time to eat breakfast?

When you start asking those questions, then you can start looking at, okay, this is like the vital or the key habit that if I change maybe the rest sort of falls into place, because I think when I’ve described this whole thing in the webinar, it sounds like a lot of changes.

So when you say, where do we get started? I listed a thousand things. But I think if you can hone in on one thing that if you can change, it can have like this ripple effect and that might be more effective because changing too much might seem sort of overwhelming.

Okay, I need to eat like a balanced breakfast and now I need to make sure that I have my lunch. Then I make sure that I sleep enough and all these things sounds overwhelming. So start with one thing and for example, I know for me, it’s getting to bed early so that I wake up and don’t feel like I need to sleep in, or hit snooze five times on the alarm and get my day going.

Jenn: So I was just about to ask you, like how do we keep folks from getting overwhelmed? Is there some sort of timeframe that they should aim for to see if it’s actually the changes are benefiting them?

I know there’s a lot when we talk about habits, there’s anywhere from three weeks to nine months it takes for people to form a habit. So when it comes to self-care, what should people be looking for?

Ana: It can take some time. Some things you can feel immediately like after an exercise session, you might be like, wow, I feel great after that exercise session. Or after your therapy session, or after going to the doctor, you might feel great. Or you might not.

So there may be therapy sessions where you talked about something that was really uncomfortable and hard, and you might leave that therapy session feeling a little bit more of uncomfortable feelings, right? That you haven’t confronted in a while.

There might be exercise sessions where you feel great after, and there may be others where you feel like an ache somewhere and it might not have felt this great. Maybe you started comparing yourself to another person and felt like defeated that they did a lot better than you did, many different things.

So I think it’s important to set the expectation of these are things that help you in the long-term. It’s not like every time you do self-care, you’re going to feel great about it. I think it’s one of those things that you just have to do repeatedly until you start seeing the benefits.

Sometimes it’s after the first time you do it, sometimes it’s after a while, it can take up to months until you start feeling like, wow, that really helped me when I started meditating 10, 15 minutes every morning, or I did my mindful walk, I started eating salads for lunch instead of eating Doritos.

So I think it’s something that you do with conviction and you know it’s healthy for you. And over time you can start seeing those benefits.

Jenn: Do you know of any ways for folks to monitor their self-care regimens regularly? Are there any resources or like monthly questionnaires folks can take to check in with themselves?

Ana: Yes, yes, there is. We have like some worksheets from dialectical behavior therapy that you can fill out and sort of check the box. Did you eat your three meals a day? Are you drinking enough water? There are also apps that do this as well.

There are apps that remind you, you need another glass of water, where you can track how much you’ve eaten, or your exercise. And that can help too, because when you can’t measure your progress in something, it can be a factor that leads to less motivation. And I think when you can measure your progress, it’s a lot more motivating.

So I think that it is important to recognize that you’re doing good in terms of self-care, because that will motivate you to do more of it. And another key important piece with that as well is, you have to monitor your guilt as well.

If one night you stayed up until two or three in the morning, even though you promised yourself you would do self-care and go to bed at a reasonable time, guilt is not part of self-care. So guilt detracts from self-care. And it’s also useless.

Studies find that guilt tripping yourself actually makes it less likely that you’ll continue to engage in healthy behaviors because since it makes you feel defeated, it makes me feel worse about yourself, and puts you in a bad mood.

You’re less likely to actually do things that are good for you because you’re not motivated. Eating healthy, exercising requires a lot of motivation and good feelings, and you’re not going to feel motivated if you are guilt tripping yourself.

So it’s learning also to sort of let go, when you can say, I started the day off wrong, alright, it okay. We can get back on the horse and try again for lunch or dinner or later on in the day.

So, or try tomorrow. Like, I always say this to myself. I didn’t sleep well last night because I stayed up late, but today is another day and I can try it. That’s alright.

Jenn: I think that self-awareness and that forgiveness component is such a big part of it. I know, especially with the rise of social media, there’s almost two camps, especially around the holidays.

People who are like, this is how many calories it takes to walk off Thanksgiving dinner. And then the rest of the people being like, it’s one day, drink some water and stop kicking yourself tomorrow is a new day.

And I think that that latter camp of being like, be in the moment, enjoy it, indulge if you’d like to, start fresh tomorrow is just a much healthier mental space to be in.

Ana: Absolutely, because I think anything that’s a mindset of flexibility rather than rigidity and black and white sort of scenarios it’s all of what self-care is about. ‘Cause self-care should not be an additional stress. Like, I need to do self-care perfectly.

So I think that would sort of totally defeat the purpose of self-care. So I think it’s important that it’s not supposed to be an additional stressor. It’s supposed to be something that’s promoting your health and wellbeing and try to do as much of it as you can.

And there will be days like Jenn said, that you’ll be self-indulgent and that’s okay. Tomorrow’s a new day and you start again, it’s alright. Doesn’t define me.

Jenn: So I know that some folks are in difficult positions. For example, single parents with multiple jobs, limited monetary resources, perhaps they’re in marginalized communities. How can these folks reach out to others if they need help enrolling in self-care, especially if they’re dealing with really difficult circumstances?

Ana: I think that this is an excellent point. Self-care is something that you can get support to do. So if you can get other friends to say, why don’t we get all the kids together, do a play day in the park and just chat. That can be self-care because it gives you, so you might not have money to hire a nanny and go get a mani pedi.

So what you can do is you can get a bunch of girlfriends that also have kids say, okay, let’s do a play day on the park and you can chat while you’re watching your kids, chat with other adults and have that alone adult time without having to pay for a nanny or additional childcare.

Other smaller things you can do is have a friend join you for your exercise that keeps you accountable. You both get the benefits of it.

Asking friends for help, and this is especially important I think, when you just had a baby sometimes asking for that additional help, I know that some friends of mine did my groceries and came and delivered it for me or help you do your dishes or make a meal for you instead of giving you like a gift for the baby.

‘Cause they’re already inundated with a baby shower anyway. Helping you with these little things can be extremely helpful, especially if you have people like that in your community. There’s no shame in asking for help from time to time.

Jenn: And I think that’s such an important component too about even understanding your own limitations as a form of self-care and realizing that you do need to ask folks for help ‘cause without a community, we wouldn’t be around.

To me that’s kind of social Darwinism. We need other people in order to survive. So recognizing your limitations, huge.

Ana: Yeah, and I think, I guess industrialized Western culture there is this sort of idea of martyrdom. Like there’s like a pride in being able to be completely independent, but it’s not realistic. I think it’s better to think of ourselves as interconnected with others and needing others.

Jenn: So how could I start the conversation with a loved one about them indulging in self-care? I say in air quotes, but really just taking better care of themselves?

Ana: So I think you can start off. And I think what’s important there is to never feel like you’re saying things in a way that’s attacking the other person or saying like, what you’re doing is wrong, but more approach it as a way of like saying something like I’m worried about you.

I’m concerned. I’ve seen that you’re not eating as well. You’re not sleeping as well. You seem very tired, stressed, overworked. It seems like you’re almost in like burnout. What are some things that I can do to help or support you?

That way you’re not imposing on them and saying, you should be eating. You should be sleeping. ‘Cause maybe they don’t need a lecture at that moment ‘cause they’re stressed already. And that might just stress them out even more. And they might also feel attacked.

So I think it’s important, you don’t want to impose on them, you just ask them, can I help you in any way? Do you want to maybe take a walk? Do you need me to take care of your kids for an hour or two while you go to the mall and just walk around?

Do you want me to come and help you clean the house? Do you want me to come and help you do laundry? How can I be helpful? What can we do? Because I really am concerned. I think that something is off. I think you need more time to do the things that you need to do.

Jenn: I think that the phrasing of saying, I’m concerned or I’m worried about you is a lot more powerful than you coming off as being critical of somebody.

Because if you express it as you care about them and that’s why you’re bringing it up versus they might take it as you want them to be a better version of who they are. And that can be offensive.

Ana: Absolutely and especially if the person is someone that’s very self-critical, it’s actually counter-productive. It’s just going to make them feel worse, more depressed. You also don’t want to come across as condescending.

Like, look, I have everything under control. I’m concerned for you. Like, you don’t want it to be like that. Like you have all the answers and this person doesn’t know what they’re doing, basically. So it shouldn’t sound prescriptive, but rather just, friendly, supportive reach out.

Jenn: So what advice do you have for folks that are having a hard time staying present during self-care activities? So an example of it would be like, you’re worrying about other things that you have to do, like laundry or your homework, or finishing an article for the website while engaging in a self-care activity.

Ana: That happens a ton to people that work a lot. They go on vacation and they’re still thinking about work. So I think mindfulness comes into play here. So noticing when you start thinking about work or other worries, catch yourself doing that and saying, hey, right now, this is the intention of this hour, is to do self-care.

I’m going to leave that on file for later. We’ll take care of that in a little bit, but not right now. Right now I’m doing this. And this is sort of exhausting, but once you do this repeatedly, it becomes a habit of this is my moment to connect.

This used to happen to me when I exercised until I figured out what I need to do? I need to turn off my phone. Because if I see them or I need to turn off the notifications, if you use your phone for music, turn off your notifications ‘cause instantly, I see a text message come in and I’m like, is that exercise?

So I’m like no, that hour went by faster I didn’t do all the workout I wanted to, or, you know. So I think I recognized that I wasn’t able to focus fully on what I was there to do at the gym. I needed to just turn off the phone and focus on this one thing.

So you need to find what is it that’s not allowing you to connect. If you need to leave an away message on your email, because it’s sort of stressing you out to turn off your phone. How many people are contacting me? I’m wondering what, leaving an away message, do whatever, but you need to figure out for yourself, taking that step back.

Why am I not connecting? What’s sort of distracting me and pulling me in different directions and I’m not able to really enjoy this moment fully and connect with it. And another one here is a competitiveness as well. So let’s say your self-care is you really like to swim.

When you go into the pool and you’re swimming, but you start noticing that you’re competing with the people beside you, like that person is faster. I need to beat this person. And although that’s not bad, it can get bad in the sense it might make you disconnect from what you’re doing.

This has happened to me in dance classes. I love to dance but I find that I don’t enjoy it as much when I compare myself to other people. ‘Cause, I’m like, I’m a bad dancer. That person dances better than me.

‘Cause it doesn’t allow you to fully connect with the moment. I always remind myself, life is an experience it’s not a performance. I’m not performing for anybody. I’m not competing with anybody. I’m just experiencing it.

So that’s how self-care should be as well. It’s not a performance. It’s about really experiencing it because that’s another thing that can make you disconnect from the moment.

Jenn: I really like that and I’m going to keep that in mind ‘cause a couple of the run routes that I do around where I live are quite popular.

And so if I see folks park and start after me, and then they pass me, instead of me being like sometimes, instead of me being like good for them, I’m like, that’s not fair.

Why are they going faster than me? And then it becomes significantly less enjoyable. So I need to keep that in mind, that it’s an experience and not a performance, that’s very helpful.

Ana: Yeah. And the same thing happens to me when I’m running. I’m sometimes super like focused on my pace and how many stops I did. I don’t think that that’s bad, but I do think it can get to where you’re not really enjoying the run because you’re agonizing over the fact that you stopped too much.

So what I remind myself is there will be days where I do 30 minutes without stopping at perfect pace and there will be days where I’m jogging, walking, jogging, walking, jogging, walking the entire 30 minutes and my pace is all over the place and that’s okay. I went out and I jogged. I’m not competing against anybody, because we’re not machines.

I think we have this expectation that we’re machine. Like I go and run and do exactly the same way every time. And it’s not like that. And the same with productivity at work. If you weren’t productive one day at work, there will be other days where you’re more productive. It’s just like that. It’s like the mix. That’s our mix as humans.

Jenn: I hope whoever needed that positive reinforcement that if your Monday is not that productive you are not the only person out there. So do not worry, you’re not alone. So how would you recommend encouraging yourself, say if you’re already feeling good to keep engaging in self-care?

Ana: So this is an important point. And I think this happens even to patients that are taking medications sometimes like, oh, I’m feeling great now. I need to stop my medication. It’s like no, no. What’s keeping you well, is your meds. Is the same with self-care.

This happens to me too. I wake up feeling refreshed from sleeping really well and I’m like, oh my gosh, I have all this extra energy. Now I can stay up late because I’m so energized and don’t feel tired all the time and it’s like, no, that was actually what was keeping me well was to do that.

So I think you have to sort of understand that it’s not something like a diet or something that you do in the short-term. This is sort of forever. So this is also why it’s important that you set goals for your self-care that are realistic with how much time you have, with your available resources, because this is something that you need to take care of yourself forever.

I heard once that I think it was Warren Buffett. I might be mistaken, that said that you should look at your body, like you’re a car. And what he said was what if you were given a car and they said to you, this is the only car you’re going to have in your life.

You’re not getting another one. You can pick whichever car you want, but this is the car you’re getting. How would you take care of it? Like, would you be careful of it getting its regular repairs? Would you allow it to, when it says oil change you go way beyond the mileage? Like how would you take care of it if it’s the only car you have in life?

And that’s how you should treat your body ‘cause this is the only body you get. You don’t get another one. It’s not like, you hit 50, and you’re like, I need another body. I’m trading this in, this was just a lease. It’s not like that, we don’t lease our bodies. So this is like, for real, this is the body you get. This is the only one you get.

So check in with yourself and say, how am I taking care of my body and my mind? ‘Cause it’s the only one you get. You don’t get another exchange in mind either. So I think being mindful of that and understanding that this is forever, not just when you’re feeling bad or poorly.

Jenn: Yeah, I think that’s huge. And also it’s important when you think of it that way, that like even five minutes a day of taking care of yourself over a year, five minutes a day over a year is a lot of taking care of yourself.

So that is a huge difference between saying I’ll do it tomorrow because I don’t have 10 minutes today or saying, I’ll just take five minutes today.

Ana: Exactly, and it’s the same with smaller things too. Like for example, with emotional eating. They did a study where they found that even 250 or 300 calories a day in emotional eating, which is not much, if you think about it, it’s like a yogurt.

If you eat one additional yogurt a day because of your emotional eating habits. Because instead of regulating your emotions, using healthier coping, you’re eating, that over the course of a week is one pound.

Over the course of a month is four pounds, over the course of a year is 40 or more pounds. And over the course of several years, you can imagine how many pounds that can be. So it’s really small things sometimes of eating a little healthier or doing a little bit more exercise that can make an enormous difference over the course of time.

Jenn: I know that you have mentioned mindfulness a little bit. I’m curious to know about beyond mindfulness, what roles, if any, does spirituality play in self-care?

Ana: I think enormous roles because spirituality, depending on how you practice it, can have a social component where you gather with other people. It also makes you take a step back and tie your experience to the human experience.

And I think that sometimes when we’re overworked, burnt out or sort of, we get lost in the little details of like stressing over a work email or project and spirituality makes you take a step back and look at life more existentially.

And sometimes that makes you see that like your small worries and things are not that big in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes I ask myself, is this something I’m going to be worried about in a year or four years? If it’s not, then why am I giving it so much weight, so much importance?

Jenn: Do you have any advice for when self-care activities become a form of avoidance from what we need to actually do? So like responsibilities, we’re using it as an avoidance tactic more than anything else?

Ana: That can happen. So I think anything in excess can sort of lead to this. And I think that’s when you’re not being balanced. So for example, you might say, well, I need to get my eight hours. So I’ll be late for work or, I’ll neglect this and the other thing.

I think it’s important to take into account that self-care should always lead to a more balanced life and it shouldn’t be the element that causes disbalance where you’re using that as an excuse or sort of a facade to not do other things that you need to.

So I think it’s important to recognize taking that step back. Why am I doing this? So an example of this could be, let’s say that you’re avoiding seeing your friends because you say one of my friends is toxic well, he’s really negative and he brings me down. So I’m just going to shut her off.

Or I’m not going to see my friends because this is self-care for me. But you really do need to ask yourself if you’re just avoiding your friends in general, because you don’t want to socialize and what you’re really doing is isolating and you’re calling it self-care, but it’s really not. It’s avoiding.

And you would actually, the actual self-care would be to see your friends, interact with them even if one of them sometimes says negative things that impact you. So I think, and this happens also with anxiety, you might think going to the supermarket makes me anxious or talking to other people makes me anxious, especially strangers.

So what I’ll do is I’ll just avoid them and that’ll be self-care because that way I don’t feel anxious, but in the long-term it’s just going to make your anxiety worse. So self-care will actually be to confront those situations, even though it makes you feel worse in the short-term.

Jenn: So if my self care routine isn’t making me feel less stressed, overwhelmed, tired, negative feelings in general, when do I talk to a doctor about it?

Ana: So I think, self-care is there to help manage day-to-day emotions and stress and all that. But certainly if you have the beginnings of depression or major anxiety, this won’t be enough to manage it. And you have to go to a doctor because these are things that help us keep a balance in our lives and certainly help maybe prevent things spiraling out of control.

But certainly I don’t think anybody that suffers from depression suffers from depression because they didn’t do self-care. Self-care does not resolve depression on its own. It doesn’t prevent it on its own.

So I think it is really important that if you have significant distress and self-care is not really doing it for you, or is even increasing the levels of distress that you have, then going to a doctor is the way to go.

Jenn: And any last words of wisdom for folks tuning in about self-care, mindfulness, any of that?

Ana: Any little thing you do is good. If you only have five minutes in a day, use those five minutes, do some self-care. If you only have one minute in a day, any increment in self-care is good. So if you can meditate for one minute, two minutes, three minutes, and maybe you can go increasing.

If you eat just a little healthier, just a little bit. I think a lot of times we think we need to go to like this crazy cleanse, it’s black and white. I’m either eating anything I want, or I’m going on this crazy cleanse. I’m vegan, I’m eating non-processed foods.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme. And sometimes when we approach things that extremely that’s when we start procrastinating the self-care. So thinking about it as just small little changes here and there that you can make, can make a difference.

Jenn: Amazing, and if you took the time to hang out with us today, and learn a little bit about self-care, you are already started on your journey to taking better care of yourself. So Ana, thank you so much. This has been a fabulous session.

I find that my own self-care involves socializing and learning, and I feel like I have checked both boxes in the last hour of chatting with you. So thank you so much for providing all of that invaluable information, and thanks to all the folks that tuned in.

This actually concludes our session. So until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Thank you and thanks again, Ana. Take care, everyone.

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Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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