Run down and exhausted, I decided to find out if practicing "self-care" could actually improve my mental and physical health.
In the world of wellness, self-care seems to be the new avocado toast. A quick search for the term on Pinterest returns thousands of lovely ideas: buying yourself flowers, taking a hot bath, lighting a scented candle. On Instagram, millions of posts tagged #selfcare feature fuzzy socks and steaming mugs of tea. Even the New York Times has declared that "staying in the new going out."
Technically, self-care describes any action "that an individual might take in order to reach optimal physical and mental health." Journaling, exercising, getting enough sleep, meditating, and turning down unnecessary obligations also count. It's linked to a host of mind-body benefits, including better relationships, improved mood, and lowered anxiety. (P.S. Here are 20 self-care resolutions you should make in 2017.)
But as nice as self-care sounds, in theory, it's hard to put into practice. I would know. Lately, I'd been feeling burned out. I was exercising less and eating more than I should. I'd gained weight. Every morning I felt groggy, no matter how many hours of sleep I'd logged. Plus, anxious thoughts had started to invade my mind more often, causing me to worry over the littlest things. I found myself arguing with my mom and getting annoyed with my friends for no real reason. It was draining.
So I decided to make it my mission—for one full week—to focus on self-care. My goal was to feel refreshed, healthier, and more energized at the end of the week, but I didn't necessarily want to spend my time arranging flowers or drawing bubble baths. With the aim of keeping it simple, I promised myself I would stay in for the whole week, and do the following:
1. Stretch for 5 minutes every morning.
2. Exercise every day. (Try: 8 Wake-Up-Your-Body Moves Anyone Can Do In the Morning)
3. Fuel my body with nourishing, healthy food—no junk food and minimal alcohol.
4. Unplug by 10 p.m. Instead of scrolling through social media, I'd read or journal until I dozed off.
5. Think kinder thoughts to myself.
Here's how my week went.
I woke up with a bit of a hangover, so I sweated it out in hot yoga (a self-care tactic in itself). Then I took a long stroll through the park near my apartment to spend time in nature, another proven way to boost well-being. (More on that here: Science-Backed Ways Getting In Touch with Nature Boosts Your Health)
That afternoon, I stocked up on healthy groceries for the week: lots of veggies, salmon, shrimp, ground turkey, tomato sauce, and salad and smoothie supplies. I already felt more virtuous than I had in months as the cashier unloaded my cart at checkout.
I made bolognese sauce with ground turkey and zucchini noodles for dinner. I did a face mask, lit a candle, and enjoyed a glass of red wine (my Sunday night ritual) while I watched the Oscars. It was delightful.
After waking up, I stretched and drank warm lemon water while I watched the Today show, which I usually never have time for. Ah, the little things. I made a green smoothie for breakfast, packed leftovers for lunch, and even avoided the temptation of the office candy bowl! I still felt tired from the weekend (and sore from yoga), so I didn't work out. But in the spirit of #5, I didn't beat myself up about it. Instead, I spent part of my evening re-organizing my kitchen so my smoothie supplies were within reach (making the more tempting items in my pantry harder to reach).
I made salmon, sweet potato, and veggies for dinner. I got in bed early and wrote in my journal, which really helped clear my head before falling asleep.
I woke up feeling great after eating so clean the day before. I drank lemon water again (even though evidence for its benefits is mixed, I really enjoyed the ritual of it) and stretched in the morning. I ate healthy all day, and I took a workout class after work. I made a stir-fry with shrimp for dinner, and even though I tried to make enough for two meals' worth, I ate it all in one sitting. Oops. I also had some ice cream.
I woke up and felt a little groggy and anxious. I managed to squeeze in 25 minutes on the elliptical in the morning, which helped alleviate the tiredness and anxiety. I had oatmeal for breakfast and packed a salad for lunch. However, I didn't do so well on the "kind thoughts" front—I let little things at work get to me and complained heavily, both to my mom and to myself.
That night, I went to the movies with a friend. We saw La La Land, gushed over Ryan Gosling, and had wine and popcorn. The best news? This fits right into the self-care plan—experts recommend doing an enjoyable activity every day as part of your self-care routine. I see why! When I got home, I felt a whole lot better than I did when I woke up that morning.
I hit my self-care stride, checking off everything on the list. I sent myself positive vibes instead of automatically thinking negative thoughts when things went haywire at the office. I went to an intense cardio barre class after work, and that night I even had enough energy to finally start a side-hustle project that had been lingering on my to-do list. I felt productive, content, and relaxed by the time I crawled into bed with a good book.
I got up and ran 3 miles before work—something I hadn't done in months! I ate healthy all day, although I did indulge in a couple Girl Scout cookies my coworker was giving out.
Then, I stayed in. Yep, on a Friday. I was feeling so good that I didn't want to ruin it with alcohol. Instead of meeting a friend for drinks, I cooked a healthy dinner and watched a few episodes of my favorite TV show.
But I'll be honest: I felt a little lonely. I knew I was helping myself in the long run, and as an introvert, I treasure my alone time. Still, I craved some human interaction. I was starting to get bored with myself!
The loneliness was worth it when I woke up on Saturday morning. I felt more centered (and accomplished) than I had in a long time, my skin looked brighter, and my body felt lighter—the scale showed I'd lost a couple pounds. I went to the gym, worked on my side project, and ran errands. When I talked to my mom, she said I sounded calmer than I had in weeks. That night, I went to dinner with a big group of friends, and I felt energized and talkative, instead of anxious or weary as I'd been feeling whenever I went out. My week of self-care had certainly paid off.
Self-care, as it turns out, isn't selfish at all. In fact, it's an amazing way to improve all facets of your mental and physical health, as well as your relationships with others and with yourself. Especially if you happen to deal with anxiety like me, taking time for self-care should be a non-negotiable part of life. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anything—or anyone—else.
While Pinterest-inspired self-care ideas may not always be practical, I realized that it doesn't need to involve bubble baths and scented candles. It's more about the little things: eating healthy, exercising, unplugging, and simply taking time for yourself. Now that I know what it takes to refuel and re-energize my body and mind, I have no doubt I'll enjoy many weeks like this moving forward.