Self-care is a way to cope with suicidal thoughts, but engaging in regular self-care can prevent suicidal thoughts before they even start.
What is self-care?
Self-care looks different depending on who you ask – for example, psychology tells us that self-care is “providing adequate attention to one’s own physical and psychological wellness” (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001). Urbandictionary.com tells us self-care is “putting absurd amounts of parmesan cheese on your spaghetti.” We’ll talk about what self-care may look like for you in the prompts below, but for now let’s consider self-care to be the activities we engage in to nurture and restore our bodies and our minds amid the demands of daily life.
What ISN’T self-care?
Self-care is NOT a luxury – it isn’t a selfish indulgence, a sign of laziness, or something to do “if you have time.” We are all worthy of self-care.
Self-care is only self-care if it is practiced in moderation; taking a study break to watch tv may qualify as self-care, but binge-watching all weekend without getting out of bed probably doesn’t. On the other hand, self-care doesn’t have to be a weekend getaway or a whole day at the beach – it can be ten minutes of quiet time before a full day of classes or grabbing a cup of coffee with a friend. The key to self-care is balance – too much or too little self-care can interfere with our functioning in other areas. Try experimenting with your optimal level of self-care, both in terms of time and type of activity.
Speaking of activity, what qualifies as self-care for one person may not feel like self-care to someone else. For example, if you tend to feel refreshed and recharged after spending time with others, a night connecting with friends or family might restore you to your optimal functioning. If you are more introverted, spending additional time with others might feel draining, and you may experience more healing from enjoying a good meal or diving into a good book. Similarly, self-care often looks different across cultures.
Why is self-care important?
Self-care is the key to a balanced lifestyle; not only does it feel good, it helps move us forward in the areas of our lives that matter most. For example, students tend to perform better on exams if they have taken breaks while studying than those who study without taking breaks. (Especially if you use the break to exercise, meditate, or sleep – sorry Facebook, social media can actually cause more stress!) We are better versions of ourselves when we take care of bodies and minds, which matters not only for ourselves but for the people around us. Would you want to see a doctor who doesn’t engage in self-care and cannot provide you the best of her care? Neither would we! Many of us avoid self-care in the name of selflessness and dedication to others, but as any good flight attendant will tell you, you have to put on your “oxygen mask” before you can truly help others. So do the selfless thing and take care of yourself!
How can I practice self-care?
Here are some ideas for engaging in self-care (that aren’t watching Netflix). Remember that effective self-care strategies will likely differ from person to person, as well as from situation to situation, and culture to culture. So, try to consider what you know to be true about yourself before selecting self-care strategies to adopt. If you need to get away:
- Visit a special place you enjoy
- Watch the sunrise or sunset
- Consider free activities (external link) offered throughout the city
- Take a day trip to the suburbs
- Have a picnic in a beautiful setting
- Take a social media hiatus (tell your friends first so they don’t worry!)
- Limit news or screen time
- Attend an athletic event
- Visit an animal shelter
- Go see a movie, play, or concert
- Go window shopping
- Take a walk or a jog
- Read a book or magazine
If you need to go inward:
- Take time to be alone
- Write in a journal
- Pray/meditate/develop a spiritual practice
- Reflect on your most joyful memories
- Count your blessings
- Adjust your schedule to maximize balance
- Remember your positive qualities
- Think about what you value most in life
- Imagine yourself succeeding
- Identify realistic goals for the year/semester/week (professional, personal, social, etc.)
If you need to connect:
- Talk to friends, family, or a counselor
- Help a friend or volunteer in your community
- Set boundaries and say “no” when needed
- Hug someone you love (if you’re a hugger!)
- Express appreciation, in person, on the phone, or in a letter
- Give yourself a break from responding verbally and focus on listening
- Forgive others and let go of anger
- Spend time with pets
If you need to get creative:
- Play music, sing, hum, or whistle
- Take photos
- Create a collage or online mood board that represents you
- Learn a new artistic skill or hobby
- Make a home video
- Play like you did when you were a child
- Write a poem expressing your feelings
If you need to work with your hands:
- Avoid checking your phone while you complete a task
- Go through your belongings and decide what to donate to others
- Simplify your environment and make it feel like home
- Make something you’ve been meaning to make
- Draw, paint, or sculpt
- Keep your hands busy by using a fidget spinner or Playdoh
- Build something with blocks, origami, or Legos
- Cook or bake
- Garden or plant something in pots
- Fix something that is broken
- Clean your space or wash something by hand
If you need to care for your body:
- Exercise, on your own, with a friend, or in a class
- Eat three meals per day, including healthy snacks, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; avoid sugar
- Take a nap/get enough sleep
- Avoid alcohol and other drugs
- Practice safe sex
- Go to the doctor or dentist
- Stretch or practice yoga
- Go dancing
- Get a massage
- Drink lots of water
If you need to relax:
- Practice deep breathing; your chest/stomach should expand when you inhale
- Imagine a relaxing scene
- Try progressive muscle relaxation (tense and release muscles, one muscle group at a time)
- Listen to/watch a guided meditation video
- Take a long bath or shower
- Enjoy a cool glass of water or a warm cup of tea/decaf coffee
- Try aromatherapy
How do I make time for self-care?
When we wait until we “have time” for self-care, it may be too late for it to serve its preventative purpose. At that point, self-care is doing damage control for a burned-out individual. Alternatively, self-care is best practiced when you make time for it. Put it in your schedule, write reminders for yourself, and ask your friends and family to hold you accountable to it. Try to be specific about what you plan to do, that way you’ll be more likely to do it, rather than to say, “I didn’t have anything really planned, so I guess I can skip it today.” As you look over your current schedule, ask yourself where self-care will be most needed (e.g., after a stressful lab class, before a class that gives you test anxiety). Don’t overbook or spread yourself too thin – practice setting boundaries and protect the time you have set aside to take care of yourself.
Really though, I don’t have any time for self-care today, and I’m super stressed. What can I do?
We’ve all been there – those nights when we’re on our last legs, just trying to push through the stressor of the moment. Don’t have time to go for a run or call a friend? Try self-soothing. This is sort of self-care-shortcut that works in a pinch, but it does not replace the need for self-care.
Self-soothing is all about the senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Consider something that simply feels good to one or more of those senses – it could be the feel of a comfortable pair of sweatpants, the sight of a loved one, the smell of bread baking, the taste of a warm cup of cocoa, or the sound of your favorite band. If you’ve got a stressful situation on your hands, or maybe you’re even coping with suicidal thoughts, try comforting your senses with an indulgence like this. It won’t solve the problem at hand, but it will make you feel much, much better while you solve it. And when you’re through the woods, try to consider ways you can incorporate self-care into your routine so that you can increase your resilience to stress in the future.
How do I hold myself accountable to maintaining self-care?
- If you write anything down, you’re more likely to do it, so write it down! In your schedule, in your phone, or on a post-it on your mirror.
- Set a bedtime reminder that asks, “what did you do for yourself today?”
- If your week is already looking pretty full, try not to seek out additional activities, and limit the temptation to stretching yourself too thin.
- Be specific about what kind of self-care you plan to engage in so you are less likely to flake on it.
- Communicate your self-care goals to friends and family so they know: 1) not to ask you to do more than you can, and 2) to remind you to stay on top of your self-care (clueing them in to your self-care goals will also help them identify when you aren’t meeting those goals and are in distress, which will help them help you).
- You can also be an accountability partner for others, which will remind you to manage your own self-care.
- Perhaps most importantly, remember why you are doing it – no number of reminders is as effective as truly believing in the impact of self-care and having your own motivation to do it, whether it’s to get enough sleep so you can perform well on an exam or to keep from spiraling to suicidal thoughts. Consider including your reasons in your reminders, even if the reason is simply “because I’m worth it!”
Here is a self-assessment (external link) tool that can help you gauge what your self-care looks like now. It can give you more ideas for how you might expand your self-care – taking it often can also help hold you accountable to your self-care goals.
What self-care resources are available on campus?
School may be a prominent stressor for many students, but with it comes several free resources for self-care! Consider the following:
- For the body:
- For the mind:
- To get out:
- To connect:
Try a Self-Care App!
Looking for a stress management tool that works with your busy schedule? Our colleagues at Northwestern worked with students to design this tool and are conducting a research study called “Expanding College Student Mental Health with Stress Management Mobile Technologies” to see how students use it. We’re currently recruiting college students to use the app to learn stress management strategies and connect with on-campus services.
Principal Investigator: Emily Lattie, PhD
For more information, contact Nathan Windquist at Nathan.Windquist@northwestern.edu