“Self-care” has become somewhat of a buzzword phrase recently and one promoted heavily during May, aka Mental Health Awareness Month. Easy for some, difficult for others, seen as a basic health tool or a selfish indulgence, self-care can be polarizing. Especially for those who are experiencing or have experienced abuse and those helping support them, self-care is incredibly important. But what does this term really mean and why is it so vital and yet potentially difficult to practice?
What is Self-Care?
Psychologist Maria Baratta explains self-care as, “the mindful taking of time to pay attention to you”. Learning when you are overwhelmed, stressed, fatigued, anxious, etc. to care for yourself however you can to interrupt or lessen the effect of these debilitating reactions. This can take the form of small, relaxing activities or larger life changes. Safe Speaks describes self-care for survivors as finding “interesting ways to take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially.”
Why is Self-Care Important?
Self-care can be very beneficial for everyone. It helps people manage their own stress levels and life balance to avoid burnout, exhaustion, anxiety, and the mental and physical illnesses that can result from these. This is especially key in the turbulent and fear-filled world of domestic violence survivors.
Controlling relationships can be extremely stressful, terrifying, and exhausting. Survivors are always on edge, constantly wondering what might trigger abuse, trying to adapt their lives to hide and/or minimize it, wrestling with shame or conflicting feelings for their abuser, protecting children, finding a safe way to get help, and dealing with the toll of abuse on their own psyche and/or body. Not only can self-care help to mitigate this toll but it may be the only option for some who are not at a point where they can or want to seek support from anyone else. Learning how to help oneself, even in small ways, can be what gets them through. Per Safe Speaks, “Self-care becomes essential in helping one to reduce the turmoil and volatility that undermines their ability to work or even function well daily… Doing things that make you happy can serve a crucial role in healing.”
For Those Lending Support
When survivors do reach out, those they share their experiences with often relate to or sympathize with their plight to an extent that may affect their own health. Secondary trauma is a frequent occurrence where advocates, friends, family feel worried and fearful for the survivor, resulting in stress, fatigue, and other issues manifesting for them as well. Self-care can help them manage these feelings so that they not only care for themselves but are able to lend better and continued support to the survivor(s) they know.
Myths & Misconceptions
Self-Care is Narcissistic
Dr. Baratta emphasizes that self-care is not a selfish act. Rather, it is an essential tool that helps people manage their own health and/or cope with or heal from an abusive relationship. Psychotherapist Ashley Eder adds that should one not make room for self-care, it will “elbow its way in” regardless in the form of compulsive behaviors such as overeating and depression.
Self-Care Takes Too Long
While some self-care behaviors can be time consuming, many are not. Quick activities from listening to an empowering song to drinking a glass of water to taking several deep breaths require mere minutes yet can have a lasting impact.
Self-Care is Expensive
As with time, the cost of self-care activities can vary greatly. Yes, a spa day or vacation can be budget busting luxuries but taking a bath, meditating, or going for a walk are free options that can be just as effective.
Self-Care is Any Relaxing Activity
While what soothes and bolsters individual can vary quite a bit, habits that seem comforting in the moment but ultimately affect health negatively are not true self-care. This may include indulging in too much alcohol, food, or binging TV, video games, etc. to the point of addiction. Therapist Joyce Marter stresses that self-care must support wellness and not be, “…compulsive or harmful to your mind, body or bank account.” At the other end of the spectrum, chores such as cleaning the house or paying bills can be self-care in that they reduce stress in one’s environment and check things off a worrying to do list.
Why Self-Care Can Be Difficult
Ironically, overwhelming and stressful periods when one is most in need of self-care are often the occasions when one feels least able to spare any time for it. Using even a few minutes for oneself during a busy period can feel counterproductive. It can be hard to understand that taking a break can help with mental clarity and efficiency as well as mitigate the possibility of more serious and prolonged issues.
For those living with an abuser, finding time and space to truly relax can be even more challenging as the abuser’s control may limit options further. A sense of shame or guilt that often accompanies abusive relationships can extend to self-care. A National Domestic Violence Hotline article explains, “It is especially challenging for victims and survivors of abuse, who are often made to feel like they are not worthy of love or care.”
Simple Self-Care Suggestions
Self-care does not have to cost any money or take much time. For survivors, the National Domestic Violence Hotline suggests starting small with gentle, gradual changes focused on meeting basic needs such as adequate sleep, regular meals, and physical activity. Begin by addressing one of these needs with one self-care activity per day and build from there. Self-care is very individualistic; the entire premise is to do what feels best for you.
Here are a few suggestions for quick and easy self-care activities to get you started:
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