During the intake process with a new client, I always ask about five areas of self-care: nutrition, sleep, exercise, pleasurable activities, and supports. Self-care provides a foundation for physical and mental health, and I believe that everything we do in therapy is built upon this foundation. With a more solid foundation, progress comes easier and outcomes are more sustainable. The same is true for everything we do in life, which is why I place such great value on self-care.
Think of self-care as a table with five legs, one for each area. If all five legs are strong, then you can use the table for almost anything. You can set heavy boxes on it. You can build a house of cards on it. You can even stand on it. Of course, nobody’s table is perfectly solid all the time, because we all face limits (time, money, motivation, sickness, etc.) that make self-care difficult. Fortunately, even with a couple wobbly legs, your table can still do its job. However, there are limits.
The less solid your table becomes (i.e. the more areas of self-care that are weak), the greater the chance that it will become unstable at a critical moment. Imagine trying to build a house of cards on a table with shaky legs. Imagine the frustration of having the cards fall, not because of your unsteady hands, but because of your wobbly table. Now, imagine your frustration if that house of cards was actually a new relationship or a new career. If only you had taken the time to tighten up the legs of your table, perhaps your efforts would have been rewarded! This is why making time for self-care is so critical. Any improvement might make the difference between the cards standing and falling.
Let’s take a moment to look more closely at each leg of the table:
- Nutrition – This leg includes anything that you take into your body: food, beverages, vitamins, supplements, medicine, alcohol, drugs, and so forth. All of these have a direct impact on body functioning and brain chemistry. Without the proper building blocks, the body and mind can’t maintain themselves effectively; and with excessive toxins, functioning can be impaired or damaged.
- Sleep – This leg is about the amount, quality, and consistency of sleep. Unfortunately, sleep is not always under our control, as with insomnia or nightmares. Like the canary in the coal mine, sleep issues can serve as an early warning sign for other problems (e.g. anxiety or depression). Also, sleep patterns are often hard to correct once they get disrupted, so it is important to catch problems early.
- Exercise – This leg is about physical activity, which impacts not only your physical fitness, but also your mental health. Exercise is one of the best ways to manage the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety. Ironically, exercise is also typically one of the first activities to be dropped during times of stress!
- Pleasurable Activities – This leg includes activities that are fun and/or meaningful to you in some way. They can be social or solitary, and they can take almost any form (interests, hobbies, escapes, passions, creative outlets, connections to nature, etc.). They can also overlap with the activities of the other four legs. I think of pleasurable activities as being the most direct source of stress reduction, because they have such a profound impact on quality of life.
- Supports – This last leg is about connections with individuals, groups, or communities. Human beings (introverts and extroverts alike) generally don’t function very well in prolonged isolation, and good supports provide the critical bonds that keep us grounded and balanced. However, in order to qualify as a good supports, we must actually use these people as supports! It is not enough to merely have people available to you.
After years of addressing self-care with clients, I have come to realize that all five areas have something to do with connectedness. Nutrition, sleep, and exercise involve connectedness with yourself (your health, your body, etc.), while supports involve connectedness with other people. Depending on the individual, pleasurable activities might involve connectedness with self, others, nature, or a sense of meaning, purpose, or spirituality. As each area of self-care is given more attention, connectedness deepens and health improves. Taken together, these areas of self-care seem to suggest that our foundation of health is really a foundation of connectedness… or interconnectedness. The longer I do this work, the more right that sounds.