Chances are, you heard about beloved gymnast Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team competition during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in late July. She chose to put her “mind and body” first and said that she “wouldn’t take it back for the world,” believing that everything happens for a reason. She went on to win the bronze medal for her individual performance on balance beam, an accomplishment that “means more” than her gold medals because it represents her focus on mental health and her perseverance through challenging circumstances.
We can all learn something from Simone’s example: Mental health matters. Just because it’s not visible doesn’t mean it doesn’t require attention. This month, I want you to make an effort to care for your mental health like you do your physical health. Below, I define self-care and then share three ways that self-care improves your mental health.
What Is Self-Care?
Before we dive in, let’s take a closer look at self-care. Self-care refers to anything that you do to improve your wellbeing and happiness. It can be as simple as enjoying a bubble bath, taking an evening walk, or listening to your favorite podcast. Some forms of self-care, like mindful movement, and sleeping well, directly benefit our physical health and give us the energy needed to power through each day.
The lumberjack fable is a perfect example of the impact of self-care. Two woodcutters, Peter and John, had a competition to see who could produce the most wood in a day. Both began chopping at their fastest speed, but after an hour, John realized Peter had stopped. He assumed Peter was tired already and continued to cut down trees at double his original pace. After 15 minutes, John heard his opponent resume chopping. Just as he began to feel weary and slow down, he heard Peter stop again and was encouraged to keep going. This pattern continued throughout the day. When the competition ended, John was surprised to see that Peter had cut down more wood. “How could you have chopped down more trees than me? I heard you stop working every hour!” he exclaimed. Peter replied, “Well, it’s really simple. While you were swinging an increasingly dull axe into the night, I took breaks and was sharpening mine."
No matter how busy you are, in order to be your best, you have to make time to sharpen your axe and focus on you. Ultimately, as shown by both Simone and Peter, you can accomplish more if you practice self-care and make room in your life for rest and renewal.
Three Ways That Self-Care Improves Mental Health
It gives you a sense of security: Anxiety is often the result of feeling unsafe or out of control. Self-care, then, makes us feel safe and cared for, which reduces those negative feelings. Seek support from your loved ones and be open about your feelings. Our worries can easily take on a life of their own, spiraling into something much worse than the truth. Sometimes, just speaking your concerns out loud helps to put them in perspective.
It gives you a stronger sense of self: Mental illness is usually accompanied by a low sense of self-worth. That spiral I mentioned above? It often includes questions about who you are and whether you matter or deserve to be loved. Taking care of yourself is a tangible reminder that you’re important, that you’re worth it. Here, you need to understand your worth as a person, separate from your accomplishments. Prioritize fun and relaxation as much as you prioritize your work.
It actually benefits others: Many people feel like self-care is selfish, but that’s not the case. In fact, caring for yourself allows you to better care for others. One easy way to practice self-care that directly benefits your loved ones is to set boundaries. Knowing your limits allows your friends and family to get the best version of you rather than someone who is exhausted and burned out.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, therapy and/or medication may be necessary too. Even so, self-care is an important component in your journey and only contributes to the effectiveness of other treatments.