yooooooo so like self care is a big topic right now (obviously)… in fact, I’ve spent the past year working on a book about how neglecting self care and letting stress build up can destroy your health and life. speaking from actual experience, tbh.
there are several self-care things I do now — ones that aren’t like “face masks and canceling plans!!” as many an instagram meme would have you believe are legitimate forms of mental and emotional hygiene. don’t get me wrong, I freakin love face masks AND canceling plans, but that’s not what keeps me from having panic attacks, nor do they help pull me out of a dopamine dip when depression comes creeping in. wouldn’t that be nice.
something I’ve had to come face to face with is that keeping your mental health in good form is just like keeping your physical health in good form. I thought that once I was out of my “bad place” of bouts of anxiety and depression, that the chapter was closed, and I could move on. in reality, there are certain baseline things I have to do to make sure that I’m protecting my mental and emotional wellbeing on a consistent basis.
you don’t go to the gym once and expect to have a six-pack for forever (or you do, and then harsh realities settle in, right around your midsection, and you have to unpack all that on your own terms)… so you can’t expect to go to therapy once and be solid, or go to one yoga retreat and never have a panic attack for the rest of your life henceforth. feel me?
as a fitness and wellness editor, I have seen a zillion and one ways to take care of yourself. some are fabulous and legitimate, some are neither here nor there, and some are bogus. since I don’t want to waste time or energy writing about the stuff that doesn’t work, I’ll share the things I actually do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and how they affect me/how effective they are in general. sound good?
y’all didn’t think I was going to skip this one, did you? this is the single most fundamental part of my mental hygiene/mental healthcare, and I think the rest wouldn’t be nearly as effective if it weren’t for this foundation.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have found my therapist, who is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist all in one. that means if I need a medication for any reason, he can prescribe it directly based on his diagnosis within our talk therapy sessions. he also has a pretty great baseline knowledge of how other kinds of medication (and things like diet and exercise, sleep, etc) may affect my mental health from a physiological standpoint.
one of the biggest takeaways from talk therapy this past year is the idea of sitting with — and acknowledging — negative feelings when they come up. instead of suppressing them (which is akin to letting an infection fester under the skin), address them head on. it often provides you with a bit of comfort and clarity, and you can accept that feeling bad every so often is human, and know that the feeling will pass. MUCH HEALTHIER THAN THE ALTERNATIVE. why did it take me two and a half decades to get here!?
this therapy has been the critical foundation upon which the rest of my self care/sanity routine rests. it has guided me, led me, shaped me, and held me up through the toughest times. I cannot emphasize this enough: start the hunt for your perfect-fit therapist, and do not stop the search until it clicks. this is a non-negotiable. everyone needs therapy, especially if you think you don’t need it. that means you need it the most. the end.
2. setting boundaries
does this seem trite? sorry if it does. it truly just didn’t click for me for a long time. I thought I was setting boundaries, but I wasn’t. the thing is, there is such a spectrum of boundary setting, and there are so many iterations of it. think: setting boundaries with your technology, setting boundaries with employers and work, setting boundaries with family members, with significant others, with yourself, with plans you make, with places you live, with time you spend on certain things (including everything from netflix to work projects to favors to time you’re willing to spend in the car to get somewhere).
not to get like TOO personal but like I already told you I have a psychiatrist so we’ve already opened up the floodgates… my therapist told me last year “you have a high tolerance for poor treatment.” that statement hit me really hard. I’ve slogged through bad relationships, emotionally manipulative bosses, emotionally abusive partnerships and friendships, and more — all of this culminated in severe anxiety.
since hearing these words — and vowing to lower said tolerance — I’ve been much more diligent, but it’s still a work in progress. set boundaries. as rachel hollis says (paraphrasing here), “people treat you as you allow them to.” set those boundaries.
3. taking frequent breaks
just the other week, I had to remind myself that I DON’T NEED TO CHECK EMAILS IN THE SHOWER and that it’s ok to take a break during the day. I wish I was kidding.
I was in a role for a while that required me to be at my desk literally all day, with exceedingly rare lunch breaks and many a skipped bathroom break. I have no one to blame but myself for that! I allowed (remember, high tolerance, poor treatment?) myself to be in that position without breaks, and it became a bad habit.
last year, I needed more than a lunch break or a shower — I needed a 12 week break. crazy, right? that break was the most powerful thing (aside from therapy) that I’ve ever done for myself, and allowed me to do a total brain reboot and life reset. spoiler alert: this is what my book will be about!
taking breaks has allowed me to identify what doesn’t make me feel good. these types of check-ins are absolutely imperative for your mental health maintenance. by learning to identify these things early before they progress and get worse, I can pivot when necessary and consistently prevent chronic stressors from getting out of hand.
this also gives my negative feelings a bit more concrete context, which is surprisingly helpful. before, I’d feel bad, and it would feel more like “everything is horrible and I don’t know why, so I guess I can’t do anything about it.” now, I can typically attribute it to something, which helps me either be at peace with the emotion or figure out how to fix it. this all comes down to taking a step back to identify what that “something” is.
I’ll get into this more in my upcoming book, but we often don’t give ourselves permission to take breaks. the reality is that we can take them, but we tell ourselves we cannot. we tell ourselves it’s impossible to take time away from work and obligations. truth bomb: the world keeps turning whether or not you keep walking with it. take the break; everything else will be fine.
3.5. tech breaks
on that note, taking a full week off my phone last summer was one of the best things ever. I also frequently delete instagram and email off my phone for a couple days at a time (whenever I can manage with work, bills, etc) to give myself a brain reset and manage those tech boundaries. this all ties into the aforementioned. it also helps me keep social media and tech fun (unpopular opinion: I actually love instagram and don’t think it’s evil), and lessens my psychological dependency.
before you take a full on break, move your apps around and hide them in new folders and locations. replace your most frequently used app’s former location with a random app. you’ll realize how much your muscle memory was leading you to open up an app just to mindlessly scroll! I was shocked by this. I’d be going about my day and wonder why I opened up my anatomy app… then realized it was in the place that IG used to be. try this trick and see if you can start to break some of those addictive patterns!
4. my pup
I’d be remiss to not share how much of a profound impact my dog has had on my mental health. the emotional support animal thing gets a lot of shit because of how people abuse the system (and I agree, those people are ruining it for all of us/this is why we can’t have nice things), but stella has genuinely been exceptional emotional support.
I interviewed the acclaimed psychiatrist/author dr. david burns last year and he agreed that one of the best ways to calm yourself in the moment or bring yourself back to a peaceful mental place is to spend time with animals (for him, it was his family cat). I don’t know what it is about these guys, but pets have this otherworldly presence about them that can heal on such a deep level. stella’s like my fur covered xanax.
yes, getting a dog is a ton of work, but I have had zero regrets. I’m obsessed with her, and the joy that she brings to my life by far eclipses any of the sacrifices I’ve had to make to care for her. a companion animal as a form of therapy can be absolutely transformative; start spending some times in shelters and rescues near you, or look into a responsible/vetted breeder depending on what your needs are and what your goals are with the pup. if you’re not quite ready to adopt, you could try volunteering an hour or so each week at a shelter or animal-related charity, so you get some cuddle time with fur friends. it helps, I promise. again — another unplugged activity and break from everyday life!
5. read, read, read
my self-care book club is essentially exactly what I do to keep exercising my brain for this mental health maintenance. I’m always picking up new bits of information that inform how I go about life, interact with others, coach myself through tough situations, and manage the ins and outs of being an adult on planet earth. I found myself undergoing a massive transformation mentally and spiritually when I spent more time in paper books on the beach, devouring these personal stories and medical tips from doctors and PhDs. I hope you find the same rejuvenation I do each time I crack one of these open!
the other obvious benefit of this is that it ties into tip #3.5 — it’s a screen-free activity that takes you away from potentially anxiety-inducing notifications, work, etc.
6. monthly massage
this seems like one of those frivolous luxury self care treatments, but I honest to the lawd am telling you this is fun.da.mennnntallllll (haha mental) for my sanity and wellbeing. as a very active person I genuinely need this kind of muscular care to keep my body healthy, and as physical and mental health are directly related, this keeps my brain feeling rejuvenated too.
plus, massage activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your body to CTFO. sympathetic = fight or flight, cortisol (stress hormone), anxiety, etc. that part of you is likely in high gear literally all the time. parasympathetic turns that sh*t off, so you’ll want to do everything you can to do that (basically a bunch of physiological jargon to say “it calms u down” but like, with medical evidence). this means it’s ideal for anxiety and stress reduction and mental health maintenance.
I bought myself a burke williams package (they’re a chain of spas in southern california and a few other locations) and it was honestly the best promise I’ve made to myself in 2019. one massage a month guaranteed, charged to my cc. it has forced me to step out and take a several hour break at least once a month, no phone, no plans, and just totally decompress while taking (very necessary) physical care of my body. this to me is not a luxury (though, you know… it IS luxurious): it’s preventative medicine and healthcare. I’d rather be proactive than reactive namsayin.
just to clarify: I don’t think I can out-meditate depression. I don’t think meditation, on its own, works as a panacea. but then again, neither do many of these tips. however, it frustrates me to no end when people say “just meditate!” to people with depression and anxiety. listen, I get it — meditation is powerful and incredible. I’ve been doing a lot more of it this year! but it comes off as flippant when someone suggests it as if it’s an all-out cure, and I don’t want anyone to thing I’m saying that here either. annnnyyyway.
I’ve been using the calm app this year, and I love it. I was on a hell of a streak with daily meditation all the way up until my europe trip and then things kind of went to sh*t. jumping back into it now in june and it feels really good.
it’s hard. it doesn’t come easily to me. even after 100+ sessions, my mind still wanders. start with guided, short sessions — three to five minutes. do it daily, if you can. BE BETTER THAN ME! I’ve had some seriously incredible moments of clarity come to me in these brief sessions.
8. get enough sleep
seems simple/easy enough, but it’s so often neglected. I get at least 8 hours of sleep a night, regardless of how early that means I have to go to bed. I have a night time routine (I don’t do it every single night because I’m a person not a robot), sometimes I do my meditation right before bed, but I always make sure I get ample sleep. if I don’t sleep, my mood goes down the drain. I also — at the behest of my psychiatrist — get up as early as possible every day. I don’t sleep in unless I don’t feel well.
9. diet and exercise (and supplements?)
another one that seems obvious, yet I’d like to emphasize that the entire genesis of my healthy lifestyle was due to my desire to improve my mental health. changing my diet, limiting alcohol, and adding in exercise has been tantamount to my improved emotional state.
when I’m feeling like my dopamine is telling me to go F myself, I book a class. or two. it gives me a good rush of endorphins and helps me feel strong and in control, all while taking my mind off anything other than how much my muscles are burning or how much my lungs are on fire. as far as my routine now, it’s HEAVILY pilates, which I need to get into separately, but it’s been my go-to for 75+% of my routine the past year and a half. the rest is soulcycle and occasionally another kind of class.
I love comfort foods, and I don’t shy away when I have cravings, but clean eating has also been a cornerstone of my feel-good checklist. I’ll get more into the specifics about what I eat in another post, but a lot of vegetables are involved. here’s the catch. eating “too healthy” will eff you up just as much (but in different ways) as eating garbage. it truly IS about balance, so keep that in mind.
also, I don’t want to make a separate bullet for this because this post is getting p long, but I use CBD sporadically as well, which I guess is part of my healthy diet, yeah? I ingest it (I don’t smoke because #health), so that’s like a food basically, right? a supplement? anyway, CBD is still being researched heavily to provide more definitive and conclusive evidence regarding its efficacy, but in my esteemed personal and professional opinion…. shit works. real well. I’ve written extensively about CBD and how it works on popsugar, shape magazine, and svn space, so search “dominique astorino cbd” and several of those articles should come up. I promise to write more here as well.
10. sun, sand, salt
the beach has always been my peaceful place. I’ve realized that this is less about “go to the beach” and more about finding the right climate and environment that allows you to thrive and feel your best. maybe you love the energy of being in a city or need the respite and earthy air in the mountains. maybe the desert gives you a sense of tranquility, or your hometown grounds you in a way that nowhere else does.
I need outside time, I need sun (have MAJOR seasonal affective disorder when the weather is gloomy), and I need beach to recharge. something about those negative ions in the sand and ocean, you know? it totally resets me. again, this is not a standalone cure-all… but being in the right environment has allowed the other facets of my MH routine to take hold more, thus increasing their efficacy.
so yeah… that was a lot. if you’ve made it this far, first of all kudos, and secondly I hope it was helpful. this is a lot of personal info to take in, but I know so many of you deal with not just anxiety and depression, but general stress that can eat away at you over time if left unchecked.
let’s all be a little better to ourselves and our brains and bodies, shall we? good luck implementing some of these.. lmk how it goes!