Tanya Sweeney: Self-care isn't about a night in on the couch with wine
So World Mental Health Day has come and gone, and if the folks behind the concept have done their job right (and to my mind, they have), we should all be a little the wiser for it.
We should at least be aware of what constitutes a mental health problem and ergo, how to solve it. But there's only so far a worldwide awareness campaign can go on this issue. Sometimes the buck stops with us.
Occasionally, I've been asked about how to keep oneself mentally strong and healthy, and the answer is much simpler than you think. I've no idea why self-care is one of those things we get wrong time and time again, but we do.
When I was younger, self-care used to mean 'treats'. I'd pop down to my local supermarket after a stressful day, and my inner voice would 'helpfully' chime in: 'A bottle of wine is something you deserve. Push the boat out and get some Doritos.' I'd find myself swerving down the biscuit aisle; all the while, the voice inside me would reason, 'You deserve this!'. This was how I would take care of myself. It was all fun and games until I woke up in the morning, slightly hungover and regretful. A short-term fix with absolutely no long-term gain. Unless you're talking weight gain.
As a means of surviving in this cut-throat world, I also believed that obsessing over goals, juggling as many balls as I possibly could and pre-emptively worrying about money/bills/relationships/problems would be a good way to look after myself. If forewarned is indeed forearmed, I figured that worrying about the bad stuff would at least soften the blow when the time came around. In truth, I was constantly exhausted. Besides, no matter how much you 'prepare' yourself for life's curveballs, they always come out of left-field and knock you for six. That's just the way it is. So I had to learn about self-caring the right way.
'Self-care' is something that we think were all good at, but really we aren't. Wine is amazing - the soporific calm it brings after a day on the grindstone is truly divine - but there are ways to be 'nice' to yourself that are better for you, both emotionally and physically. And I had to learn them.
Firstly, it's about pinpointing the small things that boost your spirits. In my case, clean bedsheets and flowers in my living room put me in a good mood. It really is as simple as that. Instead of buying chocolate and wine, I've found that spending the same money on roses delivers a much more lasting thrill. I smile every time I pass a full, colourful vase, which is several times a day. It doesn't even have to cost that much: my local Lidl does bunches of peach roses for the same price as a Twix multipack.
Another piece of advice I received from a healthcare professional was to buy the occasional body treat. Massages and facials (or when budgets are tight, a simple manicure) is a way of sending your subconscious a simple, but powerful, message: "I am worth taking care of. My body is worth looking after." This is what the experts call 'activating your self-soothing system'.
Even moisturising your body has a similar effect. Ask any mental health provider, and they will tell you that if you focus on your body, your emotions will follow suit. Even something as easy as taking a few deep breaths once or twice a day will help with feelings of being overwhelmed or stressed.
Clearing out the detritus in your brain is also a helpful way of making the world turn a little slower and making life seem less overwhelming. Tackling that small but annoying task that's been on your to-do list for months helps too.
The other invaluable piece of advice I got about self-caring was to - cue the panpipes - treat yourself like a six-year-old. That doesn't mean allowing yourself to go on the swings and watch Peppa Pig. What it means is being as loving and stern with yourself as you might be with a small child. You will be loving and affectionate to a young child, but when it wants to stay up late or eat lots of sweets, you'll take a firm but gentle stance and throw some discipline into the mix. See where I'm doing with this? Sometimes, and in the nicest possible way, you need to warn yourself about the naughty step.
Sounds boring and not as much fun as Peppa Pig and playgrounds, but I remember the first time I did this. Back in the supermarket, my 'helpful' voice was making Pinot Noir-related suggestions. "Shush you," I countered. "Today isn't wine day."
I felt an inner huff coming on, followed by the rumblings of a retaliation, so I followed up with, "You can have some wine at the weekend if you don't have some tonight." My inner child wasn't happy, but in the morning, when I had my clear head, I was glad I took charge. This all might sound a bit mad, and in some ways it is, but the truth is undeniable. Small moments that make you happy lead to happy days, which in turn lead to happy weeks, which in turn lead to… you guessed it, a happier life. I know what way I'd rather be.