For most people, the term self-care is about taking time for oneself, meditation, or other activities that allow a person to relax and recharge after a long, hard day. For mental health patients, self-care after treatment is a crucial part of maintaining a balanced life. Whether it is long-term outpatient care or residential treatment, both self-care and aftercare are essential components of continuing treatment.
To define, self-care is what a patient can do to help him or herself feel better physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Aftercare is keeping up with therapy, attending all doctor’s appointments, and taking medication as directed. Both types of care are important facets in maintain good physical and mental health.
Josie couldn’t believe it when she was diagnosed with severe depression. She had been wondering why she couldn’t focus and function on a daily basis, but she never once considered it could be a mental health issue. Because she had great support from her family and friends, Josie was able to seek the aid of doctors and therapists to help her understand her condition and get appropriate treatment.
But one thing no one mentioned was self-care. Josie did everything everyone told her to do – but she never focused on her personal well-being.
It is not uncommon for patients with mental health issues to ignore self-care. Doctors and therapists are primarily focused on ensuring the patient is properly medicated and follows up with therapy. But when you have a mental illness, like Josie, you need to know that caring for yourself isn’t selfish – it’s one of the key elements of your recovery. Self-care must include the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual.
For Josie to engage in positive self-care, she needs to define for herself what her body needs and how she can improve her lifestyle. Self-care gurus across the web offer a lot of sound advice about how to make positive lifestyle changes that promote self-care.
One of the first things patients can do is get outside. Our society is governed by a sense that remaining indoors is safer, and many teens or young adults would rather be on social media than outdoors experiencing nature. Giving your body sensory experiences is one way to improve physical health and one way to get some exercise – even if it is just a walk.
Many patients with depression and/or anxiety find yoga to be very beneficial to their overall physical health. The controlled stretching and positioning of the body gives you a sense of who you are and where you are in your space. You may notice muscles or tendons you never noticed before, and there is an element of meditation that aids in calming the mind and body.
If you aren’t into slow, meditating type activities, you can always dance! Turn on your favorite playlist and simply dance. No one will judge you, and no one will make fun of you. Close the bedroom door and free your mind and body in the music. Dancing not only helps you get your heart rate up – it’s great cardio – but you can laugh at yourself and be silly, connecting with the inner child that just loves to play.
Josie finds the ocean air soothing, so for her, a trip to the beach to de-stress and take time for herself would be ideal. The sounds of the crashing waves, the squawking seagulls, the ocean breezes blowing across your face, and the soft sand to sit in make for a great self-care activity.
And for everyone, adequate sleep is crucial. When you sleep, your brain resets – literally. During sleep, the brain is “washed” with fresh cerebral spinal fluid and neurotransmitters are balanced. For a mental health patient, this reboot is essential. While someone with anxiety or bipolar disorder may have neurotransmitters out of balance, this reboot, along with prescribed medications, can bring fresh balance.
Mental self-care is about giving your brain exercise or using an activity as a distraction when you get stressed out about your condition. There are multiple activities that sharpen your brain. For example, you can do puzzles – any kind of puzzles – to exercise your thinking and create new pathways for neurotransmitters.
But, if you are more of an unorganized person, maybe it’s time you cleaned up your room or reorganized your closet. Believe it or not, these are mental exercises that require critical thinking, spatial recognition, and removal of “dead weight”. Dead weight is anything you have been hanging onto that you no longer need. Collect your old clothes and donate them to a local charity. That frees up space in your closet and helps people at the same time – both are great for mental self-care!
Mental self-care is also about recognizing your triggers and learning how to cope with the stress related to them. When you have mastered the necessary coping skills, and know your triggers, you can better avoid situations that will bring unnecessary stress and, if you get triggered, you’ll be prepared to handle it.
Josie remembers that reading a book is something she enjoyed as a child and hasn’t done for a while. Reading is a great way to relieve mental stress and give your brain new fodder for thinking. If you know you liked a certain movie, say Harry Potter, why not try reading the books?
To care for oneself emotionally is to allow oneself to feel – no matter what the emotion. You must acknowledge your emotions if you hope to manage them. Emotional self-care is primarily about self-compassion. Now, don’t confuse that with self-pity. Feeling sorry for yourself is detrimental to your emotional well-being. But self-compassion means you are recognizing your feelings and allowing yourself to engage with them.
A practical way to deal with emotions is through journaling. Many patients find that actually writing down what they’re feeling and why helps them find a path for coping with those emotions. Now, you don’t have to save journaling for negative times – write about the happy times as well! There is nothing wrong with recognizing when you’re happy and expressing your joy. In fact, write a poem about it! No one ever has to read it, but you will feel a sense of accomplishment.
And laugh – laugh as much as you can! If you enjoy comedies, and you haven’t been feeling great or you’re stressed out, stream your favorite stand-up comedian or romantic comedy movie, and allow yourself to laugh like a maniac. Laughter sends endorphins to your brain that give you a positive overall feeling.
Josie loves to laugh, but depression truly gets in the way of having a good time. She finds that watching a funny movie or reading a funny book are both great ways for her to laugh, even when her depression is acting up.
Additionally, there is nothing wrong with recognizing when you are sad or in pain. If you need to cry, cry! Do not be embarrassed. Crying is a physical manifestation of pain and sadness that helps you release the negative energy and feel cleansed afterward. You’ve heard the saying, “I need to have a good cry”? There is a lot of truth in that simple statement.
Often, when patients hear the word spiritual, they think of religion. That is simply not true. Spirituality and religion are two completely different things. Spirituality is about recognizing the soul that you carry within you. Spiritual self-care is when you take the time to find your soul, nurture it, and give it a sense of peace.
If you do practice a religion, visit your church, temple, mosque, or synagogue. Take time to sit in the quiet and connect with your higher power. Read the holy scriptures that guide you and find the wisdom of your creator. Pray regularly to keep your soul connected to your God.
For patients who don’t actively practice a religion, there is much to be said for connecting with nature and the universe. In the theories of Eastern Philosophies, there is much to be said for meditation and chakra work. Those who meditate regularly (meaning every day for at least 30 minutes) often find it easier to connect with their soul and connect their soul with the universe.
Chakra work is an Indian concept that identifies 7 main points in your physical body that affect your spirit. When you learn about clearing your chakras, you have found a process that helps you disconnect any negativity that exists in the physical body that is affecting the spirit. It doesn’t take long – less than 10 minutes – and it can be both physically and spiritually satisfying.
All of these methods of self-care can be used at any time when your mental health issues seem to be out of control. But not just that – practicing self-care is something that keeps your mind, body, and spirit healthy in the long run, making it easier for you to find your place in the world. Another aspect of self-care is the process of therapeutic aftercare – a process that all mental health patients should participate in.
When you start treatment for a mental health issue, there can be a lot of mixed emotions. It’s often a relief to have a name for the way you’ve been feeling or seeing the world. But, once you have that name, it feels like a negative label. Mateo felt the sting of that label when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Mateo couldn’t understand why his emotions were so up and down. One day, he was happy and excited and couldn’t seem to get enough of life! A few days later, he couldn’t get out of bed. He was frustrated and angry and his parents couldn’t get him into a clinic for many months. His was a low-income neighborhood and doctor appointments were hard to come by. At his appointment, he was diagnosed as bipolar – and his parents were embarrassed. So was Mateo. Mateo and his family wondered how their neighbors would react – and if this could hurt Mateo academically.
But, thanks to his doctor, Mateo was able to get a prescription and see a therapist once a month. After his initial treatment, Mateo was supposed to follow up with the doctor at least every three months and his therapist once a month – that was his aftercare plan. Mateo hid his diagnosis from his friends, but he kept his appointments.
The aftercare plan for each patient is different and based on the patient’s diagnosis. For a teen boy like Mateo, if he hadn’t gotten help, he could have ended up being hospitalized. So could other teens or even young adults with generalized anxiety, mood disorders, or depression.
For a patient with generalized anxiety, aftercare usually consists of taking medication regularly, watching out for side effects. It’s also essential to see a counselor regularly, keeping a journal of symptoms, finding ways to relax, practicing deep breathing, getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, exercising regularly, and avoiding nicotine, alcohol, and other street drugs.
In patients with mood disorders, it is, again, critical to take your medication on schedule, learn new ways to relax, tell someone if you feel severe mood swings, ask a friend or family member to monitor your symptoms, develop coping skills, make positive lifestyle changes, and ask your mental health care team for additional resources.
The aftercare for depression is similar to that of other mood disorders – keeping your med schedule, monitoring symptoms, and keeping therapy and doctor’s appointments. It is also crucial to watch for feelings of suicidal ideation. If you have recurring thoughts of suicide or of harming yourself or others (most common in depression), get help immediately.
When patients combine self-care and aftercare, their conditions can be well-monitored, and they can learn how to best cope with their diagnoses.
If you or someone you know has a mental health issue and is ready to engage in self-care, remember that one must take care of the whole person – the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. And always ensure that the patient follows up with aftercare as that is also part of self-care.