Written by Tricia Miller, M. Ed, LPC
I really didn’t know about self-care until I was well into my 30s. Even after all the years in graduate school and attending many counseling related conferences while pursuing my career as a therapist, the concept of self-care often came as friendly reminder at the last slide of a presentation. From the academic standpoint, we really never delved into the practices of taking care of one’s self, but as a mental health professional, it was critical due to the nature of our work in helping clients.
Even after having two small kids, and barely surviving toddler life, I really never had time to think about taking care of myself. Big mistake. I can only imagine in hindsight how life would have been different if I knew simple practices of self-care. For many of those years in early motherhood, life was mostly a blur on top of a constant flow of stress circulating our household of four. I was just surviving and not living. I really did not know what it meant to actually practice self-care until I faced several hardships.
Battling Health Issues
In January 2013, I got on my first blood pressure medication when I developed preeclampsia with my second pregnancy. After delivering one month early, I would continue to be on blood pressure medication for the next three years. My normal medication routine over three years was popping that pill in the morning, and going on about my day. To compound my health issues, I underwent a second ACL surgery in September 2014 that reduced my activity levels for months.
On a routine doctor visit In January 2015, my blood work revealed elevated sugar levels, posing a close threat to diabetes. My primary care physician warned me that if they continued to be at that level, then I would be put on another medication. At that time, I was about thirty to thirty five pounds overweight weighing in about 176 pounds.
The doctor recommend that I work on weight loss to avoid the diabetic condition. He even offered me a weight loss pill. At age 37, I freaked out! I did not want to be another family member with diabetes. Only in my 30s, I couldn’t believe I would be at risk of developing diabetes, and I didn’t want to be another medication. I had seen the effects of hypertension and diabetes with my parents and several family members, and I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps.
I was also mad at myself. How did I get here? Was I really unhealthy? I felt I was out of control. I was killing myself softly with so many unhealthy food habits. It was common for me to eat out all the time, frequent fast food drive-thrus, and "reward" myself with food. Something needed to change. I needed to change.
Asking for Help Is Okay
When I did finally look in the mirror and accept my behaviors--it was shameful and embarrassing even to accept the behaviors of indulgence and mindfulness eating. It was clear that whatever I was doing wasn’t working. I needed help. And I had to learn to ask for help to get myself out of this miserable health hole.
In one of my local Facebook communities, I asked around for nutritionists in the area. In February 2015, I made that first appointment with a nutritionist at Advice for Eating, and it wasn’t too long before I could both see and feel positive change. Over time, I let go of the many unhealthy eating habits and developed a new relationship with food. Food served many purposes in my life: it was a constant companion, readily available in times of comfort, celebration, boredom, adventure and stress. It was a success when I finally let go of my daily 3 p.m. cookie time (with milk)! Oh, there were struggles, mood swings, internal battles and cheating moments, but learning to cook, eat, and shop healthy made a powerful impact in my life. Eating healthy has become way of life in how I take care of myself, and how our entire family eats. Educating myself on proteins, carbs, fats, calorie intake, mealtimes, etc. has empowered me to make the best choices in nutrition.
I also started an exercise routine with the help of a friend at my gym. I had to share my vulnerabilities with someone in my life who knew my struggles with weight, and allowed me to be accountable for my own actions. My exercise now included intention and purpose. Previously, I would just show up to the gym without a plan, without a goal in mind--and looking back--I wasted time. If you want to lose weight, you need to have a plan.
With my invigorated mindset, I hit the gym just starting out with 30 minutes of cardio, and from that point on, I realized I couldn’t live without my morning exercise routine. There’s something about getting up in the morning (even when you want to talk yourself out of it), and getting in a good sweat that sets me up for the rest of the day. I feel strong, energized, positive, and accomplished. I remained consistent and focused for months, and I eventually incorporated weight training.
With a solid exercise plan, I was able to lose about 20 pounds that first year in 2015. Whether it's working out of my garage or heading out to the gym, exercise is something I can't live without. It’s been three years since I started, and even after turning 40 this past year, I feel the best mentally and physically than any other point in my life. I have been able to get off blood pressure medication and get my blood sugar down to optimal levels. Looking at old pictures of me--I can hardly believe that was me! The "old me" liked comfort, yet there was sadness deep inside. And the "new me" is resilient and stronger. Sadness doesn't live here anymore.
Dealing with Change from a Person Who Hates Change
I do not like change. I operate best with a routine. My mealtimes occur at the same time every day, and I live by my calendar. In fact, I juggle between several calendars: my Outlook, iPhone, Giant whiteboard in my kitchen, and fancy calendar notebook all spell out different events from my work, family, church, and social life. I know a little overboard. I like knowing what’s ahead, and preparing for them. When something comes up and disrupts even a minor kink in my schedule, I can often get irritated, and it takes me awhile to transition to the new plan. However, these last several years life has taught me I can’t control everything nor plan for everything for that matter.
In the fall of 2015, our family experienced a huge change when we learned my husband would be laid off from his job as a petroleum engineer. Here in Houston, oil and gas companies experienced a downturn in oil prices which affected jobs. Many prominent oil companies faced big reductions in their work force with the economic downturn. At that time, I was working part-time in private practice trying to fulfill clinical hours required to become a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas, and so the loss of our main income would no longer be able to sustain our way of life. Working part-time was a luxury that our family could no longer afford.
My sense of security and the life that I knew was threatened. This was a first for me. My husband and I faced new territory here, and talks on selling the house, moving, and finding new jobs worried me as the months continued. Would we have to sell our house? Would we lose our community? How long could we last with paying our current bills using our savings? Would I have to jump in the workforce full-time again? All these questions weighed heavily on me, but I couldn’t focus on all these unknowns as they would damper my spirit.
How Self-Care Helped with Anxiety
Even though I had the exercise and nutrition routine down, it wasn't enough. I had to find a way to manage my anxiety in an uncertain future. And I felt uneasy for many months. Developing a self-care routine would help me build my emotional resilience with this transition, manage my anxiety, reduce stress, and increase positive thinking amidst the chaos. I wanted to be as supportive as I could for my husband who decided to start his own company. It had always been a vision for him, and I wanted to support him in this risky endeavor. We were both facing new territory here.
During this time, my self-care routine would include more meditation, prayer, and monthly visits to my therapist. Practicing guided meditations on my Calm App allowed me time for 12 minutes of peace and grounding every day. Because there were so many unknowns, I really focused in on the present. If I were to focus on the future, I would often think of negatives scenarios—fueling my anxiety.
I chose to stay positive, and find gratitude--no matter now little-- every day amidst the chaos. I was grateful every day that my family was together. We were healthy, and we were blessed to be surrounded by a network of supportive friends and family. I had to get over the luxuries that I was accustomed to with letting go of summer vacation plans and going out to dinner. My husband’s lay off taught me what really is important for our family, and what and who we value. As a result, my social circle shrunk to include people who were positive, supportive, and real. I didn’t have time to maintain superficial relationships, and attend frivolous events that wasted my time. I didn’t have time for bullshit. What was important to me was family, faith, health, and having a sense of purpose.
In the fall of 2016, my husband and I both returned to the workforce full-time. My husband launched his company, and I went back to Education as a high School Counselor while continuing to see my clients in private practice. Now—more than ever—I had to practice self-care due to the new demands of our work and family life.
Self-care is year-round for me! Keeping up with my self-care routine allows me to not only feel positivity, joy, and relaxation, but it allows me to have the reserves to help others, and to be connected with the people I care about the most. As both a Mom and mental health professional, I have to nurture my emotional reserves so I can be present in all the roles I have in this season in my life. Whether it’s playing catch with my son or walking alongside a client facing hardship, the present is the most powerful experience we can experience with someone.
Finding Your Self-Care Routine: Practicing Mindfulness
Ultimately, self-care in practice allows you to make space for joy—amidst the inevitable changes and transitions in life. Self-care does not just mean a spa day, or going to get a manicure/pedicure—which can be very relaxing and enjoyable, but it includes simple practices that allow you to be in the present. The act of being present, other wise known as Mindfulness, can change the way you work, parent, connect with others, worship, and live.
When thinking of developing you’re your own self-care routine, think about mini mood-lifters. Listening to music is a simple way to practice self-care as often it can lift your spirits. For example, listening to your playlist can instantly lift your mood, and can serve as the prelude to a great day! Whether it's turning up the sounds to Bruno Mars, the Beatles, or Bach--the rhythm and melodies of something familiear can snap you in the present.
In addition, connecting with friends or loved ones is also therapeutic. For me, there’s something therapeutic about meeting a friend for coffee. When’s the last time you checked in with someone who really knows you? When’s the last time you had a good laugh? I love checking in with best friend from college. Although she lives in another state, our occasional and spontaneous conversational check-ins enrich my life with laughter amidst the stress of being a working Mom.
In the therapy room, I often help clients develop their own self-care routine in response to the stress in their lives. It’s often a process of tapping into the things in life that you can’t live without.
Here are some examples of the self-care practices that you may consider or some you may already be doing:
● Playing a sport
● Connection with a Friend(s)
● Taking a Walk
● Listening to an Inspirational TED talk
● Listening to Music
● Expressing Gratitude
Need help in developing your list? Click HERE to develop your simple Self-Care Routine. I often use this exercise in helping clients developing their self-care plan. The best self-care routine is one that is practical for your lifestyle. Self-care is not specific to one group. Anyone can benefit from a self-care routine. Whether you’re a working or stay at home Mom, teenager or senior citizen, male or female, the benefits of taking time to take care of yourself can benefit your life immensely!
Tricia Miller is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Educator in private practice in Houston, TX with Miller Counseling & Wellness. She often works with adolescence and adults who experience anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and life transitions. She has over 14 years of secondary education experience, and has been in private practice for four years.