You’ve probably heard the term “self-care” more often in recent years. And like many, you might not have taken it seriously. The most common thinking is that a spa day or a fishing trip is all that’s needed to restore stress levels, improve mental health and ensure physical wellness. A simple reprieve is all you need to keep going, right? Not necessarily. Self-care is so much more than a simple “break” – it’s an essential factor of well-being. Let’s look at why.
What is Self-Care?
The International Self-Care Foundation (ISF) and The World Health Organization (WHO) offer this definition: “Self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness.”
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These experts elaborate that self-care encompasses hygiene, lifestyle and pursuits, and nutrition. It’s also influenced by environmental factors both physical, like with housing, and by socio-economic factors like income. Self-care isn’t some buzzword or an indulgence, but rather, an important discipline to have in your life. These are the steps you take to ensure you’re healthy and happy, and thus able to give your time, energy, and attention to those around you.
The Seven Pillars of Self-Care
The ISF identifies seven pillars of self-care, which are:
- Knowledge and health literacy: learning how you can take better care of your physical and mental health
- Mental well-being or self-awareness: managing stress, asking and accepting help, using coping skills, building self-esteem
- Physical activity: taking walks, going for a bike ride, taking a yoga class, playing a sport
- Healthy eating: being mindful of what you eat, limiting caffeine intake, maintaining a well-balanced diet
- Risk avoidance: avoiding or limiting alcohol and tobacco/nicotine use, using sunscreen, getting vaccinated
- Good hygiene: brushing and flossing teeth, washing hands
- Rational use of products and services: safely using medication, going to therapy or counseling, going to the doctor for regular check-ups
These pillars explain how we can best take care of ourselves. They encompass both physical and mental habits because self-care is holistic in nature. People must tend to their mental and physical health needs in order to be healthy. This comes in a variety of forms relevant to individual needs.
However, today’s social media and culture have prioritized actions like taking a bath, developing an elaborate skincare routine or splurging on expensive purchases as key examples of self-care. While these practices may be right for some people, it’s important to remember that taking care of ourselves must also involve addressing our most basic human needs like getting a good night’s sleep and socializing with friends and family. When we neglect self-care, we’re ignoring what our bodies and minds need to function.
What Happens When You Neglect Self-Care?
According to Psychology Today writer Dr. Maria Baratta, “Self-care, in essence, is the mindful taking of time to pay attention to you, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you.” Just as any machine requires maintenance, self-care can prevent harm to your physical and mental health. It’s important to maintain these good habits. In fact, Dr. Baratta also emphasizes that things like burnout and compassion fatigue can result from prolonged neglect and stress.
Burnout is mental and physical distress after the continued enduring presence of stress. Compassion fatigue is indifference to others’ suffering as a result of continuous exposure to it or taking on the burdens of others’ suffering too much without reprieve.
These are very common issues for those in the medical field and other stressful, emotional jobs. Studies on those working in emotionally charged disciplines like psychotherapists, hospice professionals, and children’s Intensive Care Unit providers indicate that self-care needs to be a priority for these individuals. Besides helping themselves, it’s clear that self-care helps them continue serving others.
Self-Care for Parenting: An Essential Ingredient
What about parenting? Parents, specifically foster parents, rely on love and compassion that drives their every move to care for their children. For parents, children can take up every waking thought and every ounce of energy outside of work. This is especially true for foster parents.
Foster parents often care for children who have experienced hardship or are struggling with the impacts of trauma. As a part of their support, foster parents do everything they can to help alleviate the child’s struggles or worries. They not only provide for their basic needs and try to build a relationship with them, but they also try their hardest to deliver a carefree and joyful environment that every child deserves. While all of this hard work is worth it, it can also be emotionally and physically draining.
Foster parents, just like those in caring professions, are especially in need of proper self-care. This isn’t just because of how much work goes into foster parenting, but also because of the type of people foster parents tend to be. Foster parents are often natural, unselfish caregivers with many people who rely on them. As they spend all of their time and energy taking care of others, they may struggle to prioritize their own needs.
Foster parenting brings so many joys and rewards. Moments like connecting with a child who had seemed emotionally unreachable, or seeing a child succeed in school for the first time, or having a fulfilling family night of fun and laughter… these can fill foster parents’ cup. But these moments are not all that will sustain a foster parent in the important work they’re doing. Foster parents must also ensure that they’re engaging in the sustaining practices of self-care, whatever that looks like for them.
Address Your Needs to Continue Impacting Others
If you’re a foster parent and are struggling in some way, you might be ignoring your personal needs. To get back on track, go through the ISF pillars of self-care. Ask yourself if there any areas you’ve been neglecting and accept that it’s okay to ask for help. If you have a partner, ask them to take over for an hour or two. If you’re a single foster parent, try to find some time in your schedule for you—even if it’s only five or ten minutes.
When exploring self-care, it’s important to understand that everyone’s needs are different and to not compare yourself to others. One common trend for foster parents is comparing themselves to other parents. This can be discouraging and force you to neglect yourself as you try to exceed the perceived expectations of others. Every family has its struggles. No one is perfect, no matter what they post on social media or talk about publicly.
As popular researcher, author and speaker Brené Brown said, “Comparison kills creativity and joy.”
It doesn’t help your mental health to ignore your stress or unhappiness. Self-care starts with acknowledging and articulating your needs and accepting that you matter too. Check out these self-care resources from KVC partner, Sesame Street in Communities, for ideas on how to care for yourself and how to teach children about the importance of self-care.
Whether it’s getting back to basics with diet or sleep, cleaning or refreshing a living space, setting aside time for exercise, meditating, or praying, self-care is all of this and more. Do these things for you and your family. It’s time to fight against the stigma surrounding mental health and self-care. It’s not a cliche or crutch, but an important part of remaining loving, compassionate, and caring.