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by Anna Jones


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Mental health encompasses one’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. It is essential to overall health and quality of life and affects how one thinks, feels, acts and responds. When it comes to mental health, self-care can help people manage stress, lower their risk of illness and increase energy levels. But what exactly is self-care? Why is it important? And how can people incorporate self-care into their daily lives?  

Experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine answer common questions about self-care and the role it plays in maintaining positive physical and mental health.

“Caring for your mental health is just as important as caring for your physical health,” said Sumayah Abed, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine and family medicine physician at UAB Medicine Hoover Primary and Specialty Care. “Self-care plays a role in maintaining mental health and in supporting treatment and recovery for people with a mental illness.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, self-care means taking the time to do things that help people live well and improve their physical and mental health.

“Self-care is important because it enhances our well-being by keeping us connected to ourselves and what matters most to us,” said Kaylee Crockett, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the UAB Department of Family and Community Medicine. “It can help prevent illnesses from occurring or recurring, and it builds our capacity to handle stress and recover from adversity.”  

Unfortunately, self-care is sometimes seen as a luxury instead of a need; but Crockett wants to remind everyone that self-care is something that everyone needs daily, not just those who may feel stressed.

She recommends making self-care part of one’s routine and intentionally protecting time for self-care activities. This can look like putting time in the calendar for self-care or setting standing dates with friends, family members and partners to connect or take time to do something both parties enjoy. While engaging in self-care activities, take steps to limit distractions such as turning on “do not disturb” on devices during times set aside for self-care activities.

Below are some steps Abed and Crockett recommend everyone take to prioritize self-care.

  • Eat a balanced diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, seafood and nuts to improve energy and focus throughout the day.
  • Drink at least 60-62 ounces of water daily, and increase water intake during the summer. Limit caffeinated beverages such as sodas and coffee, and limit alcoholic beverages.
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Walking daily helps improve one’s mood and health. Small amounts of movement add up.
  • Schedule time in each day for relaxing and stress-reducing activities such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, listening to music, journaling, or trying out new hobbies that one can enjoy by themselves or with others. Hobbies can help keep the mind busy and are a great way to learn a new skill.
  • Get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Avoid looking at phones or computers before bedtime since blue light from screens makes it more difficult to fall asleep. Violent movies and upsetting news before bed should be avoided; turn to uplifting books or influential podcasts instead.
  • Build strong relationships with supportive family members and friends, or seek out activities that provide an opportunity to meet new people such as classes and support groups. Reach out to friends or family members who can provide emotional support and practical help.
  • Seek help from a health care provider to get connected with counselors and other resources if you are experiencing distressing symptoms or your efforts at self-care are not helping.

inside self care “Self-care looks different for everyone,” Crockett said. “Talking with people in your life about some of their preferred self-care activities may be informative, but it is important to remember that not everything that works for them may work for you. A good starting point to is to take time to reflect on activities you enjoy doing, that make you feel good and that give you a sense of meaning. From there, start setting some small goals that could easily become a part of your daily routine.”

Self-care activities should leave one feeling relaxed, energized and refreshed. If certain activities cause one to feel more depleted, it is time to try a different approach. By establishing good daily habits for self-care, everyone can learn the signs that indicate they may need more attention to self-care when stressors start to pile up.  

When it comes to defining positive mental health, Crockett says that feeling healthier is like a continuum — meaning that one does not experience significant distress from day to day, they have positive coping strategies that allow them to effectively deal with stressors that occur each day, and they engage in meaningful daily activities and relationships. Sometimes circumstances adversely affect mental health, leading to greater distress that makes it harder to function and engage with the things that matter to each individual.

When stress becomes too much for a person to bear, this may lead to a mental health crisis. In addition to prioritizing self-care, Abed says, it is helpful to know the signs of an impending crisis to know when to seek help.   

Some symptoms that may indicate a significant mental health concern include:

  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Feeling isolated, not wanting to leave the house and be with others
  • Feelings of guilt, sadness, hopelessness or worry
  • Thoughts of suicide and self-harm
  • Excessive drinking, substance abuse or smoking

“If you get to a point where managing your situation on your own is not possible, it is important to seek help,” Abed said. “Talk to a health care provider who can help you interpret your symptoms and connect you with the resources you need. If you are thinking about hurting yourself or others, you need to go to the emergency department. You can also call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for 24/7 assistance.”