Self-care and mindfulness: for the long haul

Posted on: 9th April, 2019

Category: Mental Health & Mindfulness

Contributor: Susan O'Regan

I am sometimes asked by participants on my mindfulness courses, “how long will this take?”  It seems a natural wish when we are feeling any emotional or physical discomfort, like stress or exhaustion, to want to feel better ‘now’. I can completely identify with that sense of grasping or impatience because I went through it myself and still do at times. Yearning to have the peace of mind that we can maybe see in others or for that elusive promise of happiness that we may read about. Yet, there is no timeline, no deadline on mindfulness training, no sense of having done that now, no sense of completion. It is the intentional moment-by-moment process of building our mindfulness skills over time that becomes part of life rather than an endpoint to reach.  

We can approach self-care, like mindfulness, in a similar manner, for the long haul, that is, repeatedly introducing simple self-care habits into our lives that become sustainable.  Mindfulness and self-care go hand in hand really, so I am very aware of the importance of self-care in my life.  In fact, I feel I could not teach mindfulness with integrity if I did not regularly practice self-care. It is neither self-indulgent nor selfish to look after our own wellbeing yet many of us find it extremely difficult. It can be so much easier to look after the welfare of others. Fortunately, both mindfulness and self-care are skills that can be learned. I recently attended the Mindful Living and Sleep Show in London, where many renowned teachers presented their work, including Breathworks co-founder Vidyamala Burch, who described mindfulness as “THE most profound act of self-care”.  I completely agree!

Mindfulness is the practice of noticing what is happening as it’s happening, in terms of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Practising mindfulness allows us to take a pause in our lives, to really see what’s going on before beginning some small steps towards self-care. Self-care, very basically, means checking in with yourself; asking yourself what you need just now and giving yourself the space and permission to do it. Sometimes, however, busyness and caring for others can increase our stress levels, so that even when we do take a pause and ask ourselves “what do I need just now?” we don’t always know the answer.   

It can be so much easier for us to make decisions that feel good right now, and opt for a “quick-fix”, than to have the discipline to make decisions that are better for us in the long run.  For example, I know that cooking a healthy, nutritious meal will serve me well in the long-term, but if I am feeling tired or ‘off’ in any way I sometimes seek instant gratification, like something sweet or fast food, to make me feel better instantly. It is such a normal human tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but a tendency that is not always in our best interests. Sometimes self-care means learning to say no, to others but also to yourself. I recommend writing down the things that really nourish us and make us feel good.  This can act as a reminder and help us make wiser choices, instead of strengthening that habit of choosing quick and easy options. Examples of such options could include watching Netflix instead of going for a walk, excessively eating comfort foods or drinking too much wine or coffee, all fine on occasion but depleting and draining in the long run.  

Simple pleasures like a walk outdoors in nature, a quiet cup of tea, a healthy dinner, all qualify as self-care.  When we decide on little acts of self-care, mindfulness helps us to savour them.  Being fully present for our moments of self-care can help us make the most of them. Mindfulness skills help us to return our attention to the present moment and really enjoy our time.  There’s little point making the effort to care for ourselves if our mind is full of busyness or has wandered off somewhere else. Regular acts of self-care can nourish us and build our resilience over time. It takes a bit of training and commitment to make self-care and mindfulness everyday habits but it’s good to start viewing both as long-term, and both possible to integrate into daily life, little and often. 

Because they are for the long-term, self-care, like mindfulness can be hard to maintain.  Yet, if we do not take the time to notice what’s going on internally, we can end up living a stress-filled life, disconnected from ourselves and others. This in turn may stop us from noticing that we are depleted and running on empty, not remembering what it is we really need to nourish us. I had forgotten recently that, for me, a clean house can be an act of self-care or simply lighting a candle, taking a bath or buying a bunch of flowers. Self-care does not have to cost anything, we just need to believe that we deserve it. Nature never fails to provide us with an abundance of opportunities for mindfulness and self-care.  Notice how it makes you feel to simply stop and listen to the birdsong all around us at the moment or to take notice of the new growth and new life appearing everywhere just now. Savour that feeling.

I now run monthly mindfulness and self-care Saturdays, the next one is from 10.30am – 1pm on April 27 at Market St clinic, Skibbereen and will explore mindfulness and sleep. Weekly drop-in mindfulness sessions are also being held at Market St Clinic, Skibbereen from 9.30 – 10.30am on Wednesdays from April 3. For more information you can contact me on
087 2700572
or email: susanoreganmindfulness@gmail.com.

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