How can we build resilience through self-care?

Written by Andi Smart

 

Following the launch of the report ‘self-care: an ethical imperative’ in 2013, momentum for the self care campaign has grown extensively leading to the commencement of the Self Care Forum in 2018. The purpose of the Forum is to further the reach of the importance of self care in resilience building and, thus, embed self care into everyday life.

NHS England is a key partner in the Forum, as are a number of eminent organisations reinforcing the importance of the topic. For a list of these organisation and lots more information see: http://www.selfcareforum.org/  

So, what is resilience?  

Resilience is defined by McLeod (2013) as “bouncing back from adversity”. However, it is important to see resilience as a process and, thus, bouncing back can happen (and probably will happen) multiple times. However, there is still a lot of misunderstanding as to what resilience really is: for example the term resilience, to some, suggests that ‘the stiff upper lip’ approach is the way forward but this is a huge problem as it encourages people to bury their head in the sand rather than deal with the challenges being faced and, therefore, bounce back from their problems like in the McLeod (2013) definition.

And what about is self care?

Self care is the practice of consciously doing things that preserve or improve your mental or physical health (Covington, 2008). Self care for me, then, relates to how we take care of ourselves: our physical, emotional, psychological and social health and, thus, the processes we have in place to support a positive sense of health and wellbeing.

What are the benefits of self care?

Making changes to prioritise self-care can help to manage mental and physical health issues and, according to Self Care Forum (2020), possibly be a preventative tool: ie help stop them from getting worse. However, self-care is not a substitute for professional help and, therefore, should not be used in isolation to tackle physical and mental health challenges. Self-care should be part of a bigger, holistic picture that might also involve professional and peer support. With this in mind, if your mental or physical health is deteriorating, you should always talk to someone about it.

Ways to build resilience through self care

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the building of resilience through self-care can mean different things to different people (Covington, 2008). Considering this point further, McLeod (2013) devised a set of questions, comments and statements to support in the building of resilience: 

  • Has the individual got access to others’ who they trust and who help them through life?
  • Have support with getting the very basics in life, like food, clothing, transport and housing?
  • Actually access activities, hobbies and/ or sports?
  • Have multiple opportunities to practise problem-solving at home, school, work and in the wider community?
  • Feel safe, and can be themselves in their homes, schools, work and communities?
  • Know how to calm themselves down and take charge of their feelings?
  • Know what they are good at, and are proud of it?
  • Support other people, for example, through volunteering/employment/mentoring?
  • Are supported to understand what they need to do to build their own resilience and support other people in their communities to build theirs?
  • Have help to map out a sense of future (hope and aspirations) and develop life skills throughout their life course?

This is a basic checklist that can be followed by all of us and, thus, support us in the building of resilience.

Diet

First and foremost we should remember that “we are what we eat” and that this is vital to self care and, thus, the building of resilience. This is because healthy food provides the energy and nutrients needed to be physically and psychologically healthy: for example researchers have linked omega-3 deficiencies with increased risk of psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and OCD as well as physical conditions such as diabetes, dementia and heart disease (Covington, 2008). 

So how do you go about increasing your omega 3?

Seafood, including oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel are among the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids so an increase of these food sources would be beneficial to self care and, thus, the building of resilience.

Weight and Wellness is a really interesting podcast on how nutrition can be supportive in the building of resilience: see https://www.weightandwellness.com/resources/podcasts/resilience-times-anxiety/

Keeping physically fit

We now know that the brain has the ability to change its structure in response to learning and experience – this is known as neuroplasticity (Harvard Health Publications 2020). Consequently, studies have shown that individuals who engage in regular moderate-intensity physical activity have increased brain volume in regions of the brain associated with memory, learning, concentration and/or planning. This, suggests that these individuals may have experienced neuroplasticity as a result of regular exercise which allows their brains to function more effectively.

Given the vast body of research under Harvard Health Publications (2020) relating to self care and resilience building, it is obvious that exercise should be a priority. This is especially important during challenging times such as the Covid 19 pandemic where the opportunity to exercise has become limited. Aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes exercise (that makes you breathe harder….but don’t overdo it!) on all or most days of the week is a good starting point. It can be anything from running to walking, swimming to biking or working out at the (virtual) gym. Even vigorous household chores play a role in physical activity. However, as this is not always possible due to time constraints, three times a week would be a great target. 

It’s important to set realistic expectations, however, as if exercise is something you are new to it’s good to build slowly -  taking your time and learning and enjoying the process. Eventually it won’t feel like a chore anymore and you will see your fitness levels improving pretty quickly. As a consequence of the exercise, levels of inflammatory molecules remain low, while at the same time, immunity against infections is enhanced thus building a physiological resilience. Furthermore, with every session of exercise, millions of immune cells are mobilised and distributed throughout the bloodstream, activated and ready to mount an attack on potential pathogens.

External avenues of support

Accessing support, through work or education programmes such as supervision, reviews or tutorials are extremely important to self care as all provide a space in which we can open up around the emotional challenges faced when dealing with workload or related pressures. This enables us to reflect on emotions: unpicking the root causes of these feelings and allowing us to explore ways to possibly overcome or work with the challenges faced. This process helps us to figure out possible avenues for support and the increased understanding and self-awareness builds resilience for future situations and scenarios.

Ways to Care for Ourselves – hints and tips! 

There is a misconception that self-care is something you do for yourself at the end of the working day and lots of us tend to de-prioritise it. However, self-care is an important skill you should employ throughout your day. To get you started here are a few hints and tips:: 

  • Don’t complicate things – use strategies that work with your schedule and don’t put pressure on yourself to do too much as this defeats the object. When you’re struggling, remind yourself “I’ll get through this”.
  • Use a relaxation or mindfulness app on your smart phone; think about your breathing and stop to take deep breaths whenever you feel stressed or anxious.
  • Listen to music that makes you feel good.
  • Be kind to yourself by reminding yourself how well you have done and reflect positively on what you can learn for next time. 
  • Strategies you can use with your co-workers include offers of gratitude, humour, checking-in with one another and celebrating successes. 
  • Consider the most rewarding moment you have had this week.
  • Think about a compliment you’ve received from a co-worker.
  • Think about one person whose life you have had a positive impact on recently.

Evidence suggests that using these strategies regularly rather than waiting until you are “boiling over” is the most effective approach (Self Care Forum 2020). 

 

Conclusion

To conclude, self care and resilience building have become hot topics of discussion over the past five years with policy being developed to support these approaches. However, there is still some confusion as to what resilience and self care actually means and this can skew the support strategies being offered. This can result in a more generalised, less personalised approach. Still, there is clear evidence to suggest that there are many different directions an individual can take to support self care and thus build resilience as mentioned in the sub sections in this article and that, when finding time to look after ourselves, self care can support in building our resilience when managing life stressors for many years to come. Overall starting with the basics as incorporating these changes into our daily lives (rather than seeing them as ad hoc add-ons) is the best and most effective course of action.

References

Covington, M (2008). “Omega-3 Fatty Acids,” American Family Physician. Published

Harvard Health Publications (2020). Keeping fit and changing thinking – a longitudinal study. Cited on: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills - accessed 25 09 20

McLeod, J. (2013). An Introduction To Counselling. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education.

Self Care Forum (2020). How is self care important? Cited on: http://www.selfcareforum.org/about-us/what-do-we-mean-by-self-care-and-why-is-good-for-people/ - accessed 28 09 20

An experienced (c15 years) Mental Health Practitioner, Andi’s specialisms are Autism and Dementia Care, as well as having a strong interest in disability advocacy, sociology and equality.

Andi currently works in Education as a subject specialist and, as well as assessing achievement and participating in Internal and External Quality Assurance, helps to develop qualifications for Awarding Organisations.

In September 2017, Andi commenced the Master of Arts in Social Work at Sussex University.