Self-care is anything you do to reduce stress and take care of your physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual health and well-being.
If you have CPTSD a certain portion of your time and energy is spent dealing with symptoms. This is energy that you then don’t have for other things.
Imagine a glass that’s already half full with sand. That’s the amount of stress CPTSD adds to your life. Next to it, imagine an empty glass. That’s life for someone without CPTSD. He can fill his glass right up with stressors. He’ll be fine. But if you do the same, your glass will overflow. It’s simply too much.
For this reason, self-care matters. It matters especially when something is additionally draining us of energy, such as:
- recovery (confronting our traumatic past or changing our habits of thought takes energy),
- personal crises, illness, stressful times at work or at home,
- after we’ve had a flashback
However, many of us were never adequately taken care of as kids. What is worse, some may even have been rejected or abused for showing signs of distress. For that reason, it’s understandable that we may not have a clear idea of what good self-care looks like. What makes matters worse is that self-care is often seen as basically the same thing as safe-indulgence and selfishness, and that some people think it’s only for the weak.
Some reasons to practice healthy self-care are:
- we have more energy left for daily life,
- we’re less likely to burn out or get preventable diseases,
- coping with flashbacks is easier if you’re not drained of energy,
- we’re only able to really care for others if we’ve learned to care for ourselves.
An additional bonus: the better we get at this, the better we’ll be able to ground ourselves, soothe ourselves, and re-energize ourselves after a flashback.
Some areas we might practice self-care include:
- Physical self-care - caring for your own physical health and well-being (e.g., getting enough rest, eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting regular checkups)
- Emotional self-care - taking care of your emotional health and well-being (e.g., being assertive when needed, expressing your feelings, being your authentic self
- Cognitive self-care – defueling your Inner Critic with rational thinking, grounding yourself with reality checks, practicing mindfulness
- Social self-care - taking care of your social needs and networks (e.g., establishing and maintaining reciprocal relationships, having fun with others)
- Spiritual self-care - drawing on sources of spiritual help that might comfort and guide you, practising meditation and yoga
- Financial self-care.
What to Do
Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself with as much compassion as you’d treat a good friend who’s going through a rough patch. If life is particularly stressful and/or you’re still reeling from a flashback, don’t expect yourself to function at your optimal level. Give yourself a break. Let yourself cut a corner now and then. Do what you can to make your life easier.
Don’t do everything at once. Pace yourself. Making one huge change all in one go is now generally thought to be a lot less effective than taking baby steps. Studies have shown that the unemployed spend a lot of energy simply on going without things, energy that they then don’t have for other things. This might be worthwhile keeping in mind in case you’re tempted to give up smoking, go on a drastic diet, or effect any other massive change that means you have to go without something you're used to, something everyone around you gets to enjoy. If you’re stressed out already by your flashbacks and your recovery work, consider postponing it to a later date, or start by gently nudging yourself towards a first tiny baby step.
Avoid becoming Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT). Whenever possible try to get enough sleep, eat a reasonably balanced diet, and exercise some. In particular, avoid being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, since those states are known to decrease one’s willpower and inner resilience. Exercising the major muscle groups (by taking brisk walks, boxing, dancing, swimming, etc) helps work off excess adrenaline and is often recommended to people who have PTSD, so it’s possible that you might also benefit.
Practice grounding yourself. Flashbacks disconnect us from our bodies and take us into a space of “heady” worrying. Grounding exercises might help. Some of us find mindfulness meditation a good tool as well. You could also try consciously calling yourself back to the here and now, telling yourself what year this is, where you are, and that you’re safe.
Pay attention to how things affect you and make changes:
Sounds, temperature, light, certain people, the effects of different foods and drinks on you (i.e., coffee and tea, sugar and white flour, milk and milk products, etc). The same goes for people, places, and situations. Find out what drains you of energy and what energizes you. Find things that make you feel good. Hobby, sport, nature, a favourite song, creativity and self-expression, a place you like, a gemstone, taking walks, really good coffee, learning a new skill, calling a good friend, mindfulness meditation, crocheting, qui gong, watching or reading something that makes you laugh.
The idea is to incorporate things into your life that give you energy. For example, if you’re stressed, do you have a need for warmth (hot drink, warm clothing, bath or shower)? Does a certain place feel particularly safe and comforting to you? What about a particular song, an activity, a movie? Is there a kind of clothing that makes you feel uncomfortable (because it’s itchy or restrictive or simply feels weird) that you can change out of and into something more comfortable and comforting (e.g., a soft bathrobe, a favourite pair of sweats)? Could you picture yourself seeking those things out intentionally after a flashback to help care for yourself?
How often are you in situations that are stressful (having to multitask, being bored, being overworked, having to rush other people, dealing with temper tantrums in kids and grown-ups…)? Could you reduce demands on your time and energy?
Is there anything in your home that, if you simply just catch sight of it, instantly makes you feel bad? For example, an unfinished project that still sits on your shelf and makes you feel guilty whenever you see it, an object that evokes unpleasant memories, a dress that isn’t at all what you’d ever wear but your mother gave it to you. What’s the worst that could really happen if you just got rid of things that provoke stress or negative feelings?
If you’re stressed, do you prefer your place to be perfectly silent, or do you need a steady hum of background noises?
Do you spend your free time doing things that entertain you, or are you just killing time?
Are you the kind of person who gets antsy and drained if they’re too alone, or if they’re too often among people? If you’re an introvert: do you have enough alone time, or enough time spent talking to one or two friends (as opposed to going to parties or interacting with groups)? If you’re an extravert, do you think you could do with more social interactions, or with spending time in places where there are people (e.g., libraries, coffeeshops)?
Is there any particular time of day that always feels depressing to you, or any particular day of the week, or any particular holiday? (E.g., always feeling antsy and insecure at early afternoon as that’s when parents were the most tired and hence the most prone to sudden rages). Is there anything you could do at that time to make you feel safe, to give you energy, and to remind you that your life is now different?
What NOT to Do
Don't feel guilty or self-centered for taking care of yourself. Think of it like keeping a car full of gas and in good order: it's simply common sense.
Don't push yourself too hard, particularly if life is stressful. The media are full of messages that tell us we ought to make a big change right now. Ignore them.
Don't dismiss your personal preferences as irrelevant. Don't focus on what ought to feel good. Find out what works for you personally and for you alone. If your family are party animals, but you'd much rather sit indoors reading, then that's what energizes you. If everyone around you goes jogging, but you'd rather just take brisk walks, then do that.
Don't listen to people who claim that pushing themselves to the brink of collapse is a badge of honour, a proof of how strong they are, a sign that they've got willpower. Unless you're a fakir, suffering to prove your worth doesn't make sense.
- “Self-Care is Not Selfish” by L. Stahl. Available: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/04/self-care-is-not-selfish-lauren-stahl/
- “How to Stop Feeling Guilty about Practicing Self-Care” by M. Tartakovsky, M.S. Available: Psych Central
- Practicing Self-Care during Stressful Times” by M. Tartakovsky, M.S. Available: Psych Central
- “How Clinicians Practice Self-Care & 9 Tips for Readers” by M. Tartakovsky, M.S. Available: Psych Central
- “Self-care in a toxic world: Self-care may not be what you think it is” by C. Meineck. Available: Psychology Today
- “Self-care is not Selfish” by M. Polce-Lynch, Ph.D. Available: http://www.virginiawomenscenter.com/services-psychology-self-care-is-not-selfish.htm