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How to practise self-care

Self-care is a phrase that resurfaces time and time again. But is it more than just a buzzword? We explore what it really means and how it can benefit your overall health.

'Self-care' describes the actions, however small, people take to protect and improve their health and well-being.

Dr Knut Schroeder, GP and founder and director of Expert Self Care, explains: "Self-care in long-term conditions includes everything that people can do between appointments to help improve well-being, such as staying active, eating healthily and maintaining social relationships."

If you are battling with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, a long-term health condition or poor work-life balance, here are a few tips to help:

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Be mindful

If you often find yourself overwhelmed, mindfulness meditation might be worth a go. Many people dismiss the technique, believing it requires sitting in silence for 30-60 minutes of the day. But this is not the case, insists Adiba Osmani, co-founder of drop-in meditation studio Inhere. All you need is a few minutes.

"It's about keeping centred, taking in what's around you, and then coming back to an anchor - yourself," she reveals.

She proposes setting aside just five minutes of your day to practise mindfulness. If you want to feel focused, try setting your morning alarm slightly earlier to meditate before work and think about what you want to achieve that day. If you want to relax, try in the evening before bed to improve your sleep.

"Follow your breath to settle your attention, then focus on everything around you as you continue your breathing. Become completely absorbed in what you can hear, feel, smell or see," reveals Osmani.

If you’re not someone who can switch off, persistence is key. She suggests focusing on something that resonates with you, such as a piece of music.

For more tips on guided breathing, try out these relaxation exercises. You can also try guided meditation through apps such as Headspace, or look for a class near you.

Try yoga

Yoga is hailed as one of the best exercises to improve your mental health, as well as helping to relieve migraines, arthritis and asthma.

Liz Oakley, yoga instructor at MoreYoga, says: "Practising yoga in the morning before work can make you more productive and more focused, and boosts your energy levels for the day. Practising after work can help to reduce stress, calm the mind, soothe any aches or tensions from the day and improve your sleep."

If you want to give yoga a go but aren’t sure about attending a class, try watching Yoga With Adriene. Her popular YouTube videos can be done from the comfort of your living room and cater to all abilities.

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Fresh air

We're constantly told exercise improves our mental health, but it can feel like a catch-22. You need a mental boost to start exercising, but you need to exercise to get that mental boost.

Start small: a walk around the block can help clear your head after a stressful day, or a short 20-minute jog. If you feel this helps, it may even inspire you to run your first 10k.

Public Health England advises making time for 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate exercise a week, this equates to 30 minutes of brisk walking a day, five days a week. The good news is, you can get much of the benefit from just 10 minutes of brisk walking (to make a difference, you need to get your heart and breathing rates up) a day. To fit this into your everyday life, try getting off a stop early on the bus/train during your commute if possible.

Stock up on vitamin D

The lack of sunshine in autumn and winter leaves many people feeling depressed. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). As we can’t naturally get enough vitamin D during these months in the UK, or make up for deficiency through diet changes, the government recommends taking a daily supplement of vitamin D during the winter months - or all year round for some people at high risk of deficiency.

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Get some rest

The average adult needs between 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If you’re someone who has trouble sleeping due to anxiety, controlled breathing can help clear the mind and relax the body. There are plenty of guided breathing exercises for sleep available, but having a phone close to where you sleep may not help your insomnia.

If you feel stressed in the mornings, try setting your alarm earlier to prepare for the day ahead. Make time to eat a nutritious breakfast to fuel your body and mind, or write a list of what you need to do that day.

Trust your gut

Your brain and gut are more in sync than you think. The 'gut-brain axis' describes the link between the two.

"As well as transmitting messages which control digestion and the movement of waste through your gut, this information superhighway links emotional centres in your brain with digestive function," explains dietician Laura Tilt.

Often rely on a sweet treat to cheer you up? Tilt reveals that this may actually be counterproductive. Recent research suggests gut bacteria may potentially influence our mood, so it's one more reason to eat for your microbiome.

"High-sugar, low-fibre foods like sweets and biscuits light up the pleasure centres in our brain, giving us temporary distraction when we feel low in mood or in need of an energy fix. But these types of food aren't that helpful for our gut bacteria (microbiome), which love fibre-rich, nutrient-dense foods."

Tilt's top tips for smarter snacking include: "nuts (and the occasional piece of dark chocolate) as they are rich in polyphenols - naturally occurring compounds found in many plant foods, which help feed your gut bacteria. Homemade energy balls (using oats, dried fruit and nuts) are also a good option for longer-lasting energy - and offer a fibre boost for your microbiome."

A healthy, balanced diet will benefit your mental health and fuel you for longer through stressful periods. Tilt's takeaway self-care tips for a healthy gut include taking a probiotic to aid good gut bacteria, making time to unwind and eating a 'kaleidoscope' of colourful vegetables and wholegrain foods.

Find 'appiness

Digital self-help apps have grown in popularity, with many being available for free as an accessible quick fix for those with anxiety.

Psychotherapist Liz Ritchie believes mental health apps can be beneficial if you are waiting for treatment.

"Many patients with mental health issues are waiting an unacceptable level of time before accessing treatment. But apps are ostensibly free and non-judgemental, and there are no waiting lists."

If you want to try an app, Schroeder recommends choosing one from the NHS Apps Library, or apps assessed by the Organisation for the Review of Care and Health Applications (ORCHA) as they have undergone formal assessment.

There have also been studies linking excessive social media use to increased anxiety and depression, so taking a digital detox may improve your mood and sleep behaviour.

Ask for help

Studies have shown that socialising can combat depression and reduce your risk of dementia.

"A social/familial support system can be fundamental to one's self-care," says Ritchie, "as people with strong social support experience less stress and exhibit better overall health than those who are socially isolated."

If you feel that at-home self-care isn’t providing the support you need to manage your mental health, talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy can help with anxiety and depression.

Your pharmacist can also assist you with self-care if you have a minor condition such as a sore throat or a cold. They will assess your symptoms, taking into account other medications and long-term health conditions before advising you on treatment. With building pressure on the NHS and antibiotic resistance, treating minor illnesses with self-care is better for everyone.

Keep it up

Artist and mental health occupational therapist Hannah Daisy’s series of 'Boring Self Care' illustrations show how for those with depression and chronic health conditions, self-care can be as simple as remembering to take your medication, picking your socks up off the floor or opening a window.

Make your daily self-care window non-negotiable. Whether it's five minutes of meditation or getting round to something you’ve been meaning to do, pencilling in a little 'me time' no matter how small, is a handy tool for stress management.

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The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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