How do I practice self-care if I literally don’t have the time?
A long bath may sound wonderful, but what if you really do have a week full of commitments that you can’t get out of? What if you literally can’t afford not to work whenever possible? You can’t take an afternoon to chill; you need small ways to get through every day and manage the unrelenting hum of stress. Here’s what you’re gonna do:
1. Reschedule anything that isn’t crucial—your friends will understand (who hasn’t been in this situation?), and you’ll all have a much better time hanging out if one of you isn’t secretly wishing they were asleep. (If you have a hard time turning people down, Micha Frazer-Carroll’s guide to saying no might help.)
2. See if there’s anything on your to-do list that you can delegate. Is it a group project? Have you taken on anything that doesn’t actually have to be done by you, right now? If there’s anything you need help with or can share with a classmate/co-worker, there’s no harm in reaching out. Say that you underestimated the workload, and that it might need some more brainpower to get done in time. The other person can always say no, and calling them up or sending a text will only take a minute.
3. Don’t answer non-urgent texts or calls till you’re done with your paper, studying, application, whatever. (Putting your phone on airplane mode helps with this.) All those text exchanges and Instagram checks might make all the work feel less lonely, but right now, they’re adding up to what could be an hour-long reward at the end of the day. You’re creating time!
4. If possible, do self-care activities while you’re working, like mindless crafts or stretches. Tavi’s example: “Using coloring books while talking on the phone have made stressful conversations a lot more manageable for me. Having something to do with my hands helps me focus if a discussion is intellectually challenging, and to stay calm if the call is emotionally distressing.”
5. If an expanse of time is not magically opening up any time soon, take short breaks. Getting outside, walking around the block, or sitting in the sun for 5-20 minutes and doing nothing else will refresh you so hard, you’ll think you were gone for longer. It will also make you more productive than if you just kept going, getting tunnel vision about your assignment, crawling across the finish line.
6. Find ways to get extra sleep. Go to bed little-kid early for a night or even a week. Sleep in when you can. If there is a room you have access to at school where you can nap during a free period, bring a cozy sweatshirt to use as a pillow or blanket. Go to the school nurse or the counselor and say that you need to lie down for awhile. Sometimes an hour or two of extra sleep will make all the difference, especially when you sneak some in every day for a little while.
7. Seek help or advice about how to carve out time for yourself from a friend, a trusted adult in your life, or a mental health professional. Sometimes you simply can’t see which things aren’t crucial or what you can delegate. My psychological make-up is such that I have a really, really hard time letting go. I think I will disappoint others or something won’t be good enough if I don’t do it myself. I worry if I reschedule something that I’m just prolonging the stress. I need outside perspective on this—the gentle reminders that turning something in late is not as terrible as physically making myself sicker, that I will be a better friend and produce better work when I am rested, and that things won’t look as daunting after I’ve recovered a little bit. Sometimes all it takes to figure out my priorities is a quick vent to a friend. More recently, I needed an hour-long session with my therapist which I left still feeling uncertain, but a few hours later, I knew what I needed to do.
Remember, this extra-busy period will end, even if it’s not soon! I’m sorry, and I hope it clears up ASAP.
Now let’s say you do have the time and the dollars to spend…but you just can’t slow down.
How do I practice self-care if I cannot relax?
I experienced this a lot in the past year. I would get a pedicure or run myself a bath and then spend the whole time thinking about other responsibilities. That would make me feel even worse: What is wrong with me? I can’t even relax! I should work harder to take care of myself!
These are the guilty thoughts that run through my head constantly. It wasn’t until I started writing them down that I realized how messed up they are. I mean: You should work harder to take care of yourself? The last thing I need is another task on the to-do list. When self-care becomes a chore, it no longer feels good.
My answer here isn’t something you can do, just something to remember: Relaxation is a slow process, not one giant catharsis. Most people’s brains do not come with a switch where they can shut off all the noise and immediately become a limp noodle. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to get things done before I can relax—meet the deadline, finish the project, get to the end of the week—and even then, there is a wind-down period. If my brain has been going 100 miles per hour, I can’t just hit the brakes. Any time I’ve scheduled something like a spa day immediately after a deadline, it doesn’t feel like the reward I envisioned because I am still amped up. I need time to catch up on sleep and veg out in front of the TV or computer first, then a day or maybe a week later, I am ready for full-scale relaxation. Maybe you’re the same way?
I have also learned—this was huge for me—that I am not a flawed or broken person because I can’t relax on cue. My relaxation efforts are not meaningless even if my mind is still going while I’m sitting in the bathtub. It was not a waste of time (or money—that is where the guilt can really compound for me) if I don’t feel like a brand new person when I leave the nail salon. It was a first step.
Finally, remember that there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for self-care. It’s okay if yoga or meditation don’t do it for you. Nothing is wrong with you. What you need can totally change with the situation or where you are in life. I actually hated yoga until my mid-20s, but now I find it relaxing. I’ve gone through phases where meditation works and phases where it just stresses me out because I can’t empty my mind. I have a stack of coloring books that I haven’t touched even though it seems like a brilliant idea.
But what’s the rush? Again: Self-care is a short-term antidote to short-term stress and anxiety. You will practice it your whole life, but let’s just make this moment, these feelings, and the pressure to just stop them, a little less intimidating. Self-care is meant to serve us, not give us a new way to feel bad about ourselves. Let’s try to release that, and reclaim what makes us feel good. ♦