Illustration by Paloma Link.

I’m a new mom, and in a lot of ways, it makes me feel like I’m back in high school. I’ve been thrust into this new world where I feel like I should know what I’m doing because a million other people have been here and survived. There are tests and pop quizzes I’m totally unprepared for. I’m constantly behind on everything. I’m sleep-deprived AF, and taking care of myself—even basic shit like laundry and showers—has taken a backseat to my new responsibilities. It reminds me a lot of a seemingly never-ending finals week and college application period. And people keep saying to me the thing that you might hear a lot during your own stressful periods:

“Some self-care would really be good for you right now.”

I know it’s meant to be helpful, but suggesting self-care to someone lacking in time and resources is as effective as telling someone having a panic attack to “just relax.” In moments like these, self-care just feels like another thing I’m failing at.

When I first started hearing the term “self-care,” I was glad that people were talking about the need to slow down before we melt down. Taking care of your emotional wellbeing is extremely important, but the concept of self-care has been elevated in such a way that it’s become unattainable. It’s become a buzzword, loosely translating to “splurging on yourself.” The beauty industry has been reframed as the “wellness” industry. Brands that used to thrive by encouraging self-hatred now recommend the same products as complementary to self-love. What was intended as a refuge from the pace and pressures of life under late capitalism has become a new skill to master, and to perform mastery of online.

If this definition of self-care doesn’t make you feel any more relaxed, you’re not alone. I want to talk about what self-care means in the context of mental health, and what it could look like if you don’t have the funds, time, or ability to relax.

What does self-care really mean?
When I was in high school, self-destruction—whether in the form of physically hurting myself, drinking to excess, doing drugs, or losing myself in a bad relationship—was the only way I knew how to deal with feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. My senior year was rife with those feelings as I overworked myself at school, grappled with the fallout of an abusive relationship, tried to figure out college, tried to graduate early, worked a job, and volunteered two or three times a week at a domestic violence agency.

It wasn’t until I got into a car accident the night before a big test that I broke down, confessing to my parents a four-year habit of self-injury. After that, my mom encouraged me to start taking “mental health days.” She let me ditch school and watch TV or sleep or whatever when I needed to. She believed that when you are emotionally run down, you need to rest and recover the way you do when you’re sick. Just as a cold can become a sinus infection or pneumonia, unchecked stress can snowball. The mental toll becomes physical.

Self-care alone did not resolve my habits of self-destruction, but mental health days helped to assuage the shorter-term stress and anxiety I felt that week. That made me better equipped to begin addressing my more deeply ingrained mental health and self-harm issues, which then required years of therapy and emotional labor. Self-care is not an effective replacement for either of those, and if what you’re going through feels more meaningful than stress, please consider talking to your guardian about it, seeking help from a therapist, and/or consulting a mental health resource.

This guide will focus on self-care as an antidote to the stress and anxiety that come from being under pressure (like finals week), dealing with an unknown (like waiting to hear back about college or a job), or facing a transition (like moving somewhere new). Let’s define it as a temporary solution to temporary, circumstantial stress and anxiety. There, doesn’t that sound more relaxing already? You’re just having a hard time, and you’re gonna get through it. Now let’s talk about some of the practical roadblocks that make self-care seem out of your reach.

How can I practice self-care on a low or nonexistent budget?
Good news: massages, facials, mani-pedis, and spa days are not the only ways to relax. Besides, if you’re struggling financially, spending money on expensive treatments may not help your anxiety. Shopping as a distraction can become addictive, creating a new source of stress.

My first-ever article for Rookie was a list of things to do when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or angry. There are things you can do alone or with friends, and you can pick and choose what feels right—what will get you down from this particular moment, or what combination of things will bring you back into yourself. Some of the more immediate actions from that list, which you can do for no money: clean or rearrange your room, sing/scream at the top of your lungs, make a playlist and listen to it on repeat, journal all your feelings for no one to see, make a collage, check your horoscope, go to a local park or playground, break stuff you’re OK with breaking, cry it out…there are so many more options than it seems in the moment! “How to Be Alone” by Krista Burton also has a list of stuff you can do solo, for free. Remember, too, that self-care doesn’t have to equal alone time. It might help you to get out of your head by playing with a little sibling or neighbor, or seeing a friend who’s happy to just watch Netflix or paint nails without talking a bunch.

If you use social media a lot, it may be hard to do any of these activities without wondering if they’re worth sharing. There’s that pressure to perform self-care again, begging the question: Who is it really for? I recommend using the traditional definition of “play” as a barometer for the activities you do, and whether or not you share them: true play is an action carried out for its own sake, and not for reward or recognition, or as a means to an end. It’s just as important now as it was when you were a kid, and it feels totally great and mindless! (You know what else is free? Quitting or taking a break from social media, if it feels like more of a time-suck and anxiety-driver than connector or emotional outlet.)

And if you’re like, “Cool, I still just really want to take a luxurious bath,” you can totally do that for cheap! DIY this $10 bath bomb. Hot water plus good ole Mr. Bubble and/or epsom salts, which are cheap at any drugstore, can work wonders. An ounce of lavender oil goes a long way, and is also available at drugstores for cheap. I know luxurious products look like they’re scientifically engineered to relax you more, but flower petals and glitter are just there for fun. If you covet something you truly can’t afford, like a massage, ask for it as a gift.