Why Self Care Is the Opposite of Self Indulgence

 
 

Why Self-Care Is the Opposite of Self Indulgence


 Photo:  Lee Price

Photo: Lee Price

By Lauren C.

 
 

The concept of “mental health” only became real to me when, sitting alone in my dorm room one afternoon during college, I was hit by a tidal wave of despair that came out of nowhere. My chest heaved, my eyes leaked; the emotion ripped through me. I had the passing thought: Is this how people feel before they kill themselves?

That thought scared the shit out of me. I tried to ignore it, but it began to follow me around, to my classes, while I ate, while I tried to sleep. I was used to uncontrollable thoughts about homework—but not about death. For the first time in my life, I felt unsafe in my own skin.

I found myself increasingly unable to do basic tasks. One evening, I was physically unable to get up and walk to dinner, I was so blinded by stomach pain and breathless from panic. I couldn’t go on.

Emotions are not abstract concepts; they are chemical and electrical signals in the body. Thoughts are not abstract concepts; they are patterns of neural activity. The more you reinforce them, the more habitual they become. It took the mental equivalent of a major heart attack for me to realize that it is possible to think and feel unhealthily.


"It took the mental equivalent of a major heart attack for me to realize that it is possible to think and feel unhealthily."


I was later able to pick apart, with the help of a good therapist, that my unraveling in college hadn’t come out of nowhere. I’d had unhealthy habits for several years, allowing constant stress to corrode my body and mind, even though I was “successful” by the standards of those around me. I’d been so focused on managing my external self—which appeared perfect, with my straight As, thin body, and put-together appearance—that I ignored the messages from my inner self which was in desperate need of nourishment.

It’s now been five years since I took a year off from college to learn how to care for my mind. These days, I meditate each morning for 20-30 minutes, run outside, practice yoga, and make it a priority to eat and sleep well. I try to take more breaths, walk more slowly, and think less. I’ve found a new inner resilience and ability to care, genuinely, for others that surprises me each day.
 


"I’d been so focused on managing my external self—which appeared perfect, with my straight As, thin body, and put-together appearance—that I ignored the messages from my inner self which was in desperate need of nourishment."


To maintain your physical health, you watch what you put on your plate. To maintain your mental health, you watch what thoughts are circulating in your mind. I’ve also learned how to wisely relate to my emotions. These practices take skill and effort. Formal therapy and a routine of self-care, far from being signs of weakness or a self-indulgent waste of time, are how you learn and put those skills into action.

Not everyone needs what I need—we each have our own recipe for balance. But ultimately, it’s up to each of us to do the hardest thing: be kind to ourselves. It is, quite literally, a matter of survival.


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