My Mental Health Checklist: 4 Self-Care Strategies That Work for Me
While getting here has not been easy by any means, I know now that my own experience with anxiety has been invaluable to my growth as a person. Learning how to field this condition on a daily basis has forced me to learn the ins and outs of myself—the good, the bad, and often the ugly—and has led me to a new plane of self-acceptance I didn't think possible just a few years ago. For that, I am grateful.
But I also know that my journey has taken a lot of work, that it's never linear, and that it's highly personal. I still have those inevitably shitty days in which the self-care strategies I've carved out for myself fall short. In fact, understanding that there's never a neatly packaged "solution" for the messy, complex inner-workings of my mind has probably been my most critical aha moment thus far. That said, I won't pretend that figuring out the tools that allow me to not just get by, but thrive on a daily basis hasn't made all the difference.
Again, mental health should always require a highly individualized approach, so these strategies might not be the perfect fit for the next person—and that's ok! But I've found that experimenting with different solutions is the best way to figure out that personalised checklist, and in my experience, these rituals are consistently solid options for checking in with myself and keeping my anxiety at bay. Read on to see what they are.
Strategy #1: Therapy
"I don't think therapy is for me." I stood by this statement for years. It wasn't for lack of trying: When I was recovering from my eating disorder several years ago, I tried a handful of psychologists to no avail. It never "clicked," and I always dreaded going.
As much as therapy is about being truly willing to deep dive into yourself and all the repressed trauma and behaviors that shape who you are, it's even more crucial to find the right person—a person you trust implicitly to guide you to that space. You have to feel that connection, because otherwise it's that much more difficult to be vulnerable. I found my therapist a little more than two years ago, and the hour we spend together each week is probably the most integral part of my entire wellness routine; I actually look forward to it now.
It's also important to view therapy as a collaborative effort. The word "curious" comes up a lot in my sessions—together, my therapist and I practice a general curiosity toward my emotions, my behaviors, and the experiences in my life that have led me to this point. It never feels judgmental, and it's beyond helpful to have an objective sounding board while I'm working through all of this. Some days are really tough and draining, but I always step out with a little more clarity and a lot more self-acceptance.
Strategy #2: Journaling
Psychologists I've spoken to tend to agree that journaling is one of the most valuable (and user-friendly) self-care rituals around. "Journaling confers a sense of agency over your thoughts and feelings," says Heather Silvestri, a New York City–based psychologist. "It can also enhance your understanding as to why a particular issue is troubling you and help you sort out a conflict or dilemma."
The key thing to remember about journaling is that there's no right way to do it. You don't have to do it every day, and your entries certainly don't need to be compelling, beautifully written essays detailing the inner workings of your mind. A list of things you're grateful for is valid, as is a full-fledged rant. The point is to express yourself in a way that feels cathartic, and only when you feel compelled to do so. My journal oscillates from poetry to reflective essays to doodles, and sometimes I go for weeks without writing. I never force it.
Strategy #3: Moving my body (preferably in nature)
As I write this, I've recently returned home after a month of travel—which means that I haven't been consistent with hiking and yoga over the past several weeks, and I'm starting to feel the impact on my mind. Gentle, regular exercise always sets off a positive chain reaction for my entire well-being: I sleep better and feel better, and daily stress feels a lot more manageable. (Being outside tends to amplify those good feelings.)
I will note that for me "gentle" is the operative word. Hardcore exercise tends to raise cortisol levels, which is why it's ultimately not sustainable in my own lifestyle—it tends to put me more on edge. It has also taken a bit of trial and error over the years to figure out that yoga and hiking are the two workouts I consistently enjoy. For too long, I tried to force myself to take fitness classes I didn't love—which only made me more anxious.
Strategy #4: Getting creative
When I was feeling burnt out and listless after moving across the country a few years ago, I thought back to the activities that made me so happy growing up: music, art, and writing, primarily. Since then, I've made a point of devoting a few hours each week to doing something creative, whether it's teaching myself how to macrame, writing poems in my journal, or messing around on my guitar. These are forms of meditation for me, and serve two purposes: They help me get out of my analytical mind while also boosting my creative juices. In turn, I feel more mellow and more inspired.
Next up: Mental health experts debunk some of the myths surrounding therapy.