I’m often asked why I write books about mental health. My recent books--The Castle School (for Troubled Girls), What Kind of Girl, and A Danger to Herself and Others—touch on different aspects of mental heath including grief, eating disorders, self-harm, and anxiety. I think we write about the things that are important to us, and mental health and self-care are topics that are important to me—ones about which there is always more to learn and more stories to tell.
People talk a lot about self-care as a tool to help manage our mental health. But of course, self-care can mean so many different things—from asking for help, to seeing a therapist, to carving out fifteen minutes for your skin-care ritual each night. I’m definitely not an expert on the subject—there are countless therapists and teachers and counselors who know much more about this sort of thing than I—but here are a few of my personal favorite ways to practice self-care.
Okay, this one’s pretty obvious. I’m a writer and a reader, so of course I think reading is a form of self-care! But there’s actually plenty of research out there demonstrating how good reading can be for us—it can expand our empathy, and it can make us feel less alone. I actually just read an incredible book called Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher that delves into the ways that reading can be therapeutic. When we read stories that reflect our own difficult experiences back at us, we benefit from being immersed in those experiences and by having empathy for the characters about whom we’re reading. So even though this is my personal favorite form of self-care, I promise there’s real evidence to back up why it’s so effective!
Okay, I know, everyone says exercise is good for you, but let me explain—I’ve written in the past about my history with body obsession and disordered eating, and it’s something I’ve touched on in my books like What Kind of Girl and The Castle School (for Troubled Girls). And I think exercise is really personal—it took me years to find yoga because I had this image of ‘exercise’ as something that happened on a treadmill at the gym, which was something I disliked. And I also had this idea that in order for exercise to do any good, you had to do it all the time. But for about a year after I started practicing yoga, I only did it about twice a month—and it still did me so much good. I credit yoga with helping me let go of my body obsession. I had never felt quite so in my body as when I held a pose. And I had never felt as proud of my body as when I was able to hold a pose that had seemed all but impossible the week before. Eventually I started practicing once a week, and then twice a week, and now I practice several times a week—because I want to, not because I think I’m supposed to. I guess my point is, find something that works for you, something that fits into your life and your schedule. It doesn’t have to look like what you thought ‘exercise’ looks like.
3. Learn Something New
I love cooking. There are a few recipes—my favorites—that I go back to time and time again. But as much as I love these favorite meals, it’s always more exciting when I try a new recipe. (Even when it doesn’t turn out as delicious as my tried-and-true favorites). The thing is, when I’m cooking a new recipe, I literally can’t think about anything else. I’m too busy anticipating the next steps, or measuring out the salt or the sugar. So if there’s something that’s bothering me, whatever that is naturally falls into the background while I cook because I’m too occupied learning this new thing to think about whatever had been bothering me before. And inevitably—having had a break from whatever I was worried about, and having learned something new—I’m in a better mood afterwards.
4. Cultivate a Hobby
Recently, I bought myself a few jigsaw puzzles. And for some reason, after years of finding puzzles pretty annoying, I now love putting each piece in its place. (To be fair, I am not doing difficult puzzles. I think that’s part of why I’m enjoying them so much. But I digress). I take apart and put back together the same puzzles over and over again. You’d think it would get boring, but it hasn’t yet. It’s such a small, silly thing, but it’s something I look forward to every day—something that’s technically not “productive” because it’s not working or cleaning or cooking or studying, etc. But I think that’s kind of the point. And, for what it’s worth, I’ve read that there are studies out there that back up the importance of ‘play’—what we think of as non-productive time is actually really productive because it gives our brains and nervous systems time to recharge.
5. Watch Your Favorite Shows Over and Over Again
One of my favorite characters that I’ve written—Junie, from What Kind of Girl—struggles with anxiety. When we first meet her, she can’t sleep—she’s too busy going over all the things that she might have done or said wrong that day, and imagining all the things that might go wrong the next day. I think most of us have nights like that—and this tip is for those long nights. I recently read that re-watching your favorite TV shows can actually help calm anxiety. You know how they tell you you’re not supposed to watch TV before bed? Well, apparently—according to an article I read—re-watching TV you’re familiar with can actually help you fall asleep. Apparently, watching something you know and love can be enough entertainment to quiet whatever anxious thoughts might be circling across your brain, but because it’s familiar to you, it’s not so distracting that it keeps you awake. And a good night’s sleep can be the best self-care of all.
Take care of yourselves, friends.
Alyssa Sheinmel is the bestselling author of several novels for young adults including A Danger to Herself and Others and Faceless. Alyssa currently lives and writes in New York. Follow Alyssa on Instagram and Twitter @AlyssaSheinmel or visit her online at alyssasheinmel.com.
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