19 min read

To demonstrate my personal stake in the topic of self-care, and to emphasize that this may be the most important message I will ever share with you, allow me to give you the context for my stance that self-care is important…nay, ESSENTIAL.

I will rarely offer too much personal information in my writings, but this message is the foundation of my mission as The Mindfull Educator, so please indulge me.

In the winter of 2015, I had a major Bipolar 2 mixed-state episode that manifested with insomnia, racing thoughts, dark moods at night and extreme morning anxiety that later spread out into what my psychiatrist categorized as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

For three months, the first thing I did every day was throw up. Then, I would get dressed with my hands and legs trembling and go to work. It took regular doses of anti-anxiety medications just to function. To this day, I continue to manage the residual effects brought about by this period of my life. 

The trigger for all of this anxiety was me finally getting the “dream job” I had been working toward for the better part of a decade. My administration appointed me as a special education Coordinator in one of South Carolina’s largest school districts. 

My dream job quickly turned into a nightmare. I received hundreds of emails a day and would typically work from 5:00 AM until midnight. Yet, still, I couldn’t seem to get to all of the tasks I was required to do by law (and bureaucratic policy) unless I worked long hours on weekends, too. 

Self-care was tossed aside. I didn’t have the time or energy to add ‘one more thing’ to my to-do list. I dropped from 170 pounds (around 77 kg) to 135 pounds (61.2 kg) in under two months. Yes, I lost 35 pounds in less than 8 weeks without trying. I couldn’t eat. I had to drink my nutrition in shakes because the act of swallowing food gagged me. I completely broke down one night while confiding to one of my closest friends. As I talked on for what seemed like hours about the state I had been living in, they helped me to realized I was in BIG trouble on the mental health front. Later that night, they drove me to the hospital, beginning a chain of events that would thankfully lead to my recovery and sustainable wellbeing. (This is why having social support systems in place is very important for those of us with mental health concerns!)

The take-away for you at this point it to understand this truth:

Sidelining self-care was the biggest mistake I have ever made in my career as an educator.

Six Categories of Self-Care for Educators (and anyone, really!)

Self-care is any action we take to improve our overall well-being. Whenever we become busy or stressed, self-care is often set aside for the sake of time and avoidance of the feelings we fear may be agitated.

If you ever hear me say anything, let it be this:

No matter what is going on in your life at any given moment, self-care is essential. It should be a non-negotiable aspect of your daily life at all times, especially when you are super busy or under a great deal of stress. 

Although I will discuss each of these self-care categories, it is important to remember that these processes are all intricately linked. Self-care within any one of the areas will likely affect the remaining areas in positive ways.

  1. Physical Self-Care: These are actions you take to improve or maintain the healthiness of your physical body. Exercise, good nutrition, and sleep all relate to physical well-being.
  2. Psychological (Mental) Self-Care: You address this area when you actively work to maintain a positive mindset. This can include such things as seeing a therapist, intentionally managing clutter in your safe spaces, and maintaining regular schedules for prescribed medications.
  3. Emotional Self-Care: Deeply connected to our psychological well-being, emotional self-care can help you in the healthy expression of your psychological states. While psychological self-care addresses how we process information, emotional self-care addresses how we express the feelings associated with what we have processed. Maintaining healthy relationships, finding belonging/connection, and using emotional self-regulation strategies are all part of this. Doing things you enjoy with people that support you cheering you on is critical to emotional well-being and developing healthy interpersonal relationships.
  4. Spiritual Self-Care: Please note that while religious pursuits fall into this category, you don’t have to practice a religion or even believe in a god to do acts of spiritual self-care. Reading/watching inspirational media, joining spiritual groups such as churches or meditation groups and creating sacred space for your spiritual practices are a part of this category, as are altruism and kindness to others.
  5. Professional Self-Care: Although the other categories can also encompass this area of self-care, remembering to take actions to maintain overall well-being while working is so important that it warrants its own category. 
  6. Financial Self-Care: Money, often the lack thereof, can have significant effects on mental and emotional well-being. Some mental health disorders have a financial component, such as mania, which can trigger the bearer to overspend, and depression, which can lead to missed work with lower income. We have a tendency to suppress financial stressors, which can reverberate negatively through all the areas of our lives.

Self-Care that Benefits All Six Categories

I am a firm believer in working smarter, not harder. So in contemplating how best to advise on what self-care activities to provide, I found three overarching themes in my lists that allow you to address needs from all six categories.

Stress Management (and, hopefully Reduction)

What about your life increases your stress? Do a ‘gut check.’ When you think about the major areas of your life (relationships, work, finances, physical health, etc.), which ones give you that ‘not so good’ feeling in the pit of your stomach?Are there any aspects of your life that cause such stress that it would be best to put in boundaries or eliminate them all together?

Disorganization in our spaces, poor time management, a lack of healthy boundaries and unhealthy relationships are all common culprits for contributing to high stress.

Once you identify which areas bring you the most stress, this is where you focus your self-care intentions.

Stress Management Strategies to Consider

  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practices (mindfulness and meditation)
  • Breathing exercises
  • Using routines and planners to manage time more effectively
  • Doing pleasurable activities
  • Exercise
  • Intentional Financial Planning
  • Learning when to say, “no”
  • Setting reasonable timelines and rewarding yourself incrementally as you approach the completion of a goal

Meeting Your Own Basic Needs Consistently Over Time

Most of the educators reading this are aware that in order for students to thrive and learn at optimal levels, their basic physiological, safety and belonging needs must be met. The model taught to most educators early in their training is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Take a look at the visual of the model and ask yourself, “Am I meeting my own basic needs?

Basic Needs Strategies to Consider

  • Develop routines that increase the likelihood you are tending to your basic needs
  • Plan your meals
  • Set a bedtime and stick to it
  • Stay hydrated
  • Be consistent with the taking of prescribed medications
  • Establish and maintain a healthy body weight 
  • Connect with others for a sense of belonging (This is a BIG idea, so I will explore it more in the next section.)

Pursuits of the Heart and Soul

What brings you joy? What increases your happiness? What can shift a negative mood into a more positive state of mind? For me, it is music, creating paintings and designing miniature scenes. Check this one I did last year!

I have now done so many of these shadow boxes that I don’t know where to put them all!

The important thing about pursuits of the heart and soul is that if you don’t have any right now, it is imperative you find some. When I have suggested this to people I know who are struggling in some way, my advice was often met with either, “I don’t have the time/money,” or “I am just not creative!” There are healthy pursuits out there for everyone; it may just take trial and error to find yours. I have three best friends. One likes to make scenes with Lego and post them to social media. Another is studying how to read Tarot cards. And the third is an avid reader, going through 2-3 books per week.

Adding a social component to the pursuit of your interests can make the experiences even more rich. We are, by nature, social creatures. Finding belonging should be prioritized as part of meeting your basic needs. Whether you connect through social media or in real life, a sense of belonging enables us to find value in life and to better cope with challenges.

Stop procrastinating and find pursuits that feed your mind, fill your heart and balance your soul. Your well-being is at stake here. (Yes, Netflix binging can fall into this category as long as it doesn’t leave you with regrets of what you didn’t accomplish that day.)

Procrastination and Self-Care

Whether it is exercise, making an appointment with our therapist or taking the class we know will fill our soul with joy, we have all been bitten by the procrastination bug at some point in our lives…probably more than we care to admit. You might even be reading this article as you procrastinate on some task you know will improve your well-being. In fact, I have put off writing this article all morning by cleaning up my house and checking in on the well-being of my friends. 

Why do we procrastinate at self-care activities?

First, let’s talk about why we procrastinate in the first place. It may be easier to go ahead and label procrastination as an undesired behavior we want to change: a “targeted behavior” in the language of psychology. In education, especially the education of exceptional children, we often talk about Applied Behavior Analysis. Most of the information on the web regarding this topic is aimed at working with individuals with Autism or Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities. It is what school psychologists and trained special educators do to write Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs).

One of my core beliefs about changing any behavior (including our own)  is that not enough emphasis is put into training general education teachers and support staff on alternate applications of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). This requires taking a bit of the process loosely, but it is worth it, I assure you.

Analyzing behavior for the purpose of changing behaviors is a highly research-evidenced practice.

ABA addresses the root of behaviors rather than the manifestations and consequences of them.

The ABC’s of Applied Behavior Analysis are, in short:

  • Antecedent: Identify the antecedent, the event or activity that proceeds the targeted behavior
  • Behavior: Define the targeted behavior we wish to change in objective, measurable terms
  • Consequences: Assess the consequences to determine what interventions would increase the likelihood of success in changing the targeted behavior

When completing this process, you will have a statement that sounds like this:

When presented with the need to write on a tight deadline, I procrastinate by finding other tasks to do that allow me to experience feelings of productivity and success in order to avoid feeling that I might fail at writing for a highly discerning audience.

Once you have done these three things for the behavior you wish to change, you can begin defining a replacement behavior, intentionally manipulating the antecedents and selecting consequences that either increase the desired replacement behavior or reduce the undesired behavior.

When presented with the need to write on a tight deadline, I will have a prepared space and begin at a time I set for myself earlier in order to complete the writing and publish on time. Thus, I will experience feelings of success at the completion of a critical task.

The 5 Functions of Behavior and Examples of How They Relate to Procrastination

Consider that most behaviors have specific functions, including the procrastination I grappled with this morning while getting started on my writing:

  1. Social Attention: I knew I needed to write this in-depth article and my time was limited, yet I continued texting and emailing my friends. The undesired behavior of procrastination was increased by my attention seeking behaviors.
  2. Desired Tangibles or Activities: Cleaning is, for me, a pleasurable activity. It allows me to take control over my current situation at a basic foundational level. Decluttering and engineering my environment to bring me pleasure was more rewarding than getting to the task of writing.
  3. Escape: This one speaks for itself. Procrastination allowed me to escape from the stressor of focused attention (thank you Attention Deficit Disorder)
  4. Avoidance: Another obvious one — what if I started writing and the article sucked? Avoidance of the feelings of failure is a powerful thing! (This one, by the way, was the strongest function of my procrastination behaviors.)
  5. Automatic Reinforcement: Cleaning and texting both afforded me instant gratification. How can writing an article that will take time (and that might be poorly received) be more rewarding than tapping out my thoughts to a discerning audience?

For me, all five of the functions of behavior were working to thwart the increase in the desired replacement behavior this morning: being a productive writer. But my fears of being a failure at this endeavor far outshined the others. That is where my work had to begin.

To simplify this concept even further for the purposes of this article, you can assume that all behaviors serve two primary functions: accessing something that is desired or escaping from something that is undesired. This may leave you wondering why accessing that rock hard body you so dream about isn’t more powerful than your procrastination. Simple: you are likely avoiding something about the process that you don’t like, such as fear of failing, dieting, or exercising regularly.

Working with students with maladaptive behaviors for more than two decades taught me that avoidance is an extraordinarily strong driving force behind behavior, especially if you are trying to avoid things like anxiety, failure, or judgment of others. 

Manson’s Law

One of my personal favorite bloggers, Mark Manson, describes what he believes is behind much of our tendency to procrastinate at lifestyle changes:

The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid doing it.” (1)

You may be wondering, “How can my procrastination at going to the gym or refraining from watching the news possibly threaten my identity?” Manson goes on to say that the more something threatens to change your self-view and beliefs about the person you are, the more you will procrastinate at doing them.

See my example above: I am deeply vested in being seen as a knowledgeable, entertaining writer. “What if I am not?” says my ego-driven brain, and I actively avoided actions that could solidify this fear into real life failure by throwing myself into tasks that made me feel successful.

How do we overcome the tendency to procrastinate at self-care?

Create an “Environment of Inevitability”

To do this, you engineer your day so that it is more difficult to avoid the task that it is to take it on. When I began talking to my therapist as coming out in a very public way to join the national dialog on educator mental health and well-being, he warned me that people must have some “skin in the game” to take self-help seriously.

For example, I have been trying to put the practices of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) into action for some time now, but it wasn’t until I dropped $300 dollars on a class that my procrastinating self took my higher self seriously. The class comes with built-in social accountability and fiscal responsibility. These factors made procrastination less rewarding.

Take the First Step

I don’t know about you, but when I am down in a melancholic or depressive state, cleaning up my environment and keeping it in order becomes a real chore. During the Dark Age of my career I discussed earlier, it was another blogger whose content that saved me. Marla Cilley, fondly known as the Fly Lady due to her affinity for fly fishing, advised me that if I couldn’t get started cleaning I should simply shine my kitchen sink. (2)

Sounds ludicrous, right? Let me tell you: I shined my sink every night before bed for years after that. She then provided me with a schedule and cleaning cycle broken into regions of my home with reminders (and even a bit of social accountability through peer reader groups). The Fly Lady taught me to just get started. Among her other advice that I still use to this day was the suggestion that I get dressed all the way to my shoes first thing every morning.

Think about what it is you want to accomplish and just take the first step. For example:

  • Go to the Gym: Lay out your workout clothes, water bottle, and prepared gym bag near the front door the night before
  • Set Up an Altar/Sacred Space in Your Home: Put everything you want on your altar into an open-top box and sit it near the space one day. The next day, clear the space and clean the surface.
  • Buy Something or Plan a Trip That will Require Financial Investment: Open a savings account or label the envelope you will collect the money in and put it somewhere prominent (but safe). Don’t worry about where the money will come from yet. Just create the space for the savings.
Me: dressed to my shoes for yoga class.

Build Accountability into the Foundation of the Self-Care Practice

Internal Accountability: This involves being accountable to yourself. 

  • Write it down – create to-do lists, post reminders in key spots or add it to your calendar
  • Set a goal (put it in steps if it is a bigger or long-term goal) and create a plan to reach it, including incentives for reaching each milestone

External Accountability: Simply put, this is being accountable to others beyond yourself. Social accountability is a powerful tool. Some people who benefit from yoga, for example, find it impossible to maintain a regular practice without attending classes wherein they have built systems of peer support. 

  • Join a support group or class
  • Find an accountability buddy and check in regularly
  • Responsibly invest money into the endeavor. Remember: We are more likely to stick to something if we have ‘skin in the game’
  • Make accountability fun by gamifying it (racing others to a common goal or set up social rewards you can earn by meeting milestones)

When Self-Care Isn’t Enough

If you have put self-care strategies in place (or if you are incapable of self-care at the moment), I encourage you to seek professional help. Therapy with a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist is a highly research-evidenced practice. Even when I am at my healthiest, I maintain regular visits with my therapist. Getting to see you at your best allows the therapist to develop a baseline for your treatment and can provide them with guidance on the therapy tools and strategies that work best for you. Some months, I will only spend 15 minutes with my psychiatrist. It used to feel like a waste of money until I hit a depressive wall and he was able to give me examples and reminders of what healthy looks like for me. 

Many education agencies that employ educators have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that offer mental health and financial planning support systems. I recommend this to the teachers I support quite often, as ours includes a certain number or free visits and income-based sliding scale for ongoing counseling. Check out the break room for the board where OSHA regulations are posted. EAP notices are almost always there, too. If not, contact your agency’s Human Resources or Benefits office to get more information. 

It can be difficult to find a good-fit therapist. The ‘best’ ones are often so busy they cannot take new patients or are booked out for weeks. At the lowest point in my career that I described at the beginning of this article, it took me four months to find a therapist that worked for me. If you wait until you NEED someone, you may make a connection with the wrong therapist for you and end up dissuading yourself from continued treatment despite the urgency of your condition. 

Behavior change is difficult, and you are taking a bit step by reaching out for resources such as this. Thank you for taking the time to read what I consider the most important article I have written thus far. Stay tuned as I roll out articles on a variety of wellbeing and educational topics each week.

If you are in crisis, please check out my online resources page for information on contacting The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

References

  1. Mark Manson. “Everything You Wanted To Know About Procrastination But Were Too Lazy to Figure Out.” Mark Manson, 13 Mar. 2020, markmanson.net/how-to-stop-procrastinating.
  2. Marla Cilley. “Flying Lesson: Shining Your Sink.” Marla Cilley, 2001-2020, flylady.net/d/getting-started/flying-lessons/shine-sink/.

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