Addiction has the insidious quality of making even the simplest things hard. When we use, we sleep poorly. We eat junk. We neglect our hygiene and even our health. We isolate from others to spend more time in the darkest corridors of our own minds.
For many of us in recovery, self-care is not exactly an old habit. But we can and do learn how to care for ourselves physically and mentally during treatment and recovery. Self-care covers a few essentials, but it will look different for each individual. They’re called “essentials” for a reason, though, so self-care is incredibly important to learn.
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care means taking the time and effort to do things that improve our overall health. We all have different mental and physical health needs, but self-care generally includes managing stress, decreasing the risk of illness and addressing mental health needs. This all may sound very obvious. But you have to follow through.
Self-care on a physical level means looking after our physical needs. It can and does include various changes that help us improve our physical energy and decrease pain. Methods of physical self-care may consist of, for example …
- Getting regular exercise
- Eating whole foods during regular meals
- Staying hydrated
- Working on sleep hygiene
Balancing out physical health can be challenging. However, it can help to remember that the end result is you’ll feel better (finally!). “Feeling better” can mean, broadly, simply enjoying what you are doing from moment to moment in life, but physical self-care can also include methods of addressing specific mental health disorders.
For example, a newer type of treatment called somatic intervention can help those with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The foundation of this treatment is that focusing on the body can help to improve awareness and to process trauma through the body.
Substance use disorder is very commonly paired with other mental health disorders, in addition to being a mental health disorder itself. More than one in four adults with a serious mental health disorder also has issues with addiction. Self-care for mental health varies from person to person, as we all have our own needs. But it can include some or all of the following.
- Seeing a therapist or mental health professional
- Medication to help with co-occurring mental health disorders
- Improving stress management techniques
- Practicing gratitude and positivity
- Staying connected with friends and family
- Getting support in peer groups
Regardless of the approach we take, caring for our mental health is important. It is generally a mix of addressing underlying mental health disorders that impact our lives and improving our mood and energy levels with mental health practices.
Why Should We (Self-)Care?
Our ability to take care of ourselves plays a huge role in how we interact with ourselves and others. When we care for our mental and physical health, we can learn to be autonomous and take responsibility for our actions. As we build on this foundation, we begin to feel like we can make changes and grow. Recovery feels worthwhile when we feel good.
On the other hand, if we feel like we’re still sick and stuck, it can inhibit our ability to recover. Addiction recovery takes courage and time. We must learn how to care for ourselves and trust that the changes we make will motivate us to remain sober.
Caring for ourselves is also incredibly valuable in that it can help prevent relapse. Our physical and mental health impact our mood, affecting our ability to stay sober. If co-occurring conditions such as anxiety or depression are not addressed, we may seek drugs or alcohol to self-medicate our symptoms. This can also be true for physical self-care.
Sleep, exercise and nutritional habits all impact how we feel physically and mentally. Caring for our physical health helps to improve our overall mood and energy levels. This helps us improve our focus, energy and positive thinking — all of which are important in maintaining sobriety. It’s all interconnected, and it all starts with, perhaps, a delicious healthy sandwich.
It’s on Us: Building on What We Learned in Treatment
Learning to care for ourselves takes time and effort. However, during and after treatment, we have already started to build a foundation. We get the tools, we learn the essentials. In treatment, we learn to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. While we often do not like what we have chosen or how we have acted in the past, we learn to face ourselves with compassion.
Self-care is another form of taking responsibility for ourselves. It is our job to help ourselves. While support is helpful, it is ultimately up to us to recognize our needs.
Often, our loved ones want to help and may even try. We know that no one else can choose to stay sober for us or fix the issues we face. This is true of self-care as well. Others may offer help in the form of, say, going jogging with us or referring us to a mental health care professional. However, it is ultimately our choice to take advantage of the available help.
In treatment, we learn to recognize what is and is not in our control. Eating well, sleeping well, finding joy, caring for our needs: That is something in the realm of our control.
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