Tools In The Kit, A Primer For Self-Care Part II
(For your convenience, a PDF of the complete article is available for download)
Considerations For Your Self-Care Kit
In Part I of this series, I detailed my history in, and observations of the fitness and wellness industries, as well as some of the experiences that shape my current understanding of self-care. Part II is dedicated to approaches, mindset and what to look for in a teacher or therapist – again, based primarily on my own experiences.
a) Remember the biopsychosocial model.
I concluded Part I of this series with a brief explanation of what’s known as the biopsychosocial model – a.k.a., “it’s rarely just any one thing”. I’ll elaborate more on the concept in Part III of this series – the accumulated tools that I have worked with over the years reflect that model.
Knowing that well-being can be approached from several angles can be quite freeing, as it discourages dependence on any one particular system, and instead empowers you to find your system, adapting aspects of it as your needs change.
b) If it’s been around for a while, it’s going to take a while to work through it.
While advertising, daytime talk shows and slick salespeople might try to convince you otherwise…
…the extra 20-30 lbs your doctor said you’re carrying and recommended you lose didn’t appear on your body in a few months and won’t healthily come off in that time, either.
…the low back pain you’ve been experiencing from the office job you’ve had for the past decade isn’t going to go away, and stay away, with a few weeks of physio.
…longstanding mental and emotional traumas don’t resolve themselves with a couple of counselling sessions.
…effecting lasting, positive change requires a certain level of commitment, generated through the cultivation of healthy habits. And as evidenced by this scientific-looking graph, it is rarely a straight trajectory:
We all experience setbacks along the way. Building a storehouse of healthy habits increases resilience, which can then make it easier to bounce back from the more challenging periods in our lives.
Personally, it’s taken me much of my adult life to first recognize, and gradually offload my more harmful habits in favour of helpful ones – easily, some twenty-five years. And truthfully, I don’t expect or wish an end to cultivating and maintaining them. Once you begin to experience the benefit of shifting habits, what might have initially felt tedious can soon begin to feel vital.
c) Keep it manageable, and whenever possible, fun.
Most of us are already overloaded – working too many hours, getting too little quality rest, our technologies constantly demanding our attention and energy. Add to that the million-and-one “life hacks” being pushed on the internet, most of which don’t improve your well-being in any tangible manner. Add to that the alluring but often dishonest (read: photoshopped), unattainable imagery of fitness touted in media. Add to that…you get the idea.
Small surprise that adopting a wellness regimen that feels like it adds to your pile (when often what’s initially needed is to take things out of the equation) tends to lead to feeling more overloaded, which can then make it difficult to stay committed.
While it isn’t always feasible (particularly when it comes to mental health) , when possible, consider reducing the “work” part of your workout. If you’re joining a fitness facility or yoga studio for the first time, 1 day per week of mindful and dedicated effort is a good place to begin. By starting out slowly you can build a solid foundation and reduce the likelihood of the beginner’s mistake of overtraining. Also, the majority of gyms are happy when you don’t attend – their profits come from well-intended members who overcommit and then never go. If the gym environment isn’t your thing, then outdoor activities might be worth looking into. If you’ve never been running, consider low impact exercises that will help condition your body for eventual, more vigorous undertakings. If you’re a social individual, look for activity groups in your area, either online or at places like local community centres.
None of this is to say that your initial efforts won’t feel somewhat chore-like, but as you begin to even out your work-life balance, aspects of self-care can become joyful and playful experiences.
d) Find good teachers and therapists who work within the scope of their practice and don’t mind rendering themselves obsolete in your life.
– A chiropractor does a manual assessment on a client, relays a litany of issues and imbalances to them and recommends long-term, weekly visits.
– While initially helpful, a psychotherapist spends increasing amounts of time in their sessions making small talk with their client before addressing their issues.
– A yoga teacher with 200 hours of training hosts classes and workshops that purport to help students “breakthrough” emotional challenges.
– An individual claims proficiency in yoga, meditation, reiki, life coaching and psychological guidance, under the convenient umbrella of “life transformation”.
These are all real-life scenarios that are all too often encountered during initial searches for self-care assistance and guidance – the therapist or trainer creating dependence on their method or system, instructors working outside of their scope of practice (a mistake I made in my early days) and often overstating their credentials and acquired wisdom.
After encountering a few of these situations in my own journey, I developed the habit of asking questions. Lots of them. What is their history? What trainings have they taken, and do they continue to learn? If you’re older and there’s a large age gap, what do they know about working with older bodies (especially useful with yoga, personal training)? What obstacles have they themselves overcome (a fair one to ask a mental health professional)? Watch out for the use of vague and pseudoscientific language – a good teacher will be forthcoming and able to clearly detail their education and experience.
I sometimes jokingly tell my clients that I know I’m doing my job well when I see them less, or not at all. But there’s a truth to that statement – my intent is always to aid people in fostering self-reliance. The best therapists and teachers know when it’s time to let go of their clients – either because the therapist/teacher has reached the limits of their usefulness, or because the client is now able to help themselves.
As a client, there’s no magic number of weeks, months or years to observe, and even when you’ve become relatively self-reliant there will be times when you’ll need support outside of your usual circles. That said, if you’ve been with a teacher or therapist for some time and begin to feel like you’re spinning your wheels, it may be time to point this out, or possibly to move on.
Also, words matter.
In the same way that pharmaceutical company advertising does its best to convince people they aren’t well, another way that therapists and teachers can (unconsciously or willfully) create an unhealthy reliance on their systems is by using what’s called nocebic language – the use of negative wording when diagnosing illness and predicting the outcome of therapies. The words we hear have a powerful effect on us, both psychologically and physically, so much that avoiding the use of nocebic language is quickly becoming part of recommended training in the medical community for pain therapies and rehabilitation.
Fear-based suggestion – that something “bad” has happened, or will – tends to ramp up nervous system response, which can then amplify psychological aversion to pain and further limit the capacity to get better. Examples of nocebic words include “imbalanced”, “degenerating”, “bulging or herniated disc” (as referenced in Part I, a poor indicator for pain) and “knees/spine/wrists/etc of a 70-year old” (unless of course, you’re 70).
Most of the educators I know have come around to normalizing the aging process and wear and tear on the human body, using optimistic language to communicate and encouraging the exploration of options that allows people in pain to find the means to return to previously enjoyed levels of activity. We tend to obtain better and more consistent results in wellness programs when we frame the human body as being robust, resilient and incredibly adaptive.
In the final part of this series, we’ll cover some of the many tools that are available in the self-care kit.