Updated: May 3
The past several years of being in recovery from an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety have taught me a lot. I’ve learned that I’m stronger and more resilient than I previously gave myself credit for. I’ve learned that I’m not all alone with the issues I’m up against. I’ve learned that it gets so much better. I’ve also learned the importance of prioritizing my mental health.
We live in a competitive and cutthroat society. Middle and high school, at least for me, were all about who got the best grades, who took the most classes, who participated in the most extracurriculars, and who had the most robust social life. In that type of environment, it’s easy to neglect your mental health. I certainly did, and it cost me nearly everything. In my experience, when you’re mentally unwell, all that stuff—the good grades, the friends, the extracurriculars, everything—is put on hold and becomes virtually impossible to maintain.
If prioritizing your mental health seems selfish, silly, or unnecessary, I assure you it’s not. It has greatly enhanced the quality of my life by lowering my stress and improving my mood, which, in turn, has made me a kinder and better person. In order to relearn how to put my mental health first and thus reap the benefits, I adopted several basic self-care steps in recovery that I continue to practice to this day. In honor of International Self Care Day, I thought I’d share those steps to aid and inspire anyone who may be currently struggling to look after their mental wellbeing.
Step One: Eat well on a balanced diet
This is arguably the most important step, and also the one that’s proven the most challenging for me. For years, I deliberately deprived my body of the nourishment it needed to thrive, and only recently have I relearned how to feed myself and embraced intuitiveness and independence with food. In the process of doing so, I’ve discovered that a whole food plant-based diet, in particular, does wonders for my physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Step Two: Get a good night’s sleep
Making an effort to always get my seven to nine hours has become imperative to my recovery. Not only does this help create and maintain structure in my life, but regular and adequate sleep can also improve attention, learning, memory, and emotion regulation, as well as eases depression and anxiety. In the past, I’ve struggled with insomnia and needed melatonin to calm my busy mind. While I no longer rely on the medication anymore, it’s an option for anyone who has difficulty falling or staying asleep. Other techniques include meditation, shutting off screens an hour or so before bedtime, and the aforementioned whole food plant-based diet, which is rich in foods that naturally contain melatonin and magnesium.
Step Three: Exercise . . . in moderation
This is a newer one for me, as for a long time, I wasn’t allowed to exercise due to my treatment team’s fear that it would become compulsive. Recently, however, I’ve reintroduced exercise into my daily routine and have noticed a significant improvement in my mental health—and I’m not alone. Numerous studies have found that exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and low moods and improves self-esteem and cognitive functions.
There are many ways to exercise to explore; for me, I love to run. Running clears my head, gets me out of the house, and creates a feeling of accomplishment, in addition to improving my body image. Yoga is incredible as well, in the sense that it gets me in touch with my body and breath and provides a break in the day, which can be especially beneficial if you lead a busy and active lifestyle. I’m also part of a tennis team and enjoy connecting with others who share a common interest and who will root me on no matter what. Ultimately, exercise has enhanced my life in more ways than not. If you’re able to, I’d strongly recommend finding movement in your life too. Just thirty to sixty minutes a day can make a huge difference.
Step Four: Maintain human connection
Mental health struggles—or any struggle, for that matter—can be isolating. It’s important that we have people in our lives that we trust and can open up to so we don’t feel all alone. Being able to talk to or at least be with someone you’re close with, especially when you’re feeling low, makes dealing with and overcoming negative emotions much easier.
Step Five: Find a balance between work and relaxation
As someone who always feels the need to be productive, embracing this step has been historically challenging for me. In time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the value of incorporating breaks into my day. A break can be as short as thirty minutes and as simple as reading a book, doing a yoga routine, going on a walk, or watching a funny YouTube video. In addition to giving you an opportunity to check in with your body and mind, a break replenishes energy, alleviates stress, and actually increases productivity in the long run.
Step Six: Utilize coping skills
In treatment, I acquired a whole toolbox of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) coping skills, many of which I still use to this day to navigate the ups and downs of life. These skills include mindfulness, deep breathing, emotional regulation, and opposite action, among other helpful strategies for managing stress and overcoming adversity. If you aren’t familiar with DBT coping skills, there are plenty of online resources available to help you learn more. They may seem silly or stupid—they certainly did to me in the beginning—however, my coping skills have helped me through many hardships and fostered tolerance and resilience.
Practicing these steps has made such a huge difference in my ability to get to a better, healthier, and happier place. Furthermore, they’ve made it possible for me to continue to grow in both my recovery and my life.
There’s immense importance in prioritizing your well-being. We’re all deserving and capable of self-care; it just involves a little extra effort—and it’s worth it. Take care of your body, take care of your mind, and enjoy the benefits of a happier, healthier you.