Is self-care only for the rich? Back to basics please!

Guest blog by Kari MacGregor

I find self-care to be a very misunderstood concept, and as a consequence, often comes across as blasé. People assume you need lots of money (or lots of time, or both) to apply self-care. But self-care doesn’t have to mean yoga classes, health spas, bubble baths, or massages. People who live week-to-week working long hours to make ends meet will sometimes complain that self-care is only for the rich.

I disagree.

I always encourage people to go back to the basics, and then stack other self-care habits on top of those, if and when it becomes possible to do so. Emotional self-care, while crucial, isn’t separate from physical self-care. That is, you’re not going to feel all that well in yourself if you’re not maintaining your ‘meat vehicle’. Those emotional resources get topped up and maintained as a consequence of keeping your engine humming to the best of your ability; and the purely emotional self-care strategies are secondary.  

The #1 thing I stand by is getting consistently sufficient good quality sleep. That’s hard when life is stressful, and can be seemingly impossible when anxiety or trauma are your unwanted houseguests. But irony has it that getting consistently sufficient good quality sleep helps reduce anxiety levels and enables us to function better throughout the day, such that other problems lessen. This is why I think it’s okay to take sleeping pills for a while if you can’t sleep without them, because the side effects of inadequate sleep are worse than the side effects of sleeping pills, and they’re immediate. Sleep is the one thing you need to make sure you’re getting, even if it means skipping other things – although obviously most of us need to work, and it sucks when that gets in the way of sleep such as those who do shiftwork, or FIFO work, or working multiple jobs. 

The #2 thing I stand by is getting regular exercise. Some kind of exercise every day helps set everything else right. I’m not talking about going to the gym or dance classes or sports teams if that’s not viable or of interest. I’m talking about incidental exercise. For example, I don’t own a car, so I walk to the shops to get my groceries – that’s 20+ minutes each way, and one way I’m carrying the weight of my groceries. Obviously, this is only doable for those who have mobility – but it’s an example, and folks can extrapolate from that to come up with alternatives that work for them. Getting some kind of (preferably aerobic) exercise does two great things for you, other than the obvious: it helps you sleep better (see #1), and it helps regulate your appetite so your body mostly just wants the foods that are good for it (see #3). 

The #3 thing I stand by is eating healthily, and enjoyably. Eating healthily isn’t the expensive endeavor some people complain that it is. You don’t have to buy all organic or so-called superfoods; just buying whatever fresh produce is in season is the cheapest way to shop. Many vegetables are the cheapest foods around, and your body thanks you massively for the gift. Same goes for high quality protein and fats. But more than just eating healthily, I do think it’s important to enjoy your food. For me, even on a crappy day, I can guarantee myself three things to look forward to: breakfast, lunch and dinner! It’s a generous act of self-care to give myself those three things each day in a way that tastes and feels good. 

So, I understand that trying to keep a roof over your head and food in the belly are utmost priorities – and these priorities might grind us into the ground sometimes when life keeps throwing us lemons. I know this for myself, as I’ve been there, working out the details of deciding between paying for public transport to get to work or eating decently, as I couldn’t afford both. Or not using the heating in winter because I couldn’t afford the electricity bill. And I’m immensely grateful for not being in that place anymore. 

The point is that, even when life is hard, you’re still worth the effort, and you deserve to feel well. So these three foundational acts of self-care – sleep, exercise, and diet – are non-negotiables. They make everything else more doable, more survivable. They don’t fix your problems, but they do help you fight another day, and make it possible for you to tackle your problems.