How to start (and keep) a self-care routine

Doctor prescribes self-care steps that make room for rest, joy and support

How to start (and keep) a self-care routine

It’s common to want to put others before yourself. Hey, it even feels like the right thing to do.

However, you may find more success lifting others up if you make your own well-being a top priority first.

That’s where self-care comes in. Self-care is about taking action to preserve or improve your own physical, emotional or spiritual health.

“We have to be able to take care of ourselves in order to take care of somebody else,” said Craig Uthe, M.D., Sanford Health director of clinical professionalism.

“If that means I’m not able to do something for someone in a certain situation, that’s just the reality.”

Creating a self-care routine is a good place to start. Eating right, getting enough sleep and being active are the basics, but it goes well beyond that.

“What are those things I can do internally, that I have control over, that I can apply to live a life with a healthy well-being?” Dr. Uthe said.

As chief well-being officer for the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine, Dr. Uthe is discussing self-care with health care professionals daily.

“Self-care is all about action. What am I going to do about all this?” Dr. Uthe said regarding life’s pressures and their impact on a person.

Dr. Uthe usually encourages clients and patients to think about four specific steps initially:

  1. Be centered. Know what you believe. Practice gratitude.
  2. Stay focused. Don’t forget what you believe. Lean into positive choices. Challenge and identify negative thoughts.
  3. Find balance. Know how to prioritize and set short-term and long-term goals. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of water while limiting caffeine. Get your body moving at least once a day. Stay connected to loved ones who support you.
  4. Seek margin. Embrace rest. Stick to a sleep schedule and limit screen time before bed.

Get enough ‘mental health rest’

Each step can take a lot of strategy to accomplish, especially the last one. Finding breaks in our day, our lives, can be challenging.

“We are collectively not very good at that. We’re just not good at it. So, I say embrace it because you kind of have to run it down,” Dr. Uthe said.

Saying you can’t find the time doesn’t work. Dr. Uthe says it’s not sustainable and it will catch up with you eventually.

“We call it margin. Is a person getting adequate mental health rest? Are you having enough personal pleasures in your life where you can actually be experiencing joy and happiness? Are you allowing that and are you finding time for that to happen in your life?” Dr. Uthe said.

When we’re not, that’s when we can run into issues.

“It can lead to then being disappointed. It can lead to depression,” Dr. Uthe said.

“We tend to be competitive. We tend to be perfectionistic, and we tend to be altruistic. When those all are running at high gear, sometimes it’s just not healthy for the individual.”

Operating your life efficiently, because we only have so much energy, is the goal. That may look different for everyone. Knowing when you’re beyond what you can efficiently handle will prevent you from burning out.

“You have to take a step off that mental speeding treadmill. It might be a five-minute break or it might be a two-hour evening. It might be a one-week vacation with your family. We all need the different margins. We need that rest – including that sleep rest – in our lives,” Dr. Uthe said.

‘Never worry alone’

Having an accountability partner ratchets up the success rate of any self-care routine.

“The key thing we talk about within the wellness programs within Sanford is we have the mantra, ‘Never worry alone,’” Dr. Uthe said.

That partner can be a family member, friend or a health care professional.

“When we’re feeling like our mental health is waning, that’s when we really ask people to reach out,” Dr. Uthe said.

Related: A daughter shares her dad’s mental health story

Getting someone else’s perspective on what you’re going through can make a big difference.

Dr. Uthe often guides people to think about awareness, attitude, action and accountability when trying to be your best self.

“Let’s make you aware of the need to take care of yourself. You have a certain amount of energy and it’s not sustainable. Are you aware of that?” Dr. Uthe said.

“The attitude part is, ‘Well, what do I want to do about it?’ Are you going to fight it? Are you going to accept it or are you going to be encouraged by it?”

Action can vary depending on need. Dr. Uthe said chemical imbalances people can face mean prescriptions could help.

“Sometimes it helps to have medications for those, and for other times it has more to do with therapy and non-pharmacologic treatment. Addressing it is the key piece,” Dr. Uthe said.

He adds, “to keep that internal tends to lead to more serious mental health problems.”

Outline self-care at checkups

Easy entry into some of these conversations can be at your annual health screenings. Getting a mammogram or staying up to date on immunizations are forms of self-care and put you in front of folks who want to help you thrive.

“An outline to self-care would be all those things we do for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being,” Dr. Uthe said.

“Am I up to date on my immunizations? Am I doing my cancer screenings for my age and my gender?”

In his work with health care professionals, Dr. Uthe provides opportunities for people to recognize when they may be pushing it too hard.

“Mental health screening surveys are offered and encouraged by Sanford Health. We actually encourage everyone to be screened for that on a regular basis,” Dr. Uthe said. “That’s for depression and anxiety.”

The screenings can help identify if a person is seeing negative lifestyle changes such as eating or sleeping too much.

Other changes may include:

  1. Disconnecting from loved ones or hobbies
  2. Low energy and unexplained pain like headaches or stomach aches
  3. Excessive drinking, smoking or drug use
  4. Constant worrying or thoughts of self-harm or hurting others

If anyone is experiencing these symptoms, they should reach out to their primary care provider. A provider can help you feel better and connect you with a behavioral health specialist, if needed.

Enjoying his well-being mission, Dr. Uthe points to his background as a family physician for fueling his passion.

“I want people to thrive in their lives. As a family physician, I felt that my job is taking care of the body, but my focus is more than that. It’s taking care of the person,” Dr. Uthe said.

While self-care can force us into some difficult chats or decisions, it’s an area of your life worth exploring with or without a health care professional.

“How can we help you be successful at self-care knowing that you may not be very good at it right now?” Dr. Uthe asks his patients. “How can I help you thrive and enjoy your life and accomplish what you think your purpose and mission is?”

Searching for those answers, with help, can lead to breakthroughs.

Learn more

Posted In Behavioral Health, Family Medicine, Healthy Living, Internal Medicine