Actionable self-care strategies can be easy, fun, and incredibly rewarding

Karen Tang

As a mental health advocate and clinical psychologist in-training, I believe it is important to practice what we preach: self-care! Having actionable, evidence-based self-care strategies in your toolkit is a necessity to maintaining a healthy balance in life, particularly in graduate school and the research workplace. Even I, a clinical psychologist trainee, have moments where I have lapses in my mental health and well-being. In times like this, I draw on one of these three self-care strategies to use:

First, consider implementing some form of gratitude into your daily life. One example is a gratitude journal, where you write down what you’re grateful for. Try to make it into a daily routine! Recently, I have integrated doing this on the Shine: Calm Anxiety & Sleep mobile app. The free version contains a gratitude journal, among a variety of other self-care strategies. Research shows that individuals completing gratitude journaling daily for two weeks felt less negative emotion and greater levels of optimism than those who didn’t do any journaling. Remember, its best to be as specific as possible, so instead of saying “I’m grateful for my best friend,” try writing “I’m grateful for my best friend who checked in on me prior to my thesis defense.” Also try going for depth over breadth, where you elaborate in detail than superficial lists. Lastly, trying viewing good things as “gifts” as this buffers against taking things for granted, and savor surprises (e.g., record events that were unexpected or surprising) as these elicit stronger levels of gratitude.

If the gratitude journal isn’t quite up your alley, perhaps consider penning a gratitude letter. The premise of this exercise is to write a letter expressing thanks to someone in your life, and then deliver said letter to that person. To do this, recall someone in your life who did something for you, but you never got the chance to express your deep gratitude to them. This person can be a high school teacher that believed in you; a dear relative, friend, or mentor that supported you through your toughest moments; or a colleague who helped you with your work when you were feeling overwhelmed. Now write a letter to that person and write as though you are addressing them directly (e.g., Dear ___). Be sure to describe specifically what that person did for you, why you are grateful for them, and how they impacted your life—be as specific as possible! You can also inform them what you’re up to in your life now (particularly if you haven’t spoke in a while). Try to keep this to a page and be as concise and succinct as possible. In terms of delivering the letter, you can read it to them in-person, send it as an email, or mail it to them—whatever you are most comfortable with! Research has found that writing gratitude letters enhanced writers’ happiness and life satisfaction, while also decreasing depressive symptoms. As someone who’s written numerous letters to elementary and high school teachers who have greatly impacted the direction in my life, I can attest that this activity is probably one of my favorites! Bonus is that you get to sprinkle some happiness into another person’s life as well.

As a huge proponent of physical activity, and knowing that academics and students often lead sedentary lifestyles, I always try and integrate moving my body (in some way) into my daily routine. If I can’t integrate a “walking meeting” into my day or a quick run around my neighbourhood, I try and go for a nice savouring walk around campus. In positive psychology, “savouring” is defined as “the process in which people engage “to attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in their lives’ (p. 2)”; it also represents the common saying “stop and smell the roses.” A savouring walk then, is where you take a walk outdoors in either a nature or urban area. As you walk, try and notice all the positive and delightful things happening around you. You can focus on the intricate architecture of a building that you never noticed before or the cheerful ballads of songbirds. Or perhaps you always overlooked that magnificent willow tree on the edge of campus or the way that sunlight filters through the leaves of trees. As you are noticing each of these little things, actively acknowledge and cherish each one in your mind. Using your five senses, pause and really appreciate the present moment. Take it all in. Try and take a different route each day so you don’t become too familiar with your surroundings and take things for granted. Current literature has demonstrated that savouring positive events in your daily life can lead to a greater boost in happiness and positive mood. Ideally, this walk would be done on a daily basis, but given the hecticness of life and academia, it’s totally okay if you do a savouring walk once in a while.

There is a plethora of self-care strategies you could have in your back pocket. I have specifically found gratitude journaling, gratitude letter writing, and savouring walks to be especially beneficial to me, particularly when navigating graduate school and the research workplace where time may be limited. Now it’s your turn: try and find which strategies work best for you to start reaping the benefits of an enhanced mental health and well-being!

Karen Tang is a PhD Clinical Psychology student at Dalhousie University (Canada) researching addictions and mental health correlates.

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