“I just don’t have free time.” “I have too many responsibilities.” “I have to take care of my family.” “I feel selfish taking time for myself.”

These are just a few things we have heard — or have said ourselves — when we are caught up in our lives and find ourselves neglecting self-care.

Now, think about this: when someone faces a health crisis — say, a heart attack — and the doctor prescribes exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle. That person who once claimed to have no free time will find it, because it is a matter of life and death.

Now, think about the advice you might give to loved ones who tell you they are tired or stressed or have had a bad day. Do something good for yourself, you might say. Take a walk, make a cup of tea, see a friend.

Now, consider the instructions we’re given on airplanes to prepare for a possible emergency, when the oxygen masks drop down. We’re told to put on our oxygen masks first, before assisting others. The reason is simple: we must be our best selves to be able to help others.

Now, isn’t it time you prioritized self-care?

Understand How Stress Affects You

Stress affects your entire body, physically as well as mentally. Some common physical signs of stress include:

Low energy
Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
Aches, pains, and tense muscles
Begin by identifying how stress feels to you. Then identify what events or situations cause you to feel that way. Once you know the types of situations that cause you stress, you can be prepared to avoid them or prepare for them.

Protect Your Physical Health

Improving your physical wellbeing is one of the most comprehensive ways you can support your mental health. You’ll have an easier time maintaining good mental habits when your body is a strong, resilient foundation.

  • Exercise daily. Exercise can take many forms, such as taking the stairs whenever possible, walking up escalators, and running and biking rather than driving. Joining a class may help you commit to a schedule if that works best for you. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall health. Exercising in nature provides even more benefits. (Read more about how nature is good for mental health.)
  • Eat well. Eating mainly unprocessed foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is key to a healthy body. Eating this way can help lower your risk for chronic diseases, and help stabilize your energy levels and mood. Sugar, junk food and fried food might feel good in the short term, but it’s best to avoid them or consume them in moderation.
  • Get enough sleep. Adults generally need between seven and nine hours of sleep. A brief nap—up to 30 minutes—can help you feel alert again during the day. Even 15 minutes of daytime sleep is helpful. To make your nighttime sleep count more, practice good “sleep hygiene,” like avoiding using computers, TV, and smartphones before bed. (Read more about getting good sleep.)
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. They don’t actually reduce stress and often worsen it.
  • Practice relaxation exercises and mindful practices. Deep breathing, meditation (try self-compassion and loving-kindness meditation), and progressive muscle relaxation are easy, quick ways to reduce stress. These tools can help you feel less controlled by turbulent feelings and give you the space you need to think clearly about what to do next.

Make and Maintain Connections

Spend time with and speak to loved ones. It can be easy to feel alone and isolated during stressful times. Make a plan with a friend or family member, or connect via phone or a video conferencing platform.

Recharge Yourself

Any amount of time you take for yourself is important. Start small: think about the activities you enjoy and try to make time for them in your life. If you enjoy days out with friends, try to schedule a standing monthly lunch with them. When it becomes part of your routine, no one has to work extra to make it happen each month.

The point is not what you do or how often you do it, but that you do take the time to care for yourself.

Avoid Guilt

Try not to feel bad about experiencing negative emotions. When you allow yourself to notice your feelings without judging them as good or bad, you dial down the stress and feel more in control. When you feel less stressed, you’re better able to thoughtfully choose how to act.

Notice The Positive

When you take the time to notice positive moments in your day, your experience of that day becomes better. Try writing down one thing each day or week that was good or for which you are grateful. Even if the positive thing is tiny (“It was a sunny day”), it’s real, it counts, and it can start to change your experience of life.

Gather Strength From Others

NAMI support groups exist to reassure you that countless other people have faced similar challenges and understand your concerns. Talking about your experiences can help. The idea that you can, or should be able to, solve things by yourself is false. Often the people who seem like they know how to do everything are actually frequently asking for help; being willing to accept help is a great life skill. If you’re having trouble keeping track of Medicaid documents and you’ve noticed your coworker is well-organized, ask them for tips about managing paperwork.

You may feel you don’t have the time to stay in touch with friends or start new friendships. Focus on the long-term. Do what you can to stay connected with your loved ones and make new connections in our support groups and classes.