What Does Self-Care Really Mean? By Jessie Shepherd

We all know that doing a PhD is hard: there are mental challenges, physical exhaustion, and self-doubt that must be overcome to successfully navigate this path. How do we last on this very long journey without allowing the weight of it all to overwhelm us? What does it really mean to take care of ourselves while still managing all that we do? 

Five years ago, I was teaching a group of psychology graduate students, talking about their self-care while working in mental health settings and one said, “We can’t do self-care, most days I don’t have time to poop.” 

While I understand the feeling, and time pressure; I do think we often have a misunderstanding of what self-care really means. Often, we view it as weekend trips to the spa with our friends or nights spent drinking and socialising. And sometimes people disguise self-destructive behaviours as self-care. This perception of self-care is that it is an activity that must be planned, takes a large amount of time, often involves expense, and can lead to more physical strain (hangovers are not great for concentration or academic writing). But as a therapist and current PhD student on my own journey with mental health, I want to challenge that notion and make clear what self-care is (and is not).

Who am I? 

I started my PhD journey late compared to most students. Before my PhD, I got a MA in counselling and became licensed as a therapist. I worked as a therapist for twelve years before deciding to return to academia. In that time, I worked with a variety of different clients, including those with addiction and trauma. I also worked as a supervisor and sometimes lecturer for trainee therapists.

And like many in the mental health field, I come with my own diagnosis and background of trauma. I was diagnosed with PTSD in my early twenties, while in training to be a therapist, and began my own journey of healing. 

Now as a full-time PhD student myself, I juggle my mental health with supporting myself and my child as a research assistant. I will not lie and say it’s easy, but I am managing and completing my research on schedule. Do I wish I could take a long weekend and go to a spa? Yes, so very much (I mean so much!), but that’s not the way that I can fit in or practice self-care.

What does self-care mean?

When we talk about self-care in therapy, we are referring to behaviours that you engage in to help you cope. Coping and self-regulation are how we manage symptoms and maintain our mental health. A person’s ability to cope with current life stressors, as well as potential life stressors, is a main indicator in their ability to thrive. To simplify a lot of rather complicated psychological processes, let’s say there are two types of coping behaviours: those that are self-destructive and those that are restorative. 

When I worked in addiction treatment, what I saw the most was people with underlying mental health conditions who used substances to cope with their symptoms. While substances do often relieve symptoms in the short term, unfortunately they are not good coping skills, as they exacerbate mental health symptoms in the long term and can destroy your body. Substance use, like drinking alcohol, does count as a coping skill; however, in certain quantities and overtime the effect is self-destructive. Other self-destructive coping skills can be social isolation, overuse of social media, lack of sleep, or unhealthy eating practices (like missing a lot of meals), just to name a few. Now I’m not suggesting that missing one meal is self-destructive; whether a behaviour is negative or harmful relies on its frequency and intensity. One night of missed sleep can be recovered, but two weeks of missed sleep and you might start hallucinating. It’s just about how often and how intensely you engage in these behaviours. 

Restorative coping behaviours, on the other hand, are the things we do that help us manage mental health symptoms in the short term and build our resilience to future challenges. These behaviours do not just provide relief to our symptoms today but help us have greater symptom relief later. Self-care then is the practice of these restorative behaviours that help us cope with our mental health symptoms, our stresses, and increase our wellbeing over the long-term. 

One important aspect of self-care is that it’s really about what you need, not what you want. Sure, I WANT to lay in bed some days and binge watch movies while eating popcorn and biscuits. But actually, that’s not what I NEED most of the time. While there will always be a place in my life for nights watching movies, most of the time my mental health does not improve when I lay around. What I need is typically more like movement (to help manage my anxiety), talking to friends (to not feel so lonely and isolated), and getting work done (so I feel I’m making progress on my goals). Often my anxiety in the morning says I want to curl into a ball in my bed and avoid the world, but what I need is a cup of tea and some food. 

Or even sometimes I hyperfocus on work; I stare at my data with anxious attention just trying to get them to do what I want. In those moments I WANT to keep working because school pick up time is approaching and I only have so many more minutes, but often what I need is to take a break. Get some food or fresh air, greet my child with a levelled mind, and spend time away from my data. I often find when I do return to it the work is easier.

What I need, though, is based on my mental health and my personality. What YOU need and want will be different. Here’s my challenge to anyone reading this: try to think about self-care as feeding your needs. So, what do you need? What does your body and mind say you want and then what do you actually need?

What does self-care mean for research students? 

Thinking about self-care as meeting needs, self-care can definitely be spa vacations or boozy nights with friends, but often self-care is more about the small things we do each day that helps us manage the stress and overwhelm of completing a PhD dissertation. 

One thing that is fairly universal about PhD students is our lack of time, and the feeling that we only have a few short years, and we better make every second count to finish on time (or within a year of on time). This may not apply to everyone; however, I do feel that most adults feel that there are never enough hours in the day. 

Self-care for busy people tends to be smaller and less noticeable. Things like eating breakfast, thinking about your plan for the day as you travel to work, or taking a short break from your lab or writing to go outside and see the sun. It’s in these little moments we recharge slightly for the next 30 minutes  (or two hours) of work. 

I think a lot of people, my former graduate students included, assume self-care is like charging your phone. You go until you’re out of charge at the end of the day and then plug in for a recharge. Human charge is much more complex though. Overall, our ability to regulate our emotions and our overall wellbeing is helped by big breaks, but it’s the small moments and daily behaviours we do in between that are most important. 

If you start your PhD, and work yourself to exhaustion by winter break, take a week off, and then start again, you will burn out by the time you’re done with your PhD, if you even finish. You need to build habits and find moments along the way that allow you to recharge slightly. When you add them up, they lead to a steadier energy level, with you topping up your battery while using it. This prevents big swings of energy expansion and long periods of necessary recharge, which are not as good for your wellbeing. 

Incremental self-care activities are things like going outside for a breath of fresh air, making yourself a cup of tea, or taking an afternoon off to see a friend. Especially if you come to the PhD with previous mental health struggles, moments of mindful reflection are vital to keeping your sanity until the end of the journey. 

As a therapist, when I assess a person’s ability to cope with their mental health symptoms, the most important factor is the small behaviours and rituals they use to manage their emotions and thoughts every day. How they practice self-care is a prime indicator of their overall wellbeing and one of the first things we address in therapy. 

For myself, coming to the PhD with my own diagnosis of PTSD, a small child, and needing to support us by working, I have set myself a difficult task. The only way I avoid burnout is managing my self-care every day. I build it into my schedule: time to eat, time to sit calmly having my coffee (sometimes while holding my child on my lap), stretching, exercise, tea breaks, and working while on Zoom with friends (having a buddy to work with is great). I also reassess my own self-care behaviours regularly and ask myself: how do I feel? Do I need to add more breaks or improve my focus on my work? Is there some treat or extra I can add in? Do I need to go to the library to make sure I get my work done? What do I need?

I’m also sceptical of what my body and mind tell me they want. I ask myself if I think it will really be restorative and something I need. This is important if you have a history of using negative coping skills, to always assess if the self-care you are doing is helping your overall wellbeing in the long term.

Honestly, your research won’t fall apart if you miss 5 minutes (or 30) to take a break (I mean for some of you, this might be true sometimes, but I still think you might be able to find a minute here and there). However, it won’t progress if you don’t do any work for several weeks; thoughtfulness around how you practice your self-care and accomplish work is important. 

My hope with this post is to encourage those of us on this difficult and challenging journey to complete our PhD to think about how we take care of ourselves. What do we do every day, every week, to practice self-care? How do we manage our mental health and our wellbeing so that when we finish, we are tired but not burned out? 

I’ll finish with a final thought. There is a reason we say “practice” rather than “do”. Because any type of behavioural change takes ongoing incremental efforts. It is not an overnight thing: it is small and deliberate behaviours overtime. Be compassionate to yourself, and you can make it through.

Jessie Shepherd

Jessie Shepherd is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from California, USA and a PhD student at the University of York, UK. Jessie has 12 years of community mental health experience along with six years of experience supporting new therapists’ development through her work as a supervisor and adjunct faculty. As a researcher, Jessie focuses on issues of equity impacting wellbeing for high-risk groups and emotional resilience in the population. Her PhD research is on pedagogical practices regarding refugee and migrant girls social and emotional learning.