How to Prioritize Self-Care and Make a Routine

Taking some time for yourself is critical, self-care experts say. Here’s how to be smart about it.

Can you remember when you first heard the phrase self-care? Odds are good that it might have been relatively recently. In the United States, the term’s search engine popularity began trending steadily upward during the 2016 election cycle. And it peaked in the spring of 2020, as articles about managing stress and anxiety spread nearly as quickly as the virus that prompted their creation.

The medical community has been using the term self-care since at least the 1950s, often in relation to patients whose illnesses could be managed at least in part through diet and exercise. And activists, particularly those associated with the civil and women’s rights movements, began to speak more widely about the importance of self-care in the 1960s and 1970s – a time that in many ways paralleled the equity struggle of the past year. Why? Well, if you’re committed to a cause that you believe is bigger than yourself, it’s easy to sacrifice your own wants and needs for the pursuit of a greater good. And it’s just as easy to find that, once you’ve made that sacrifice, you’ve run yourself ragged and lost your ability to effect meaningful change. “The line about oxygen masks and airplanes is overused for a reason,” says Shelly Smith, co-founder of the wellness service Good Human Work. “You can’t take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself.”

Smith is one of many Milwaukee-area therapists who say they’ve seen a tremendous uptick in interest in self-care over the course of the pandemic. “We realized very quickly that this is a situation that was going to lead to burnout,” she says. So Good Human Work decided to launch a program offering free counseling sessions to medical professionals and other frontline workers.


HOW I CARE
Gene Manzanet, executive director, Scaling Wellness in MKE

Taking 20 minutes to focus on my breathing right before I go to bed, and before I start the day, really makes a differ­ence for me. I feel more relaxed. It helps clear my mind and makes it easier for me to write or do whatever work I need to do that day.


The people who signed up for the sessions often seemed to benefit as much from having their experiences validated as they did from receiving actionable advice, says Patrick Parker, a licensed marriage and family therapist who directs Good Human Work’s Milwaukee-area operations. He found himself reminding his patients again and again that they shouldn’t feel guilty about making time for themselves, even if they chose to spend that time doing absolutely nothing: “You have permission to do nothing, and that’s probably what would be most beneficial to you right now.”

 

 

We should also remember that our value as human beings isn’t intrinsically connected to our productivity, Smith says. And we shouldn’t feel guilty about using up all of our allotted vacation days or turning down social invitations when we’d rather stay in and read.

Adopting a self-care regimen can help you stave off burnout. It can also help you – forgive the cliché – learn to live your best life. Sometimes you do that by indulging in a movie marathon. And sometimes you do that by waking up early to go for a morning run, because you know that the endorphin rush you get from jogging will boost your mood, and because regular exercise is good for your long-term health.


HOW I CARE
Anika Wilson, UW-Milwaukee associate professor, co-founder of The Self-Care Club

I really love trying new meal recipes, preparing the old standards, and throwing together make-shift new recipes from the random things in my cabinet. It’s soothing and uses my creativity.


Lindsey Arens, a mental health therapist at Elle Studio + Wellness, draws a distinction between active and passive forms of self-care. Both forms are important, she says. But many of us find it easier to make time for passive activities (movie marathons) than active ones (early-morning runs), which means that we don’t always strike the right balance between the two of them. “The truth is that we all need to escape sometimes, but too much of it isn’t good for us,” she says. “And, if we think about it, we know what too much Netflix is, what too much alcohol is, what too much shopping is. We don’t feel good afterward.”

Arens tells her clients to let their bodies, and the way they feel, guide them toward a balanced wellness routine that works for them. Some people thrive on six or seven hours of sleep. Others need nine or 10. Some people recharge by spending time alone. Others are energized by social activity. Some people benefit from high-intensity spin classes. Others are more likely to appreciate long walks around their neighborhoods. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

That’s part of the reason why self-care is so broadly defined – and so often misunderstood. Type #selfcare into Instagram, for instance, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the term was coined by a marketing executive who wanted to sell more yoga pants or skincare products.

Joining the Club

Anika Wilson and Sara Benesh didn’t set out to form a self-care club. But when George Floyd’s death sparked a series of protests, and counter-protests, across the country, the two UW-Milwaukee professors decided to check in on their students of color. They expected them to feel upset. And they were. But many of them were also physically and emotionally exhausted – literally tired of feeling unseen and unheard. Their classes had moved online. Many of their friends had moved back home. They felt isolated, forced to grapple alone with feelings surrounding our nation’s reckoning with its long history of racism.

“People need points of contact with each other,” says Wilson, chair of the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies. “There’s something about the lack of a campus presence – it was weighing on our students as much as it was weighing on us.”

“I have to pay particular attention to my students of color,” she adds, “not because they’re more needy, but because they need to see someone who looks like them in leadership positions. It gives them a sense of things that are possible.”

So Wilson and Benesh decided to create The Self-Care Club for UWM students of color, using funds they received from a university grant earmarked for anti-racist programming or initiatives.

“We needed to give people a space to come into community with each other and give themselves permission to take a break and disconnect,” says Benesh, chair of the Department of Political Science. Sometimes that meant facilitating discussions with inspiring local luminaries, like Wisconsin Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton. Sometimes that meant sending the students care packages full of goodies like coloring books and bath salts to encourage them to make more time for themselves.

The response to the club, which Wilson and Benesh intend to continue when students return to campus in the fall, was overwhelmingly positive. Forty students signed up to participate within the first hour of its creation.

“There’s a lot of physical research about how important this is as a preventative health care measure,” Benesh adds. “I see it as a necessity.”


HOW I CARE
Emily Mazzulla, director of collaboration and innovation, Scaling Wellness in MKE

I have three little kids and a busy life, and I know that every day I need to take some time just for myself. One of the ways that I do that is by mindfully focusing on whatever activity I’m doing. So, if I’m doing the dishes, maybe I listen to a book on tape while I do it, or my Calm app.


“When we talk about self-care, we are talking about more than just pampering,” Elle founder Emily Keeling says. “Permission to engage in the prioritization of the self, as well as developing coping skills for life stressors, is what we’re all about.”

To be clear, splurging on a new pair of yoga pants or high-end headphones can absolutely be a part of a healthy self-care practice. But Keeling advises her clients to really dig into their specific wants and needs when thinking about how to integrate self-care into their own lives. New leggings could be a positive incentive to work out more, and feel good doing so. Or they could be a source of guilt and feelings of inadequacy. It all depends on the person.

Unsurprisingly, different people also prioritize self-care differently. Especially in so far as it relates to mental well-being. There’s still a pervasive belief (in our city, and just about everywhere else) that therapy is for “crazy” people, that mental health concerns shouldn’t be discussed out loud.


HOW I CARE
Patrick Parker, therapist and regional director, Good Human Work

I go on walks. And I’m obsessed with numbers, so I’ll make little paths and say to myself “OK, I can do this walk in eight minutes. It’s 750 steps, and I can finish it between sessions.” It lets me change my way of thinking and engage the part of my brain that loves engineering and numbers.


 

Three Trending Therapies

Mental health professionals are developing and refining new treatment options every year. Here are a few you may want to consider:

Brainspotting

Psychotherapist David Grand began developing brainspotting as a form of therapy in 2003. While working with survivors of trauma, he realized that the directions his patients looked seemed to affect the way they felt. And he found that, by using a laser pointer to guide their gaze, he could help them activate, and begin to process, traumatic memories or emotions. Over 13,000 therapists worldwide have now been trained in brainspotting, including West Allis licensed professional counselor Scott D. Thomas (alwaysabetteryou.com).

Ketamine Infusion Therapy

A growing body of evidence suggests that ketamine, used for decades as an anesthetic and as a street drug, has antidepressive properties. Because it’s so potent, and potentially dangerous, it’s rarely considered a first line of defense against any psychological condition. But therapists have found that, in carefully measured quantities, it can be used to effectively treat depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in patients who’ve struggled with other treatment options. Learn more and find local providers at ketaminemilwaukee.com.

Art Therapy

Some people are good at talking through their feelings. Others stand to benefit more from methods of therapy that enable them to express themselves visually or kinesthetically. Patients engaging in art therapy, for instance, often create drawings, paintings or other works of art while working with a trained therapist to overcome past traumas or target other mental health concerns they’d like to address. Painter and licensed professional counselor Ernesto Atkinson offers both English- and Spanish-language sessions in the Third Ward (aliviointegral.com).

 

Fortunately, that belief seems to be fading, slowly but surely, says Gene Manzanet, executive director for Scaling Wellness in MKE (SWIM). Milwaukeeans seem to be more open to talking about, and addressing, their mental health now than they were even a few years ago.

Manzanet thinks that high-profile athletes have helped convince the general public that wellness is as much a mental and emotional pursuit as a physical one. “Professional athletes have adopted breathing techniques,” he says. “And you can see how that’s been part of their overall health and wellness management. It’s no longer just the physical side – training and getting stronger and more flexible. It’s also learning how to deal with stress.”

Emily Mazzulla, director of collaboration and innovation for SWIM, agrees that Milwaukeeans are becoming more receptive to the idea that they should make time for both their physical and mental health. And she believes that the pandemic has actually accelerated that trend.


HOW I CARE
Patrick Parker, therapist and regional director, Good Human Work

I go on walks. And I’m obsessed with numbers, so I’ll make little paths and say to myself “OK, I can do this walk in eight minutes. It’s 750 steps, and I can finish it between sessions.” It lets me change my way of thinking and engage the part of my brain that loves engineering and numbers.


“I’m a clinical psychologist and have been really pleased to see efforts to destigmatize mental health concerns,” she says. “I think the pandemic was a catalyst for that, because it was a collective traumatic event, something that we all have been managing and continue to manage. I can’t think of another time in history when we were all doing that.”

Mazzulla, like the rest of the experts interviewed for this story, hopes that more and more Milwaukeeans will continue prioritizing self-care even when the triggers of the pandemic are in the rearview mirror. Because stress and anxiety are always going to be part of our lives. But they can be managed. And we all stand to benefit from reminding ourselves that our health – both mental and physical – is important. We owe it to ourselves to make it a priority.

“The stressors of the pandemic are still there,” Parker says. “They’re not going away. So you should take care of yourself and your relationships and make sure you’re doing some of this preventative work to avoid burnout.”


HOW I CARE
Lindsey Arens, therapist, Elle Studio + Wellness

I’m an extrovert, so I actually unwind and de-stress by talking, which is kind of funny because I literally talk all day long. But talking is how I process my thoughts and feelings. And I’m very lucky to have a partner who is kind enough to listen.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s June issue.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.