Self-care is the sum of things you do for your emotional and physical wellbeing. Getting enough sleep, brushing your teeth, and eating well are classic examples of good physical self-care.
How to take good care of yourself emotionally may be harder to see from the outside. Your ability to view your inner world with compassion and curiosity is one sign. Noticing your emotions and thoughts with gentle awareness is another inward sign of emotional self-care. Knowing how to find and turn to people who you can tell your troubles to, and enjoy being yourself with — these are some outward examples of caring for yourself well emotionally.
Trauma distorts a person’s ability to maintain an inner sense of wellbeing. Trauma can come from any experience that overwhelms your sense of being safe, or your sense of being okay with yourself. The experience of trauma, especially in childhood, makes learning good self-care practically impossible.
Trauma triggers an overwhelming sense of feeling unsafe, no matter the cause. Conditions that can cause psychological trauma are numerous and can include:
- Exposure to violence (of any kind)
- Living with parental substance use
- Emotionally distant caregiving
- Having a parent with unmanaged anxiety or depression
- Living with an illness, including a mental health condition
- Experiencing bullying
Trauma makes the inner world too uncomfortable and chaotic to hold with curious awareness. Feeling alone with intense fear and anxiety triggers the urgent need to protect one’s self. Instead, a person seeks to escape overwhelming feelings, because there’s no way to explore them safely.
Trauma survivors learn to adapt. They develop responses that may seem like self-care, but are actually coping mechanisms – the best self-care that can be done at that time. Coping often includes hiding your emotional needs even from yourself. You learn to distract your attention, numb or deny the emotional turmoil inside. It might be the only way to remain as part of the group you depend on for food, shelter, or daily life.
Trauma survivors can emerge from their experience having managed to survive without the faintest idea of what good self-care looks like or what it means.
Many trauma survivors don’t realize they’ve experienced trauma in their lives. Many just soldier on with the coping mechanisms they have developed, without realizing that life can feel better.
It is possible to safely name, understand, and soothe the distressing thoughts and emotions inside. Trauma-informed therapy is the safest way I know to guide the journey from coping to healthier self-care, from surviving to living. Learning about self-care is at the heart of this journey.
Why Trauma Hinders Self-Care
Trauma survivors often have trouble seeing and accepting their own needs for good self-care because:
- They don’t like to bring attention to themselves, as the inner world has been painfully overwhelming, or being seen by others was risky or dangerous.
- They don’t know how to trust attention from others because historically, attention has been abusive or negative.
- Their tolerance for pain and discomfort is high. It needed to be!
- They don’t believe they deserve the good that life has to offer.
- They have limited knowledge of how life can be different, or think that can be different only for other people.
9 Signs You Need Better Self-Care Due to Trauma:
You may not be giving yourself the self-care you need if:
- You avoid going to the doctor. When you’re sick, you don’t go to the doctor because you think, “I’ll be fine. No big deal.” And routine visits (like to the dentist, for yearly bloodwork or a physical or for gynecological exams) also don’t make it onto your schedule.
What good self-care looks like: Whether it’s a sore throat or a routine visit, you follow medical guidelines and recognize that your body deserves timely medical care. This self-care may require assistance to feel grounded and have enough resources within yourself to inform your physician that you are a trauma survivor. You have a right to explain your need to go slowly, especially with any physical contact.
- You sleep poorly, without looking at what you need to sleep better. If you’re not sleeping well, or getting enough sleep, what do you notice? The reason could be simple: Is it noisy? Is your partner snoring? Is your mind running wild with anxiety or worry? Is a high stress level something you became used to as you grew up? Perhaps as a child, you wondered if you were going to be safe in your bed. Did fighting between parents wake you up? The reason you’re not sleeping properly could provide helpful guiding insights.
What good self-care looks like: Knowing how to be grounded in today, to clear your mind and your calendar for good sleep hygiene. Good self-care means you decide to go to bed at a reasonable hour, knowing that you need (and deserve) 8 hours of sleep and a comfortable and safe sleep environment. You can learn healthy ways to soothe mental distress — this is a perfect reason to work with trauma-informed therapist.
- You seek comfort from food (especially unhealthy ones), or your relationship with food is a constant struggle for you. Are you eating enough? Are you eating too much? Do you regularly choose good, nutritious food? Or are you living on carbs, sugar, or alcohol? Do you find yourself binging or using food to self-soothe? Eating disorders come in all different forms, and often incur intense shame. A trauma-informed approach means treating eating disorders with compassion.
What good self-care looks like: Providing your body the nutrition you need and deserve for your body to function well, and for you to enjoy eating without shame.
- You dismiss your body’s need for healthy exercise. Exercise is a part of good self-care. Every body needs to move with different levels of intensity at different times. The mental health benefits of even modest exercise are one reason why I take a mind-body approach to trauma recovery.
What good self-care looks like: Moving your body regularly, even if that means dancing around the living room to your favorite song or taking your dog for a walk. You don’t have to join a formal exercise program. Listening to your body can help you find ways to move that feel good to you.
- You often reject the idea of asking for help. Perhaps you always think you can do it yourself. You may have learned to think there is no support because you are alone in the world. Have people failed you in the past? Do you feel isolated? If you feel that it’s better not to ask because then you won’t be disappointed? These thinking patterns may be signs of a trauma history.
- You overschedule yourself as a way of life. If you have trouble saying no and take on too many commitments without leaving time for yourself, you may feel that your own time is not valuable. You may seek a sense of worth based on what you can do for others. You may find it hard to feel good about being yourself, expressing yourself or becoming more of who you are.
What good self-care looks like: Creating healthy boundaries for yourself, time for yourself, and enjoyment just being — because you deserve to enjoy life as much as anyone else.
- You regularly use alcohol (or another substance) as a way of relaxing. If the first thing you do each night is reach for a glass of wine after work, or you can’t get through the day without a Xanax, you may be using alcohol or drugs to manage your emotions. If your child’s play dates regularly include wine for the moms, you may want to consider a change.
What good self-care looks like: Putting on fuzzy slippers, using wonderfully scented lotions, or taking a bath in order to unwind from a hectic day.
- You use pain, like digging your fingernails into your skin, when you’re overwhelmed. When your emotions and thoughts become too intense to tolerate (you become dysregulated), you have found yourself pinching yourself or digging your fingernails into your skin. Not all self-harming behavior includes cutting. Self-harm includes behavior like pulling out hair or nails, hitting or slapping oneself, piercing or burning the skin or banging body parts on hard surfaces.
What good self-care looks like: Using a healthy way to release stress, like exercise, connecting with a good friend, meditation, yoga, or journaling — as much as you need.
- Money causes you a great deal of stress. Did you grow up in a household where nobody taught you how to manage finances? Are you working extremely hard to control your money pushing yourself well past norms of frugality? It may be your relationship with money is tied to coping with strong emotions. Struggles with your relationship with money may be a sign that a trauma-informed therapist can help you.
What good self-care looks like: Believing that money is there to fill your needs and wants, and knowing you deserve to have it, save it and spend it, all in a balanced fashion.
If you identify with these signs, I encourage you to consider finding a trauma informed therapist to help you move forward in a happier, healthier, more fulfilling way.
If you’re not providing yourself self-care, don’t you deserve to learn how?
The answer is undoubtedly yes.
A well-balanced life is one where you can thrive—not just survive.
- What Is Good Self-Care, and Why You Deserve It
- Why You Need a Trauma-Informed Therapist, Even if You Don’t Think You Have TRAUMA
- Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop? 3 Ways to Stop Worrying So Much
- Understanding Addictions