(Note: this blog post originally appeared on carolinegraceoneill.com in August)
Self-care, a buzzword I’ve seen cropping up in articles from my favourite publications, was something I rarely thought about in terms of my own mental health.
A few weeks ago World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Sri Lanka’s volunteer support officer shared her self-care tools on Instagram. After reading the post I began thinking more about what self-care means and how it applies to me. Essentially, self-care is a personal way to check in on one’s emotional and physical well being.
A large part of the reason I decided to volunteer with WUSC was to challenge my perspective, my ideas and myself. While it has brought its obstacles, I am also grateful to be experiencing an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Dealing with culture shock, trying to handle the heat and living in a remote area have made me consider my mental wellness. At times, these three and other elements will pile on and cause me to feel stressed, tired or upset. However, understanding how these things impact me in a day has allowed me to become far more attuned to my mental health and what triggers a decline in my mood.
Living in the Southern Province in August means I’m constantly trying to handle the heat. Last night alone went up to 36 degrees. No air conditioning and dressing differently than I do at home on a hot day has made the heat one of my largest struggles. This week I spent three sleepless nights tossing and turning because I was too hot. The combined heat and my own exhaustion made me more prone to get upset over little things at work and at home. Once I can realize the heat and lack of sleep are my main problems, I can look at other things differently. More often than not, the things that had set me off rarely seem as bad as they were in the moment.
I currently have less than three weeks left in Hambantota and I’m beginning to think about the lessons I’ll bring back to Canada. During the school year, I often let stress get the best of me. During the end of a term, a study session gone array or a last minute assignment can send me over the edge. In hindsight I easily pinpoint the real problems: too much coffee, too little sleep, too many hours in the library, too much time staring at the screen. By living and working halfway around the world, I’ve been able to see the need to check in with my self in my usual comfort zone.
Mental health, I would argue, is still stigmatized. We have begun to talk about mental illness but it its important to recognize that mental health looks different for everyone. Like our bodies, we need to look after our minds. A few weeks ago, our volunteer support officer shared an updated version of a packing list for future WUSC Sri Lanka volunteers and she included a section on suggested self-care items. Before leaving mental well-being wasn’t something I had considered so I’m glad the next set of volunteers will have that in their minds as they embark on their mandates. As volunteers, our goal is to do our best work and we can’t do that if we aren’t properly looking after ourselves. But this isn’t unique to my time in Sri Lanka, this is something I will slowly introduce to my life in Canada, especially once I start my last year of university in September.
Interested in learning a little more about self-care? Here are a few things I’ve been using this month:
Podcasts: If I’m filing and uploading photos to the Chamber server, podcasts give my mind something else to focus on. If the heat is bad or I’m struggling to sleep, a podcast keeps me occupied without stimulating my eyes and mind from working on a laptop or scrolling through my phone. Canadaland’s Short Cuts keeps me updated on Canadian news through Jesse Brown’s media criticism and on a harder day I love listening to Sleepover because it reminds there are so many ways to face a problem.
Meditation: Meditation is something I’ve only recently introduced into my life. I love yoga but I used to dread the meditation portion of a class. After downloading the app Headspace on the recommendation of a fellow volunteer, my relationship to meditation is changing. Headspaceguides you through a free starter pack of ten-minute sessions, helping you to focus on your breathing, the sounds of your environment and how your body is feeling. You can also set an alarm so you are reminded to meditate each day.
Reading: I love reading. Even before I was introduced to self-care, I always set aside time in my day to sit down and read. Personally, I prefer a hard copy book because I can get away from a screen, put my phone on silent and focus on the words on a page. While the genre never really matters, there are two books that have been a huge help to me during this trip. JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination reminds me I should take risks and challenge my normal. I’ll take any advice from Harry Potter’s maker. Marina Keegan combined her youthful voice with an extraordinary handle of prose in her posthumously published The Opposite of Loneliness. At 22, she died five days after her graduation from Yale. Her book is thought-provoking and offers an essay or short story for everyone. A big shout out to my two friends for gifting me these reads!