When I was younger, I used to pride myself on an inaccurate picture of who I was and how I reacted to stress. I believed myself to be someone who was unaffected by stress: “I just don’t get stressed out. Stressful situations happen, but they just don’t get to me,” I would say, making full eye contact and believing myself thoroughly. What I came to realize later was that actually, I was just very good at not letting on to most of the world when I felt overwhelmed. And really, I wasn’t great at even recognizing my own feelings of overwhelm. Consequently, self-care wasn’t a need that I even identified.
Sure, I am a generally easygoing, positive, flexible individual. But I’m also someone who loves to push myself and help others, and it can be challenging to know sometimes where the line is. This is where self-care comes in: the most important thing I’ve learned about the way I relate to stress is that I am absolutely capable of taking on as many projects as I want, but taking care of myself in the midst of it all is non-negotiable.
Self-Care as Stress-Care
Being in harmony with my life and who I am is one of the feelings I love most. When I hit my stride and speak my truth, I feel unstoppable. Who doesn’t want to live harmoniously? All too often, stress gets in the way of my focus on who I am and how I work best. Stress has many guises – emotional and mental stress of a busy lifestyle, a demanding career, or care of loved ones; physical stress of illness, recovery, inadequate sleep, sub-par nutrition – the list goes on.
ritual rit·u·al (rĭch’ōō-əl) n. “A detailed act or series of acts carried out by an individual to relieve anxiety or to forestall the development of anxiety.” –The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary
I’ve put together a list of self-care rituals, many of them peppered with herbal helpers. Self-care is more than just physically taking care of yourself to the extent that you are still alive (which is important, don’t get me wrong). Self-care involves nourishing yourself, body, mind, and spirit. It means taking time for yourself, especially when you don’t have time. These rituals are helpful to incorporate on a regular basis, to keep you feeling balanced and harmonious. They are also really helpful for times when you wake up and find yourself mired in stress that you somehow didn’t see swirling around you at any time prior, or that you may have refused to acknowledge – been there.
When this post was originally published in 2016, my aim was for this list to feature mostly herb-focused self-care practices. While I find herbs an invaluable aspect of many rituals of care, my relationship to stress and self-care has evolved over the years. I wanted to update the post to reflect the tools that have been most valuable to me in the most recent era of my life.
Without further ado:
15 Harmonious Self-care Rituals
For me, stress often creates a state of stagnancy and indecision. I tend to over-analyze, over-strategize, and just plain worry when overwhelmed. I enjoy yoga, stretching, strength training, and going for walks outside to create a sense of flow. Choosing action over thought is the vibe – take a dance break, move your face around, do the hokey-pokey; whatever you do that involves movement outside of the necessary, do it. If these types of options are not available to you, stretching at my desk, drinking a glass of water, and transporting myself with a piece of music are a few ways that I create movement in my routine when I find myself frozen in stress and bound by limitations.
Beginning a meditation practice can feel overwhelming – there are many types of meditation and most people probably wonder if they’re “doing it right,” at least in the beginning. Guided meditations can be helpful for those who would like some direction.
My personal favorite way to meditate is to set a meditation timer, close my eyes, breathe deeply, and visualize a color softly pulsating with each inhale. I can choose to flow through the rainbow, or picture different shades of green, or pastels. I can pick the same shade of purple to envision with each breath. I like this meditation because it has potential for variety (which keeps my mind from wandering), it’s tied to breathing deeply, and I can do it without thought – this is the most crucial part; seeing the color rather than just thinking the word “yellow.” If I don’t see the color on the first breath, I keep practicing until I can envision it.
Visualization doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and I think this is one of the simplest ways to practice. As you practice regularly with colors or single images, your capacity for visualization in guided meditations will likely increase. A powerful praxis in self-care, meditation opens different gateways for attunement, driving a greater sense of harmony and self-connection.
Seek out beauty and create in whatever capacity delights you. This could mean simply taking the time to consciously appreciate the beauty in your everyday surroundings. It could mean viewing or creating art, cooking, looking at photographs, or rearranging your bedroom. It could mean reading beautiful words, or speaking them to yourself as you get ready for your day. Where do you find beauty?
Whether you consider yourself a “nature person” or not, there is nature in each of us. If you have access to natural spaces, parks, and botanical gardens, great. If you don’t, fear not. Even if it’s just catching some fresh air outside or bringing store-bought flowers into your home, being consciously present in whatever nature you can find has deeply nourishing potential. Make it a point to take a stroll or watch the sun set. Notice what kinds of weeds grow near you. How many leaves or petals do they have? What do they smell like? Even if you don’t know what they’re called, take the time to acknowledge the plants you pass each day. As you hear the rush of traffic moving by outside your window, can you close your eyes and imagine the ocean’s waves rolling?
Give something away as often as you can. The something you give can be anything from a thoughtful gift to a smile – you never know how much small gestures and actions can mean to someone else. Plug a parking meter for a stranger, leave a note of encouragement. Compliment people genuinely and often.
When I sit down and make lists related to all of my major commitments, a lot of my stress evaporates. To me, a list is a plan, even if it has things in it I don’t want or know how to do. Lists help to organize thoughts and problem solve, and most importantly they move internal stress outside of the mind. I’m a visual person; seeing everything at once rather than juggling it in my mind gives my brain permission to relax, and makes overwhelming tasks less scary; I tend to break these down to their smallest pieces so that they feel less daunting.
7. Mental Exercise
This is different from work; mental exercise is recreational. Choose to do a puzzle instead of watching TV, do a word search instead of doom-scrolling. Explore your local library or independent cinema. Gore Vidal once wrote, “The unfed mind devours itself.” I am in complete agreement.
Call someone. Text someone. Better yet, write someone a letter – they will be so excited to get real mail that another human intentionally sent specifically to them, especially if it’s not for any special occasion. Exchange well-wishes with a stranger or meet a friend for a chat. Connecting with other humans is how we keep from losing ourselves in ourselves. Even if you’re an introvert, connection is crucial to self-care. Disconnect from the world around us – disconnect from other people – disconnect from our true selves – is a key contributor to felt stress. Maintaining relationships and building new connections are some of the best ways you can take care of yourself.
We each have different levels of comfort in being alone and in being in the company of others, and it can be just as difficult for people to find time to themselves as to find a way to connect with another human over the course of their day. While I value the time that I spend with others each day, it is difficult for me to manage my stress and untangle my mind when in constant company. Thus, my time alone each day is precious to me and I believe deeply in the power of solitude.
Solitude can be five minutes or a day – it can look so many different ways, but the key thing is that it is consciously observed. Many of the other rituals on this list fit nicely into a practice of solitude: taking a bath or shower, making a list, enjoying a meal or a cup of tea, even listening consciously to music you like during a commute or errand. When I feel like even a few minutes are hard to come by, I set a timer for a five minute meditation after I wash my face at the end of the day, when I’m in the bathroom by myself. I sit on the counter and savor meditating alone for a few minutes before I go to bed.
Neither connection or solitude is a singular solution, they work well to balance one another. This can look different for everyone, but if there’s one that you feel you don’t have time for, experiment in whatever small way you are able.
10. Deep Breaths
Breathing deeply has profound physiological effects, from reducing blood pressure to triggering the brain to release chemicals that are tied to feelings of contentment and wellbeing. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing also increases the circulation of lymph, supporting immune function and detoxification. My top favorite essential oils to inhale deeply are frankincense, atlas cedar, vetiver, and neroli.
A journaling practice can be a helpful way to unpack and wind down or ready yourself for the day ahead – or to reflect in real time as your day progresses. If writing seems intimidating to you, consider a gratitude journal. Whether you’re having a fantastic day or a very challenging time, taking a few moments to jot down things for which you are grateful can set a refreshing tone. Reflections of gratitude help us to reframe our experience and calibrate or soften our focus.
Skin is the body’s largest organ of absorption. What we immerse ourselves in externally, we soak up internally – both physically and spiritually. The soothing heat of a bath can be enhanced with the use of herbs, in the form of essential oils or bath tea.
Rose petals, chamomile, and lavender make great calming bath time additions; just add a few drops of essential oil to your bath salt. Consider using epsom salt; it is magnesium sulfate, known to relax muscles and ease tension. Alternatively, brew a quart of tea (use 1/4 cup of herbs and steep 15 minutes); strain and add to your bath. A french press works perfectly for this. If you don’t enjoy baths or don’t have a bathtub, consider using herbal salt scrubs in the shower or indulging in hand or foot baths instead.
13. Personal Altar
Gather things that are important to you and give them a space; whether it’s a table, the top of your dresser, or even a special box. Anything goes here – photos, seashells, mementos, candles, flowers, souvenirs, letters, art – you name it. If it’s special to you, if it connects you to something that brings you joy or grounds you, put it here.
The first altar I created for myself followed a major life change, and it’s difficult to overstate how profoundly therapeutic the experience was for me. It helped me recognize who I really was and what mattered most to me. My altar is a space in my home where I come to reflect, heal, sing, cry, and smile.
The act of making tea forces us to slow down and complete a process. It gets us out of our heads and gives us something to do with our hands, and we have no choice but to wait while water boils, to pause while herbs steep and tea cools.
Drinking something warm soothes our nerves and provides comfort during trying times. Skullcap, Lemon Balm, Holy Basil, and Oat Straw are some of my favorite herbs to blend for tea in times of stress. To brew a leafy medicinal tea, use 1 tablespoon of herbs for every cup of water. Steep 15 minutes and strain.
This is actually a lot of things all masquerading together as one thing. Eat your food groups, stay hydrated, get 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, and exercise. Drink high-mineral nutritive tea. It should be in the water supply, pretty much everyone can benefit from it. Some great herbs to include in a nutritive tea blend include red clover, nettles, violet leaves, and oat straw. Throw some mint or licorice root in there for added benefits and flavor – you’ll be set to conquer the world.
xoxo, dani O.