While I have some healthy skepticism around the concept of DIY mental healthcare (insert major eye roll), I of course find it incredibly useful to teach self-guided tools to my clients. Self-guided mental health tools are what my entire True Self-Care Toolbox is made of, in fact. Along with necessary mental health interventions like therapy, medication, and community, DIY mental health tools can help anyone feel more empowered with their emotional and mental wellbeing.
Let’s dive into this mental health tool! The Three Non-Negotiables is something I came up with for myself when I moved in the middle of 2020. It was a big move (from one state to another) and my first with all three kids. We’d lived in the same city for over a decade, and leaving our community there came with some serious heartbreak. This grief was heightened when it became clear we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our favorite local experiences or make more memories with our favorite people due to the pandemic. A couple months before the move, when the pandemic was fairly new, I decided to choose only three self-care goals for myself and stick to them everyday throughout this huge transition. I’d been in a robust self-care routine for about a year by then and routinely spent up to an hour each morning in meditation, writing, affirmations, and spiritual practices. I knew that the chaos of a move would upend that routine, so I decided to pick three non-negotiable baseline behaviors to protect, and I consciously let go of the deep self-care practice I’d established. This approach worked so well for me that I started offering it to clients and my online community. It’s a simple concept, but the preparation piece makes all the difference.
Identify Your Stressor Ahead of Time
Do you have a big transition coming up? Maybe you’re moving, too, or a new baby is coming. Maybe there’s a career change or the kids are finally moving out. Maybe the holiday season is stressful for you, or summer always throws you out of whack. If you have a predictable stressor, identify it before it begins. This is key for The Three Non-Negotiables; it’s not kind nor is it fair to expect ourselves to assess stressful situations logically while we’re in the throes of stress.
Pick One Physical Goal to Hit Everyday
It may sound like I’m talking about a workout routine or number of steps. No. I’m talking about something having to do with your physical well-being, not your physical performance or appearance. More often than not, when things get stressful, sleep suffers, so I recommend seriously considering making sleep your first nonnegotiable. It was for me; while preparing for my 2020 move, I decided ahead of time that getting enough sleep would be my top priority hands down. I knew a move created endless opportunities for physical output (carrying boxes, rearranging furniture, unpacking all the things) and that, without being intentional, I could easily fall into a rhythm of sleep deprivation. So sleep became my first non-negotiable. If sleep isn’t an issue for you (yay!), consider other physical baselines like eating enough, drinking enough water, or moving your body everyday.
Pick One Thing That’s Already Happening
What do you do everyday that helps you feel mentally well? Maybe it’s telling your spouse that you love them. Maybe it’s wrestling your dog on the floor. Maybe it’s calling your best friend on your lunch break. Whatever it is, add it as your second non-negotiable. Because it’s already happening everyday, it’ll be an easy habit to carry over throughout your stressful time. The habit energy is already flowing, your neural pathways are easy to follow, the muscle memory is there. Let this thing that you’re already doing continue to work for you the way it already does. During my move last year, I stuck to taking my antidepressants. I’d decided ahead of time that this was a small thing that made a big impact on my mental health, I’d already been in the habit of taking them for months, and I knew it would be simple to keep the medication on me as we transitioned from one state and home to the next.
Pick One More (Very Reasonable) Thing
What else do you want to do everyday? Now is not the time to try to build a new habit out of nowhere, but you do get to choose from your many existing habits which one you want to keep or slightly adjust to help get you through this upcoming stressor. Maybe you love music and want to make listening to something everyday your third non-negotiable. Maybe yoga centers you and you want to practice at least five minutes each day. Maybe nature soothes you so you’ll spend time outdoors every morning. For me, I knew if I ate unsatisfying food for an extended period of time (hello, road tripping), I’d be miserable, so I decided my third non-negotiable would be to continue prioritizing satisfaction when deciding what to eat.
The key for all three non-negotiables is that the expectation must be very reasonable; you will feel like you’re setting a very low bar for yourself when you make this plan now. That’s good – it means you’re building an environment for success down the road, when the stressor is in full force. I distinctly remember telling my accountability partners about my plan to sleep enough, take my meds, and eat something delicious everyday – while simultaneously thinking to myself that I’d easily be able to fit in more self-care each day. (Insert one more eye roll here.) I set what felt like a very basic expectation, told myself I wasn’t allowed to expect myself to do any more, and reminded myself that if I did have extra time and energy, I could pick up that meditation or affirmation or gratitude practice anytime. Fast forward a few months and a few thousand miles later, I was so relieved to have these three baseline habits to rely on AND NOTHING MORE TO DO. Of course, as time went on and I felt somewhat settled in our new home and town, I did pick back up those other self-care habits. But throughout the weeks surrounding our move? I slept, I ate, I took my meds, and I moved my entire life and my three children to a new house in a new town in a new state in the middle of a global pandemic during wildfire season and heightened racial tensions and a brutally divisive presidential campaign. Phew.
Tell me: Do you have a predictable stressor coming up? If so, what are your three non-negotiables? I’d love to hear and cheer you along!
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