Treat yourself: Duluth experts talk self-care + mental health

Taking care of yourself is like “putting on that oxygen mask first.”

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News Tribune illustration

Running, baking, pet cuddling — self-care takes on many forms. And it’s a key strategy to managing stress, say local experts.

Self-care is a set of behaviors taken on a regular basis for optimal well-being. Common practices are eating well, sleep, exercise and social interaction. It has evolved to include physical, psychological and emotional health, and ways we recharge vary person-to-person.

People might think this is more complex than it is, said Dr. Julie M. Slowiak, associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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Dr. Julie M. Slowiak


“(It) doesn’t need to be luxurious in the form of a week-long vacation (or) a day at the spa,” she said by email.

You can link your practice to your daily routine, and it can be as simple as walking your dog or sipping your morning coffee mindfully and by focusing on your surroundings using your five senses.

Slowiak is conducting research on a project, “Self-Care and Job Crafting Practices Among Applied Behavior Analysts: Do They Predict Perceptions of Work-Life Balance, Work Engagement, and Burnout?” She also coaches others in practicing self-care in her business, InJewel LLC.

There are five dimensions of self-care, she said: life balance (social support), cognitive strategies, daily balance (avoid over-commitment), professional support, and professional development. Setting personal and professional boundaries, journaling, and keeping your home or workspace tidy are “non-glamorous” tools.

When self-care falls by the wayside — and it will — it’s time to pause and reassess where you can adjust routines to better support yourself, she said, adding on the opposite end of the spectrum: “Any behavior, even a self-care behavior, that is done in excess and which impedes one’s quality of life, is a behavior that may need to be addressed.”

Mainstream mental health

Mental health awareness is changing.

American adults ages 18-25 have a more accepting view of mental health care compared to other adults, according to a 2015 study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America . And 59% of American adults know someone with a mental health disorder; 87% said there’s no shame in it, according to the American Psychological Association .

Normalizing mental health awareness and self-care practices are key, said Randy Barker, interim director for health, counseling and well-being at the University of Wisconsin Superior. It’s usually the first thing to go when we need it the most, Barker said. When we’re busy or overly stressed, we tend to sacrifice tools such as utilizing support systems, getting enough sleep and physical activity, and eating well.


It’s easier to care for others than to care for ourselves, and it can be hard work to be consistent. But taking care of yourself is like “putting on that oxygen mask first,” he said. It’s the gas tank in a car. When we tend to ignore the low fuel light, it can lead to bigger problems. We have to listen to our bodies and its signals.

Randy Barker

Students who are just starting college or who are transitioning into the workforce after graduation are facing challenging times. UWS staff aim to ensure everyone on campus has the resources and tools they need, Barker said, referring to counseling services and the Pruitt Center for Mindfulness and Well-Being, which serves students and faculty. The faculty's well-being has a significant impact on their students’ well-being, he said.

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Jean Baribeau-Thoennes

Stress and anxiety are the No. 1 reasons students come into health services at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said counseling director Jean Baribeau-Thoennes. Because the natural response to stress and anxiety is avoidance, a good self-care move is breaking tasks into more manageable goals — and to take action vs. procrastinate.

Her tips to students are:


  • good sleep.

  • adequate nutrition.

  • regular exercise.

  • setting realistic goals.

  • positive self-talk.

  • find ways to deal with multiple, conflicting expectations.

  • build connections.

Baribeau-Thoennes referred to UMD’s Connection Day , which encourages students to replace social media with face-to-face interaction. She encourages students to take care of themselves, and she tries to do the same by running and practicing yoga. Music, art, any way to fill you up, just “find an outlet,” she said.

Slowiak journals in the morning, exercises with her fiance, takes “breathing breaks” at work.

People in the helping professions should recognize self-care as necessary. “We have the personal and professional responsibility to develop and maintain our own well-being,” Slowiak said.

Barker also practices yoga and has a consistent mindfulness practice. He tries to be as active as possible and invest in relationships. Using our support is vital, he said.

Treat yourself

Here are some simple ideas for self-care.

  • Meditating, praying

  • Taking a bath, shower or sauna

  • Reading

  • Exercise: Skiing, biking, running, lifting weights, dancing, hiking, walking, skateboarding, you name it

  • Baking, cooking

  • Computer games

  • Watching movies, TV shows

  • Walking or cuddling pets

  • Napping

  • Art therapy: Painting, drawing, coloring, sculpting, knitting, crocheting, sewing

  • Music therapy: Playing instruments, singing

  • Listening to music, podcasts, audiobooks

  • Masturbating, consensual sex

  • Going for a drive or a motorcycle ride

  • Bird-watching

  • Laughing

  • Volunteering

  • Therapy

  • Catching up with friends and loved ones

  • Drinking alcoholic beverages (in moderation)

  • Journaling

  • Yoga

  • Epsom salt soak

  • Forging

  • Massage

  • Acupuncture

  • Spa treatments: manicure, pedicure, facial

  • Sailing

  • Gardening

  • Aromatherapy

Self-care at work

  • regular breaks

  • avoid work isolation

  • develop a professional support system

  • stay current on best practices in your profession

  • seek feedback and coaching

  • increase awareness of emotional triggers and reactions on the job

Source: Dr. Julie M. Slowiak, associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth

Related Topics: HEALTH
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