Making Cents out of Self-Care

5 Tips for Building up your Bank of Positive Emotion

By Calvin Fitch, PhD

Casey Dooley, Chair of Black Pride speaks at the Mental Health Awareness Forum in February 2019. At the Forum, Dr. Calvin Fitch discussed trauma, post-traumatic stress, micro/macro aggressions, self-care, depression, and anxiety with three other mental health professionals. Credit: Luke Connors.
From left to right, panelists Dr. Calvin Fitch, Chia Po Cheng, and Misty Cranston Batesm with moderator Cristela Guerra at the Mental Health Awareness Forum in February 2019. Credit: Luke Connors.

In my psychology work, I have often found self-care conceptualized as a toolkit. This undersells the ongoing nature of self-care because tools are typically used to fix something that is broken. Instead, self-care is best conceptualized as a lifestyle. It requires constant work to maintain a level of positive emotion that will be enough to withstand the taxes on that positive emotion that life will undoubtedly hand us. To that end, I often promote awareness of self-care by having people imagine an emotional bank account.

If you looked at a bank account, you would see a list of money coming in (deposits) and money leaving (withdrawals). Similarly, if you were to look at your emotional bank account, you would see a list of events adding positive emotion (deposits) and taking positive emotion away (withdrawals). Some events would be large and give or take away a lot, and others would be smaller and give or take away a little. Much like a financial bank account, where we want the money coming in to exceed the amount of money leaving, the purpose of self-care is to keep more positive emotion coming in than going out. 

Make Regular Deposits

A key way to accrue positive emotion is to have regular deposits, much like you might have a paycheck come in from a job. Value-driven activity, or doing activities consistent with your values, is a good way to achieve this. Assess values by asking yourself, what you would want someone to say about you if they were giving a toast to you on your 90th birthday? If being connected to your family of origin, for example, is not something that you’d want a person to comment on, it may not be a value of yours. Thus, you may not want to spend much time on this even if society tells you that’s what you should be doing. Living a life consistent with your values ensures a constant “paycheck” of positive emotion.

One can add to this paycheck by making regular, smaller deposits. Comforting or nourishing yourself with small self-soothing activities can help with tolerating pain or distress. When we self-soothe, we soothe one of our five senses and communicate calmness to the brain. For example, for sense of touch, one might cuddle up with a soft or weighted blanket. Others might enjoy smells and find scented candles soothing. While these activities may seem small, they’re  particularly helpful with canceling out small withdrawals on positive emotion stemming from daily hassles (e.g., commuting to work).

Plan for Withdrawals

While making deposits is important, it is also unrealistic to only expect money to come into an account and never be taken out. In the same vein, a life without stress is unrealistic. Looking at a bank account, though, we might notice some withdrawals are predictable (e.g., rent/mortgage or a gym membership) and others are not (e.g., sudden repair or medical expenses). Similarly, in our emotional account we can anticipate certain stressors (e.g., traffic each morning, a difficult meeting each week, or exams) but not others (e.g., being late to a meeting or the sudden loss of a loved one). A good self-care starting point is to list all the things in a given month that will lower your positive emotion. Make a regular self-care plan consisting of value-driven and self-soothing activities to cover just these things. Think of this as your basic emotional budget and then add to it so that you can cover unanticipated stressors.

Beware of Emotional Overdraft!

This happens when your stressors/withdrawals exceed the amount of self-care/deposits. Over time, this can feel like burnout, hopelessness, or despair. In an overdrawn bank account, each additional withdrawal carries an extra charge. Similarly, when we are in emotional overdraft, we are more reactive than we’d normally be to stressors. Things that would normally upset us a little become really upsetting, even unbearable. Fortunately, it is easier to get out of emotional than financial overdraft, but it does require extra work. In addition to making larger deposits through value-driven and self-soothing activities, you should consider looking further at withdrawals. Similar to canceling a gym membership you can’t afford, you might consider canceling some stressors you can’t afford (e.g., spending less time with someone who causes you stress).

Beware of High-interest Emotional Loans

Some activities can be used to get a large amount of positive emotion very quickly (e.g., drinking or drug use). These activities can sometimes have very high hidden costs ranging from interpersonal conflict to health or legal issues. Since the positive emotion gain is so high, we become naturally driven to use these activities repeatedly. As we do this, we can start to remove ourselves from value-driven activities, which is a hallmark symptom of depression. Read the fine print by examining potential consequences. If over time the benefits outweigh the costs, it may be worth engaging in a healthy way. If the costs outweigh the benefits, then we may want to limit or avoid these activities.

Be mindful! 

This is arguably the most important tip to building positive emotion. You won’t know how much money you have or whether you’re in overdraft if you never check the account. Similarly, if you don’t know how stressed you are or what it looks like when you’re stressed/burned out, you won’t know when to make adjustments. Look into your own emotional state and stress level at least twice a day, even if for only five minutes.

Monitoring the positive emotion account is especially important for us LGBTQ+ folks and those from other marginalized backgrounds (e.g., people of color or people living with HIV). As a result of negative experiences like stigma and discrimination we are likely to have more, unique withdrawals/stressors than many others. This means that our emotional budgets have an additional (likely recurring) charge that needs to be taken into account. Monitoring the emotional account will let us know just how much positive emotion unique stressors like these are taking and guide us in making deposits accordingly.

In the current health and economic crisis, our emotional banks have been impacted in two additional ways. Many of us have an entirely new set of withdrawals/stressors (e.g., loss/reduction of income, loss of routine). Simultaneously, varying degrees of mandated isolation have put a limit on our usual system of making positive emotion deposits (e.g., using the gym, seeing friends). In short, our emotional budgets need to be revised. Use this time to check the positive emotion account. What’s your current balance? How much is being withdrawn? How much is being deposited? What creative changes need to be made to keep you from emotional overdraft or to lift you out if you are already there? Though circumstances have changed, the importance of maintaining ongoing self-care remains paramount and being emotionally aware can help to ensure that we’re emotionally prepared.

Calvin Fitch, PhD

Dr. Calvin Fitch is a post-doctoral fellow in Behavioral Medicine at Massachusetts General
Hospital and an affiliated researcher at Fenway Community Health. He received his PhD in
Clinical/Health Psychology from the University of Miami. His clinical work focuses on teaching
behavioral self-care strategies to those at high risk for chronic illness. His research focuses on
HIV prevention and sexual health among young Black men. Follow his lab (MaxM) on social
media at Instagram.com/Maxm_TFI and facebook.com/MaxMTFI.