There's a lot of talk about self-care these days, but what is it really? Self-care means paying attention to and supporting one's own physical and mental health. It is also a big part of treatment for many physical and mental health disorders.
It's so, so important.
But, it's also one of the first things to fall by the wayside in times of stress, especially for those who are primary caregivers. This includes parents, people caring for elderly relatives, healthcare providers, and first responders. These are the people who often put the well-being of others above themselves.
This is a big problem.
Why is self-care important?
Well, we can't function very well if we aren't very well. If it is important to us to be able to take care of others, then we must pay attention to our own well-being.
My favorite analogy for this is clichéd, but accurate. When you get on an airplane and the flight attendant gives that safety spiel, when they get to the part about the oxygen masks, the first thing they tell you is: "If you're traveling with children or others who need assistance, put your oxygen mask on first."
Think about it. Let's say you don't do that and you fall unconscious due to lack of oxygen, then no one gets the help they need. Lose/lose situation there. It's the same deal in everyday life. When we don't take care of ourselves, no one wins.
And yet there is a pervasive cultural pressure to keep pushing ourselves, to ignore the physical needs of our bodies and the emotional needs of our souls, which invariably leads to chronic stress, burnout, depression. Data show that burned-out healthcare providers provide crappy service, depressed parents can't effectively parent, and the list goes on.
When I talk with my patients about self-care, I often hear things like "But I don't have time!" or "I'll feel like I'm being selfish!"
As one of two working parents with two small children, I can empathize greatly with these patients. So, the advice I give is the same advice that I follow.
I know that it can be difficult to fit in self-care when time is at a premium and demands on you are high, but here are four easy things you can consider.
4 things to help revive and nourish body and soul
Be physically active. Exercise busts stress, boosts the mood, and elevates our energy level, not to mention the heart health benefits. Believe it or not, you can exercise just about anywhere, anytime. It doesn't have to be at the gym. It doesn't have to be a scheduled class. And it doesn't have to be more than a few minutes a day. All activity counts. I encourage patients to think of an activity that they enjoy. Anything. Think about how that enjoyable activity can fit into your life: maybe you can ride your bike to work, or take your kids on an easy hike, or get the whole family to rake leaves with you. Let's brainstorm about activities that will fit into your life: Maybe make your next meeting a walking one, or take a brisk walk at lunchtime. Try a few minutes on the exercise bike in the kitchen, or dancing around your living room in your socks. On my very busy days, I make sure I take the stairs whenever I have the option. I park farther away than I need to and walk a little more. If I'm going to the grocery store and I only need a few things, I use a hand basket instead of a cart. It. All. Counts. And the more, the better.
Eat well. That means eat healthy. The mountain of studies supporting a whole-foods, plant-based diet for our health is almost as large as the exercise one. Stay away from inflammatory, sugar-spiking, insulin-releasing foods like processed carbohydrates (think all added sugars and anything made with flour). Aim for things that grew on plants or trees. The more colorful the fruits or vegetables, the more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants they have and the healthier they are. Vitamin pills and other supplements just don't work as well. Not going vegetarian to save your life? Got it. Just get colorful fruits and veggies into your diet wherever you can. We don't have to be perfect, but the more plant-based our diets are, the better.
Calm your mind. We all have stressors in our lives. What varies is how much we let the stressors stress us. What can we do? Yes, meditation works. The relaxation response works. Yoga works. But for those patients who stare at me blankly when I mention these, I talk about other calming activities. This can mean knitting, baking, walking, swimming. Anything quiet and peaceful, when one can take deep breaths and be calmly, enjoyably focused. Me? I try to do a few favorite yoga stretches at the end of the day, right before bed. This is usually after the kids fall asleep, and I can't even be bothered to find my yoga mat. I just get right to it on the carpet in my daughter's room: downward dog, plank, cobra, and then some of my own moves, to stretch out my back.
Sleep well. Aim for a refreshing amount of sleep. While this will differ for everyone, generally it's about eight hours. It's tempting to stay up late to cram in those last household chores or answer email, but really, the world won't end if the laundry is dirty for another day, or the dishes are piled up in the sink. Sleep deprivation causes irritability, poor cognition, impaired reflexes and response time (think: car accidents!), and chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to depression and anxiety. Create a short, easy bedtime routine. Stretching or yoga, prayer, or reading a book can be relaxing. But stay away from your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, as the light interferes and interrupts the natural sleep onset. Alcohol near bedtime also interferes with sleep, and is a common cause of nighttime or early-morning awakening.
The bottom line
Maybe we can't do all these things every day. But if we make self-care a goal, and try to address all of these factors regularly, then we will feel and function better. The better we feel and function, the more we can do for the people and things we care about. And that is a win-win.