Self-care has become a popular term which connotes images of bubble baths, large mugs of tea and warm fuzzy socks. A cursory search on Google yields over 3 million results while hashtags du jour such as #selfcaresunday trend regularly on Instagram and other social media platforms.
But is there any substance to self-care or is it just another passing wellness trend?
What is Self-Care?
At its most basic, self-care refers to how we take care of ourselves and our needs, which we all do even on a very basic level every day such as clothing ourselves, feeding ourselves, getting enough sleep etc. However, as I aim to demonstrate in this blog, self-care goes beyond short-term pleasure and mere perfunctory tasks to encapsulate practices that nourish, support and sustain us in a multidimensional way. Its outcomes generally include greater happiness, focus, productivity, creativity, reduced stress, greater emotional regulation and sense of balance.
Self-care is not and should not be a reward or a treat. Taking a bath once on the weekend does not constitute adequate self-care. It is a daily practice of checking-in and being attuned to oneself and one’s needs in order to give yourself what you need in the moment. For example, if I notice that I have been working for a while and am experiencing back pain, I will allow myself to stretch and take
a break as that is what I need in that moment. If I notice that I am experiencing emotional pain, I might ensure that I speak to a professional and/or practice self-compassion to support myself.
The ultimate question with regard to practising self-care is: what do I need right now?
The Science of Self-Care
From a science perspective, self-care involves those deliberate physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual practices that we engage in that restore a sense of homeostasis or balance to the body. They offset both the build up of stress and the stress response which are ubiquitous and analogous to living in the modern world.
The stress response is triggered within the body as a result of anxious or fearful thinking or as a result of stress (when we perceive that the demands being placed upon us are greater than the
resources we believe we have to face them). The alarm centre of the brain registers a threat and this triggers a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals which, if short-lived, are worked through the body typified by the fight or flight response. The stress response involves the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system.
In an ideal world, we would have long periods of rest and calm following periods of stress to offset this biophysical intensity of the stress response. Since our lifestyles run counter to this, thereby making this difficult, self-care all the more necessary in terms of our regulatory needs for optimum health.
Self-Care as the Restoration of Balance
Thus, a key word to think about with regard to self-care is balance.
It stands to reason then that many self-care practices involve relaxation which literally restores balance to the autonomic nervous system after an imbalance due to the chronic or prolonged build-up of stress. This is why yoga and mindfulness meditation which both have a growing literature behind them as powerful and multidimensionally beneficial practices are often associated with the restoration of balance.
Self-care practices are often associated with relaxation exercises. This is because they will typically activate the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. It can be helpful to think of oneself as a car in this respect. If the stress response is activated by the activation of the ‘pedal’, then self-care practices activate the restorative branch of our nervous system which is the ‘break’. Taking this metaphor slightly further, a car which is driven constantly and not serviced will eventually break down. On some level, the car will perform without being serviced, but it won’t perform at its best. You are the same. If you are constantly busy and doing (and disregarding your health broadly speaking) you are more likely to not be functioning at your best and stand a greater chance of ‘breaking down’, the equivalent of burnout and illness in terms of human behaviour.
Self-Care as Simple
We often undertake self-care without thinking much about it.
If we are stressed after a long day of work, we might put on some relaxing music to unwind or arrange a call or catch up with a friend. Self-care can be and should be simple but it ideally should be consciously done.
However, when we understand the science of self-care, we can empower ourselves with a toolkit of practices that serve to fill up our reserves. This will enable us to give more to others, not less. With greater knowledge, we can offset stress and take charge of our own wellbeing rather than have health issues creep up on us in the form of disease or illness.
Self-care should be enjoyable and work to suit our schedules. It should create any additional stress in the form of feeling obligation or self-judgement if we fail to do something. Simple easy practices work best.
Unhelpful Beliefs Which Prevent Us From Practising Self-Care
Clients who want work on increasing their wellbeing or work-life balance can often come up against some internal resistance in the form of unconscious beliefs that can derail progress. Some of these
can include the belief that we are not worthy of love and care (others’ needs are more important than our own), that self-care is somehow selfish and indulgent (the opposite is true in that when we fill up our own cup, we have more to give to others) and a very common unhelpful belief is that self- care takes up a lot of time, money or effort. I aim to show you below that this is not true!
Making Self-Care Happen: Simple Science-backed ways to create balance
1) Keep it simple. Self-care does not need to be complicated. In fact, the simpler the better as research shows that when we set small simple goals that are achievable, we activate the reward centre of the brain and we unlock our motivation to continue. So doing a 5 minute morning meditation is better than doing 20 minutes that you may very well fail to do.
2) The power of pause. Following on from the previous point about simplicity, an easy way to make self-care happen every day, and perhaps several times a day, is to intentionally slow down and to create moments where you pause between activities. For example, let’s say you have just finished a household chore and you are about to move on to the next one. Instead of just hurriedly going to the next thing, slow down, focus on your breath, take 4 or 5 mindful deep breaths to calm your nervous system. You might also reflect during these moments on what has gone well so far in your day (3 Good Things) as this exercise is associated with greater wellbeing and a decrease in depressive symptoms.
3) Transform regular parts of your day. One way to make self-care feel effortless and rewarding is to find creative ways of incorporating it into your day. Try lighting a candle as you journal, create a relaxing playlist to listen to as you clean the kitchen or burn some relaxing essential oils in the background as you work and transform everyday activities into ones where you feel supported and nurtured.
4) Take regular breaks. A break is a brief cessation of work or activity which is associated with many benefits. This idea challenges the culture of always on and doing. According to research, prolonged attention on a single task can actually hinder progress. By contrast, breaks are associated with improved memory, creativity, greater focus and ‘aha’ moments. You can plan this ahead of time by ensuring you take regular short breaks of 15 minutes several times a day. You can use a timer on your phone to remind you to do this. By taking regular breaks you will improve your productivity and engagement with tasks and offset the build-up of stress.
5) Move your body. Movement is essential for good physical and mental health. Incorporate more movement into your day by parking the car further from your destination than you would usually or getting off the bus one stop earlier to allow you to walk more. At lunch, try a taking 20 minute walk instead of sitting at your desk. Self-care should be enjoyable and not like a chore. If you’re not enjoying the physical exercise you take, then experiment with new ones. There are so many options to choose from now from yoga and pilates to Zumba and spin classes. Find one that works for you.
6) Socialise. Humans are hardwired for connection. According to research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad at the Bringham-Young University, social isolation is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. Call up your friends. Schedule social dates, Zoom calls and events. Positive emotions, which are essential for health, resilience (they have been shown to buffer against stress) and building social resources are often the result of ensuring your social needs are well met.
7) Ensure that you get between 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Getting good quality sleep is foundational for health and wellbeing. One way to make this happen is to gradually work towards this goal by going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night until you reach your target. Establishing an enjoyable wind-down routine 30 minutes before bed can be an effective way
8) Self-care doesn’t just happen. Self-care needs to be consciously planned on a daily and weekly basis. I recommend that clients schedule self-care events into their diaries or calendars as much as possible. For example, you can book your yoga classes online ahead of time and insert them into your calendar. You are also more likely to follow through on things that have been booked. Telling your friends or working with a coach can help to create accountability for the changes you wish to make. As with anything, start small. Incorporate simple and achievable changes into your weekly schedule and be patient with yourself.
For one-to-one support in creating your tailored self-care plan, arrange your free discovery call here.