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  • Writer's pictureKarla Benzl, M.D.

First and Foremost: Self-Care

Updated: Nov 5, 2020


When it comes to self-care, all people can benefit. Self-care is preventative medicine both physically and emotionally. It allows you to restore your health, find balance, joy, and have more resilience in the face of challenge. It is the antidote to stress. Without the practice of self-care, most of us become prone to burn-out, resentment, emotional reactivity, and apathy. Although some may worry that self-care feels “selfish”, it is quite the opposite. The practice of routine self-care is ultimately unselfish, because it allows you to be more present for others. You are more likely to be a better partner, parent, friend or coworker if you feel well.

What is self-care?Self-care refers to activities that promote pleasure, physical well-being, and mental well-being. Self-care often includes exercise, healthy social connection, optimal nutrition, meditation, therapy, massage, reading, listening to music, hiking, being intimate with a partner, among other activities. Typically, the activities you choose for self-care are both health promoting, and also something you personally enjoy doing. Since most people struggle with time constraints, I encourage people to consider activities that give them the most “bang for your health buck.”

For example, if you like to exercise, and like nature, then make hiking a regular endeavor. If you enjoy cooking and spending time with people, then why not arrange a regular potluck with friends? If you need more exercise, and are interested in meditation, then how about movement meditation such as yoga or walking meditation?

There are many activities that count as self-care. Even going for a 5 minute walk counts, or taking 2 minutes out of your day to breathe deeply. Self-care can be done even during the busiest of schedules. In fact, it should be taken more seriously the busier you are.

Why is it important?

Self-care is part of a balanced life. When life involves too much of any one thing, you can feel “off.” This is a good sign that it’s time to get back in balance. Many of the activities included in self-care have been shown to boost the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” part of the body. It is part of the nervous system that is associated with feeling calm and connected. It is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as “fight or flight,” which becomes active when you perceive a threat. The sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones such as adrenaline. The body can better heal itself when there is less activation of the sympathetic nervous system, and more activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Furthermore, you can actually increase your sense of self-worth by exercising and taking better care of your body.

I know it’s important, but why do I still have trouble practicing self-care?

Often times, the barrier to self-care are your own thoughts, perceptions, or priorities. People report a sense of guilt when taking time purely for their own healing. Some people even express concerns about feeling selfish when taking time for self-care. I always point out, however, that without self-care, there is a risk of burnout and resentment. You are actually being kind to everyone when being kind to yourself first. You are better able to care for others when you feel well. Likewise, at work, you are more efficient and productive when you are refreshed and calm. So your own self-care is good for everyone else in your life. Furthermore, you are setting a good example to others when you practice self-care. Don’t you want your partner to also be calm and receptive, able to enjoy life but also productive? Don’t most parents want this for their children? Don’t most children want this for their parents? Wouldn’t you rather work for a boss who can work hard but also respects quality personal time? A boss who is rested and happy, and therefore easier to work with? Ask yourself these questions the next time you notice you have put self-care on the back-burner.

How can I kick-start a self-care practice?

Schedule it.I recommend choosing one activity you consider enjoyable, and schedule it into your calendar at the same day and time every week. Consider this activity your “non-negotiable.” Choose a day/time when it is most convenient for you. With any change, moderation and consistency are key. I recommend against “all or nothing” lifestyle changes. You are truly better off achieving a half hour dance class once or twice a week, for almost every week, over several years, than you are having one month full of dance classes and then nothing until next January. Once you have the self-care activity in mind, and have added it to your schedule, the next challenge is actually doing it.

Ignore your inner workhorse. Pay attention to the feelings that arise when it’s time to engage in your self-care activity. You may feel uncomfortable leaving work early, leaving the kids with a babysitter, or whatever it is you are leaving behind for your moment of self-care. You have to go against the inner voice that will spout myriad excuses about why you have to stay home, stay at work, do the errands, etc. Ignore that inner voice and allow yourself to experience the discomfort that arises when putting yourself first. Notice any negative feelings such as guilt, sadness, or anxiety. Accept that you will never feel 100% done with everything EVER. If self-care is difficult for you, sometimes you have to fake it until you make. This means going against the uncomfortable feelings and engaging in self-care anyways.

Triage.Learn the art of triage. Some tasks are more important than others. When you are reluctant to let go of a task in lieu of self-care, always ask yourself this question:

“Is this task a true fire that needs my absolute attention RIGHT NOW?”

If not, then agree with yourself to take care of it later. Be ok with saving some tasks for later, in favor of your own health. You will be more efficient with your work later when you are more rested.

Self-compassion.Lastly, keep your expectations reasonable. Lifestyle changes are hard to do. Be kind to yourself if you skip a week of self-care or fall out of the habit. This is bound to happen. Life happens. Just get back on schedule the following week and give yourself a hug.

Once you have committed to one activity of self-care, you can see whether it is enough to help you feel more balanced. You are welcome to add in more activities as needed, so long as you don’t over schedule yourself in an unrealistic way. Remember, goals should always be achievable. Commit to your "non-negotiable," and the rest of the self-care schedule can be the “nice-to-haves.”

Cheers to you and your health!

This article has been adapted for parents:

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