Throughout my graduate program in clinical mental health, my professors would frequently begin class with a question: “What have you done to care for yourself this week?”
As you can imagine in a room full of graduate students, this inquiry inevitably resulted in a competition to best convey the impossibilities of juggling everything on our plate. When pressed, someone who had reached their breaking point might disclose sneaking away for lunch with friends or splurging on a massage, but as a whole, self-care was a laughable concept. We were graduate students after all, caffeinating ourselves through a daily balancing act of work, school, internships, homework, exams and home life.
Any kind of sustainable-take-a-break-from-responsibilities-to-pamper-yourself self-care was absurdly unrealistic. Or did we have the idea of self-care all wrong?
If we think of self-care as a box that fits outside of our normal responsibilities, an addition to the to-do list, or the final splurge required when we’ve reached the end of our rope, then we are missing the point. Rather than a separate practice that catches us just before we hit rock bottom, self-care should be a lifestyle, woven into the very fabric of our daily rhythm and prioritized above all else.
That is what self-care is all about. It is changing the way that you do busy, not stepping away from it now and then. It is using moments of downtime intentionally rather than zoning out through television or social media. It is being attuned to the needs of your body and soul, fueling yourself with nutrients, reframing your thinking, cultivating creativity and optimism, and using exercise as the powerful tool that it is to boost energy, reduce stress and increase positive affect.
This kind of shift is made up of simple changes, but it is not easy. My own journey has taken several years, and it continues to unfold even as I write this. But the most important part is taking the first step and making changes that are enjoyable and sustainable. Here are a few evidence-based ways you might consider beginning a journey of your own:
Increase your physical activity. Exercise is perhaps the most potent drug available to us to increase productivity and overall happiness. Research has shown that exercise increases alpha-wave activity in the brain, promoting clarity and concentration. Other studies have found that increases in aerobic fitness lead to improved intelligence scores over the first 18 years of life. Exercise is one of the only modalities shown to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease, and has been proven as effective as medication in treating depression. Find something you enjoy that involves moving your body, even if just a little at first, and build it into your day.
Develop a morning meditation routine. Meditation produces low arousal emotions including serenity, peace and calm. It is particularly useful in times of high stress. Both physical activity and meditation boost mood-regulating hormones.
Sit less. Move more. Completely independent of regular exercise, the hours we spend sitting each day impact our concentration, energy, sleep quality, and literally take years off of our life. Sedentary behavior is inversely associated with visual attention and task switching. A recent study found that for those who work at a desk job, the simple act of getting up and moving around one minute every hour (just 10 minutes each day) reduces the risk of premature death by 15 percent.
Fuel your body. Spend time learning a little something about nutrition and then give your body what it needs to operate efficiently. More and more research is linking mood disorders such as depression with inflammation in the gut. Filling your day with nutritious and anti-inflammatory meals can reap big rewards in terms of energy and mood.
In the U.S. today, we have glamorized workaholism at the expense of wellbeing and, ironically, at the expense of our productivity in the very work that we are trying to prioritize. Work itself is not the enemy and the goal of self-care should not be less work and more fun, but rather, greater inspiration and creativity, increased efficiencies, and enjoyment of all parts of life, including our work. True self-care is a holistic shift in how we move through life and work altogether. It is an entire realignment of everything and a recognition that when we pay attention to the essential requirements of our bodies, minds and souls, we function more effectively and efficiently in all parts of our life.
Kate Coleman is an associate at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster. She focuses on preventing and managing stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.