Self Care 101
Updated: May 3
I recently gave a lecture on self-care. I began by asking the group what they feel constitutes self-care, and their answers were fairly typical; meditating, taking a bath, reading a book, going for a walk, etc.
When I asked in terms of self-care, why they believe these activities are important, the answers were a bit more thin. Most weren’t sure why such things are encouraged, but suspected feeling good or doing things that increase happiness are probably part of it. This led to a discussion on the difference between self-care and self-indulgence, and more importantly, explaining why certain things that “feel good” aren’t self-care at all.
For example, as one group member pointed out, for some people, binging on chocolate cake or lighting up a cigarette feels really good in the moment. I’m sure the same can be said for any impulsive or addictive behavior. But self-care isn’t actually about doing things solely for the sake of feeling good, although that’s often a nice side effect.
Surprisingly, modern self-care has roots in the Black Panther Party and women’s liberation movement of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. In response to what many felt was a medical and political environment that did not understand or even consider the long-term effects of things such as socioeconomic status or poverty, and took a patriarchal approach to women’s health, the self-care/wellness movement was born as a way to increase patient autonomy in improving overall well-being.
Because living a full, rich, satisfying life is not just about a healthy body, early pioneers in the wellness movement advocated that wellness then, was not simply the absence of disease. Instead to be truly well, one needs good mental health in addition to physical health.
One of the biggest contributors to disease and mental health issues is stress. Stress that comes in the form of illness, but also from lack of sleep, a poor diet, or vigorous exercise. It is facing deadlines at work, racing home to get the kids to practice, or fighting with your spouse. Stress is a blaring car horn, worrying about finances, caring for an aging parent, or welcoming a newborn baby. It is also being a victim of abuse or assault, surviving a natural disaster, or witnessing a traumatic event.
Stress can be defined as the brain and body’s response to any demand, and not all stress is bad. But even stress that is beneficial (think of the stress that motivates us to study for a test, or the stress we put on muscles to make them stronger) can have long lasting and damaging effects if not properly relieved. If you put a little stress on bones through higher impact exercise, it can strengthen them and prevent osteoporosis. But apply too much stress or don’t allow the bone to heal and it breaks.
Emotionally, we are much the same. A little emotional stress is healthy. It encourages creativity and adaptability. But experiencing too much unmanaged stress can lead to increased depression, anxiety, and physical ailments like headaches and high blood pressure. Which is where self-care comes in. Self-care isn’t as much about increasing happiness as it is about creating wellness in mind, body, and spirit. And a huge part of that is relieving stress, both physical and emotional.
So, self-care might be going to the doctor or taking appropriate medication. It can be choosing a healthy diet or going to bed early. It might be asking your spouse to pick up the kids so you don’t have to rush, or taking a break from the baby for a few hours. Talking with a counselor, going to church, or meeting up with friends could also be self-care, if they serve the purpose of reducing some form of stress.
Self-care stress reduction can be doing something we enjoy, like reading a book, going for a walk, or the ever-popular bubble bath, but it can also be not doing something too. Like choosing not to look at emails before bed, silencing phone calls during family time, taking a day off from work or the gym, or saying no to a request from your mother.
Basically, self-care is either doing or not doing something with the goal of reducing stress and improving well-being. And it’s that "well-being" part that typically eliminates things like binging or smoking cigarettes as self-care. Each can certainly reduce short-term stress, but tend to create more long-term problems in terms of poor physical health and maladaptive coping strategies.
Self-care is something that should be part of a daily routine, but what that looks like is up to you. If you don’t like to meditate, then don’t. If the idea of getting into a bathtub causes anxiety, avoid it. Self-care can literally be anything you decide will help reduce stress and restore balance. That might be something pleasurable, like petting the dog or going for a walk. Or it might be knowing when to call it a night and go to bed, even if the project is not finished. It can also be something more long term, like regularly adding money to a savings account, which might not feel good in the moment, but does help to reduce financial stress in the long run.
In the beginning, the founders of the wellness movement wanted to empower people to take responsibility for their well-being, to intuitively listen to, and meet their bodies needs. But they also realized that the experience of the body is deeply intertwined with the mind, making emotional health equally vital to physical health.
I invite you to take a moment and do a quick self-care needs check in. Have you eaten in the last 4 hours? When was the last time you stretched or took a deep breath? Are you running on only 3 hours of sleep? Are you irritable and moody? Are you experiencing pain? Are you ignoring a conversation at work because you don’t want to deal with it? And if so, what can you do right now, to help relieve or improve stress associated with these or any other things?
Self-care is not self-indulgence, and it is not selfish in the negative sense of the word. It is caring for the self – the body, the mind, and the spirit. It is realizing that this finely tuned machine that holds our life force works best in balance. It is making the decision to do whatever it takes to maintain that balance, with the goal of living and giving our best possible life.
Originally published February 4, 2019