“Self-love is not so vile a sin as self-neglect.”
SHAKESPEARE, HENRY V
Paying Attention to Your Needs
At all times, but especially in times of adversity and stress, it’s vitally important to take the time to look after your own wants, needs and desires. Burn out, fatigue and depression (or if not depression, then certainly ‘low mood’) can very easily creep up on you if you’re not actively looking after your own sense of well-being.
What is self-care?
Raphailia Michael writing in PsychCentral says self-care is, “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health”.
Self-care involves taking time to pay attention to your own sense of well-being and putting your needs first, at least occasionally. Not in a narcissistic way, but in a manner that makes sure you are focusing on your own physical and mental health.
Self-care activities help to reduce anxiety, improve mood and build good relationships. It is a vital component of avoiding fatigue, sickness and burn out.
Self-care actions include:
- knowing what your limits are
- finding a way to decompress throughout your day
- giving some thought to addressing persistent problems
- committing to changing any difficult work situations that may arise
- spending time with loved ones
- getting regular medical check-ups
Attending to the basics
Self-care starts with the obvious 4 core physiological factors:
- Breathing properly
- Sleeping well
- Healthy diet
- Regular exercise
If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep (and who hasn’t) then you know what tiredness can do to your mood, attitude and decision-making capabilities.
Similarly, Junk Food, Alcohol, Tobacco and all the other things you might (or might not) try from time to time will, in excess, hamper your ability to feel good and get things done.
Ditto exercise; your body was made to move and there is a minimum of effort needed to keep the system in good working order. The category of exercise includes the requirement to maintain a good posture. Poor body alignments, caused by hours spent hunched over a steering wheel, phone or laptop can (over time) cause pain, immobility and low mood, so any tendency to slouch, adopt a ‘text neck’ etc. needs to be actively countered.
Of the 4 core factors the least focused on by most people is the one that’s top of the list – a strong breathing process. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, and you will notice that your lower belly rises. This fully oxygenates the whole body and promotes a sense of well-being, boosts energy levels and aids healing. Shallow breathing, on the other hand, causes fatigue and creates a sense of anxiety. As you will be breathing all day, every day, for the rest of your life, the positive impact of a strong breathing process (and the negative impact of a poor one) should not be underestimated.
There are formal breathing systems that you can study e.g. the Ujjayi breath of yoga practitioners, Buddhist Whole Body breathing techniques and the popular Wim Hoff Breathing method, that’s based on Tibetan Tummo Meditation. However, it’s enough for most people just to go on-line and read up on the basic principles for diaphragmatic breathing.
A key self-care strategy is to take 3 or 4 short breaks each day (of about ten minutes each) to ‘decompress’ and shrug off any stress that’s building up in the body. These micro breaks are (of course) in addition to taking a proper lunch break, one that takes you away from the computer, phone and social media.
These breaks can involve anything that helps you to re-energise yourself; and what works well for one person can be quite different from what works for someone else. The two main things to bear in mind are that (a) you are aiming to ‘de-compress’ and not cram extra activities into the day, (b) find something that works for you and your life style. So Sudoku or stretching, a coffee with your partner or contemplating nature, listening to the radio or reading a poem – the choice is yours!
You might like to know, however, that the research clearly shows that one of the most effective self-care strategies is to meditate daily, as it boosts mental health, sharpens attention and improves relationships. So, consider engaging in daily meditation, of whatever flavour you like, whether that be Mindfulness, Transcendental, Taoist, Vipassana, Zen etc.
Engaging in hobbies and pastimes
Having an interest that is both outside of work and also the immediate home environment, is a very powerful element of a self-care routine. There are thousands of possible options, it’s just a question of each person finding the ‘right’ one for them, be that gardening, horse riding, scuba diving, motor bike riding, yoga, dancing, running, photography, book club, choir, watching or playing team sports etc.
It also makes sense for couples to do a shared activity as a way of strengthening and enhancing their relationship. It’s also important to try new things from time to time, in order to maintain a sense of adventure and avoid boredom. Of course, pastimes don’t have to be expensive or time consuming, simple daily activities work just fine as a self-care activity e.g. hiking, seeing a friend, walking the dog, reading a book, going to the cinema, or out for a meal.
News Hygiene and ‘Digital Sunsets’
Most people are bombarded by emails, digital messages, and social media updates, and that’s very disruptive to a calm, centred mind, consequently it’s vital to take control of your ‘digital footprint’ by…
- Adopting good News Hygiene; stop all push notifications and alerts (especially news updates and email notifications). Pick one (or maybe two) trusted news sources and look at them just once a day.
- Enforcing a Digital Sunset; pick a time (say) 6.30pm and switch off all emails, and all work communications. Disconnect from social media (Facebook, Instagram etc.) and focus on your home and social life until the following morning.
Gratitude Journaling (i.e. writing down a list of things that you are grateful for) sounds like one of those things that wouldn’t work to boost self-care, but actually does.
It seems that by taking the time to reflect on what’s going well and/or what you’ve enjoyed and/or appreciated, focuses the mind on the good things in life and boosts optimism. The ‘good’ things can be big e.g. finishing a project, or small e.g. watching a sunset as you drive home from work, a coffee with a friend, a compliment from a work colleague, but they all contribute to building optimism and positivity.
The initial study into this topic by Emmons and McCullough (2003, Counting Blessings Vs. Burdens) asked participants to write down 5 things they were grateful for, once a week for 10 consecutive weeks. The result? An extraordinary 25% boost in happiness reported by the participants as against their pre-journaling rating.
Putting it all together
JournalingYou can be of little help to family and friends, and of little value to an employer, if you are jaded, weary, run down, or washed out. Taking the time to prioritise self-care activities means that you can experience a level of joyfulness and satisfaction in your personal life that’s pleasing and uplifting, while also giving you enough energy to be supportive of others. So, take the time to decompress, enjoy your hobbies, meditate and take a moment each day just to notice something you are grateful for.
So what’s next?
Reflect on how good you are at taking care of yourself – do you need to make any changes?
Read this (long but interesting) article on Self Care 101 by Dr Maria Barratta in Psychology Today
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And finally, remember…