Self-care is a hot topic these days, for good reason. Research indicates that Americans are increasingly reporting episodes of anxiety and stress which impact their physical health. Not only are we over-committed in our home lives, more is expected of us than ever before in our work lives.
These days, the media often sells us the idea that self-care is about being indulgent -- buy this cream; take these supplements; wear these shoes! I think of self-care as learning to better tune in to what we really need to be well and healthy in each of these domains: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social, environmental, professional, and financial. Self-care is a vital element of our survival and preservation, and it is different for each of us. There is no one way to do it right. So, I hope this eliminates the idea that self-care is about getting a mani-pedi and taking a long bubble bath -- though, it could be that, too.
Professor Maria Asberg from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, is a researcher and expert on burn-out. She originated the concept of the exhaustion funnel. When life is good, and we participate in a healthy balance of work, chores, rest and play, we keep depression and anxiety at bay. But, if we are over-committed or have large work projects that spill into live outside of work, we tend to cut out of our lives things we don't feel are essential -- rest and play -- with the idea that once this project or this commitment is complete, we'll add back the rest and play. What's so interesting is that often, we don't add it back, or we add back less of it.
When we tune into our own needs, we are happier, healthier, and better able to do our jobs, participate in and contribute to our relationships, and effectively handle our responsibilities without having a breakdown. It's not just an external thing we do "to" ourselves; it's an internal shift, too.
I would say that self-care starts with self-compassion (another over-used and diluted concept). Self-compassion is the willingness and presence of mind to cherish myself in the same way that I cherish a loved one; and, to interact with myself with the same kindness and humanity that I would offer any other person. What makes it so hard for us to do this for ourselves?
So, how do you know when you need more self-care in your life? I need more self-care when I feel depleted and exhausted. I need more self-care when I am not present to my patients’ needs. I need more self-care when my relationships suffer, when I isolate, when I feel numb and am not incorporating enough nourishing activities into my life.
Lets face it, we can't avoid draining activities (which may include our work life). It's not like we can simply quit our jobs because they are stressful. But, what we can do is incorporate small oases of grounding, presence to, and release of, thoughts that spin off into worry -- even just for a few minutes several times a day. We can add back even just a half hour of time to ourselves to do whatever is nourishing for our health. When I'm stressed out, I try to remember to be present to, and allow, all of my experiences, memories, sensations, thoughts and emotions so they can quickly move through me and be released. Diaphragmatic breathing is my very good friend (parasympathetic nervous system stimulation). I often move through some gentle yoga poses, and allow myself to connect to the Divine, bathing in a wash of compassion for myself. It also feels nice to expand out that compassion to all beings everywhere.
Imagine what could happen if we each started with self-compassion and expanded that out to others. The world would be a kinder place.