What if we’ve been wrong on what self-care is really about?
Like many of you, my entire work life has transitioned online. I meet with clients, talk with friends, and zoom with my family all online. My entire world has turned upside down and inside out.
While my initial response was to challenge this new normal, I have slowly come to appreciate whatever it is this weirdness has afforded. How?
I’ve learned that self-care is not really what we think it is. I have found a new sense of calmness and have started taking pleasure in the mundane. Strangely enough, with all the craziness raging on in the world outside and even with my slow, boring pace of life, I am the happiest I’ve been in years.
In meetings with friends and clients, we often discuss how it feels indulgent to engage in self-care while we’re in the midst of a global crisis.
As a psychologist, I have this notion of ‘self-care’ at the forefront of my mind at all times. What even is self-care and why does it usually fail to help us feel balanced?
I am inclined to believe self-care is much more than manicures, wine, indulging in ice cream, and Netflix. While all of these things are amazing in their own right and absolutely serve a purpose, I think it’s time to dive in a bit deeper and expose many of the overlooked aspects of self-care.
Laura Brassie differentiates between low vs. high reward self-care and is an excellent place to start. Moving forward, if self-care isn’t actually what we think, what is it? And, how do we get there?
1. Acknowledge you’re going through a rough time.
I truly believe this is the first step in learning how to care for yourself. How would we expect anything to change if we are not willing to admit there’s a problem? It is okay to not be okay. Even more so, it’s okay to have a problem. We’ve been conditioned to deny hardship, distract ourselves until no end, and put up a façade until we crack.
Too many of us believe struggling makes us flawed. The thing is, the struggle is part of life, it is what makes us human. When we’re able to admit we’re not okay, we open the door to the possibility of change.
Acknowledgment is the first powerful step in learning how to truly engage in self-care. Wine and manicures do help alleviate anxiety in the short term, but in the long run, they distract us from what is really going on. We have to be willing to open up to the idea that things need to change.
2. Set a morning routine.
I am a lover of routines and a natural creature of habit. My day starts with the same nourishing routine: hot coffee, writing, fresh air, and movement. If you are anything like me before I discovered this glorious routine, I would jump out of bed and get straight to work. Usually, in a frenzy, I would allow myself to get thrown around by the day, always feeling I was playing catch-up.
Discovering my morning routine has really helped me prioritize what’s important. I now feel a sense of obligation to take care of my needs first thing – because if I don’t, I won’t have the patience nor the energy to show up for anyone else.
I recognize everyone’s life looks different, but to the extent possible, give it a try! There’s a weird relief of anxiety that comes with having the same routine every morning. I feel like I have more control over my day, so when stuff inevitably hits the fan, I am able to bounce right back.
Try this: The ABC Morning Routine Method
3. Move every morning and every evening.
While this may seem excessive to some, I have come to realize I am my best self when I move first thing in the morning and then again when my workday is done. When I skip out on morning movement, l start my day feeling grouchy, stiff, and overwhelmed. I want to feel like I have control over my day, more importantly, I want to feel like I have agency over my time.
For some strange reason, movement first thing in the morning (right after coffee), helps me kick those endorphins into gear. It’s as if a flip switched in my brain. I purposely used the term movement instead of exercise because what I do not mean here is hitting the gym at 5 a.m. to get in that HIIT class. Stressing out your body this early in the morning spikes your cortisol and increases anxiety.
Through trial and error, I have found that gentle, mindful movement – any kind that I actually enjoy – helps me stay calm! Then when my work is winding down, I like to follow up with another dose of movement. It could be as simple as a walk through my neighborhood with a podcast, or a bike ride around town – anything that gets me out of the house and away from my screens reduces anxiety.
4. Eat fruits and vegetables, like a lot.
“Eat 5 or more servings of fruit and veg every day” yeah, yeah what’s new? What I am talking about here is a total revamp of how we prioritize living plants in the diet.
In order to look, feel, and act my best, I like to make fresh fruits and vegetables the star of every meal. I actually do notice an increase in my mood and a decrease in how often I am negatively responding to people when I load up on fruits and vegetables.
Emerging research on the gut-brain connection has led me down a rabbit hole of wanting to learn about how our minds and bodies are connected. Dr. Michael Greger M.D, of Nutrition Facts.org points out that a healthy diet (comprised of mostly whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes fruits, and vegetables) significantly reduces the occurrence of depression and anxiety.
Much of his science states; high levels of antioxidants and consumption of carbohydrate-rich meals can actually improve depression, anger, anxiety, and fatigue in women with premenstrual syndrome.
There is also a ton of research coming out on the link between GI distress and anxiety. Solutions all point towards eating an abundance of plants. To learn more about this Dr. Will Bulsiewicz is my go-to. I understand diet can be a touchy subject. My point here is; eating an abundance of diverse fruits and vegetables has really helped me take my self-care game to the next level.
Ultimately, a healthy diet has been a steppingstone in elevating me to a whole new level of feeling calm under pressure.
5. Self-care is a misconception.
Yep. You heard that correctly. If you are anything like me, I tend to live in my head, get wrapped up in my thoughts, fret about what others think, and probably spend too much time thinking about my own problems.
For people like us, it’s time to do some anti-self-care. Counter to popular belief, self-care in its most pure form means turning outside the self, helping others, and focusing attention on something other than yourself.
The research actually says people report higher levels of happiness and lower levels of anxiety when they are able to help others. This means, when we redirect our energy outwards, we actually gain perspective put our personal problems on the back burner. The Behavior Health Systems talks a lot about the connection between helping others and its ability to improve our health.
It’s pretty cool to think that by helping others we can improve our health, our mood, and our anxiety.
6. Thoughts follow behavior.
The wise Dr. Andrew Huberman points out, “Behavior first. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions follow.” While you may be inclined to believe once we hit a certain age, our behaviors and thoughts become calcified into existence. The whole “you can’t teach old dogs’ new tricks” is actually a lie.
Research actually shows that we adults do have the power to change our brains and rewire our thoughts. Once we learn how to leverage the process of what scientists call neuroplasticity through focus, mindfulness, and sleep we can tap into reservoirs of human potential (think: do more with less anxiety). My main take away from this is: don’t wait until you feel absolutely ready to take action, do it now! Take action first then watch your thoughts and feelings follow. You can hear more from Dr. Huberman’s here on the Rich Roll podcast.
Ultimately, when we give ourselves grace and allow ourselves space, we fuel positive change. I have learned that self-care is less about specific actions and more about mindset and the power of habit. Setting up a morning routine, incorporating movement into all aspects of my day, eating well above the daily recommendation of fruits and vegetables, and turning my attention outwards has been instrumental in caring for myself during this pandemic.
Slowing down and accepting change can be powerful as wine and ice cream. These past few months have really been my call to arms; to shift my perspective and slow down.