Have you ever walked into a room and met someone whose energy is so strong, so radiant, that you feel lifted and inspired simply by being in their presence? That person is probably an expert at self-care.
Self-care entails more than merely understanding your needs and taking care of them. It means living your best life. Caring for yourself and caring for those around you sometimes feels like contradictory goals. Think about what we hear every time we board an airplane. In case of an emergency, we’re told to put on our own oxygen mask first, then help other passengers with their masks. This is a metaphor for self-care that extends to all areas of our lives. When we’re living our best lives, our cups aren’t merely full―they’re overflowing. Only then can we try to fill the cups of everyone around us.
University of Connecticut psychologist Monnica Williams described to Slate what this means from a clinical perspective: “A lack of attention to one’s own stress levels and diet and fitness can lead to medical issues down the road: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity.” Women especially need to shed the idea that self-care is inherently selfish.
On a practical level, practicing self-care means understanding what makes us feel good and healthy, and the boundaries we need to set to be in that space. You might start by running down a simple checklist: did I exercise today? Have I eaten well? Am I taking time to breathe? Am I mentally healthy?
Going beyond the basics, a deeper scientific understanding of the mind-body connection shows us where the magic really happens. Effective counseling has been shown to change not only thoughts, emotions and beliefs, but also the physical brain itself. Psychotherapy supports the building of new neurons. Simple attention and focus activate the brain’s core, which stimulates the cortex and produces mirror neurons. Whether you’re actively discussing your feelings with a professional, or merely taking quiet time to yourself, it’s easy to see why self-care promotes a sense of feeling whole. It can literally grow your brain!
Too often, I hear women fall into a habit of pessimistic self-talk. A man might see a job posting, fulfill three of the 10 requirements, and think “I’m going to rock this.” A woman might fulfill eight of the 10 requirements and think, “oh, I’m not qualified.” Even that simple train of thought elicits a reaction at the cellular level.
This is an important element of self-care that’s easy to overlook―and easy to fix. According to the Mayo Clinic, the positive thinking we associate with optimism is key to effective stress management. Eliminating negative self-talk promotes specific health benefits such as an increased life span, lower rates of depression, greater resistance to the common cold, better cardiovascular health, and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Unlocking those benefits could be as simple as changing the way you think and talk about yourself.
If that’s too difficult, try smiling. You don’t even need to be happy to access its benefits. According to Psychology Today, smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. The brain also releases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. This can relax the body and lower your heart rate and blood pressure. In his TED Talk on smiling, Ron Gutman compared the boost we get from a smile to the feeling of winning tens of thousands of dollars in the lottery. Now think about what your smile does to everybody around you. They might just smile back. You’ll feel like you won the lottery again!
Navy SEALs, who are among the most physically and mentally tough members of the U.S. military, integrate many practical self-care techniques into their training. They are taught to visualize themselves having success. They mentally re-frame “negative” events as “positives.” They are given a specific breathing technique to promote relaxation, called the “4 by 4 for 4”: breathe in for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, and repeat this for 4 minutes.
Once, when I was in a hospital, I made a point to venture outside my room whenever possible and socialize with other patients by the open windows, where the sun shone in. We greeted our temporary condition with optimism. We talked about how we were going to get better. In turn, we lifted each other’s spirits. I was on that floor long enough to watch two people pass away. They seemed to be the people who stayed in their rooms, refusing to mentally engage in their own healing process. They did not complement the necessary care they received from doctors with their own version of self-care.
In the short term, self-care won’t feel like a matter of life and death. In the long term, it’s essential to our well-being. Taking time to monitor our own physical and mental health is necessary if we expect to treat others with the same degree of care. And it’s the only way to live your best life!