Updated: Feb 9
It is another busy work week! As you race out the door, you realise you forgot to eat breakfast (again) though you did grab a cup of coffee to have on the way. As well as work, you’ve got lunches to make, information nights to attend and a never-ending list of chores. So, you go without sleep, skip your pilates class, postpone a catch up with friends and cancel date night with your partner. To keep up the frantic pace of our lives, our own self-care often slips to the bottom of the list. It is so easy to forge ahead putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own. Yet before you can effectively take care of those around you, you need to take care of you!
Why is self-care so important?
It might seem like a no-brainer. Of course we need to care for ourselves. Just like the flight attendants tell us, we’ve got to put on our own oxygen mask first, before we can help others with theirs. But for some reason we often still put off doing the very things we know would be good for our soul. Sometimes it is simply that we don’t prioritise self-care amidst our busy schedules and sometimes it is because we don’t fully believe we deserve to take the time to care for ourselves. No matter how indulgent or even selfish self-care may sound, it is vital for our well-being. But just in case you need convincing, here are some of the reasons why taking time to care for yourself is so crucial.
1. Managing Stress and Avoiding Burnout – Our psychological stress responses have a huge impact on our health and happiness and affect nearly every system in our bodies, making us anxious, tired and even depressed. When left unchecked, stress can lead to burnout. One of the great things about self-care is that it allows us the time and space to recalibrate, undo some of the negative effects that daily stress places on us mentally and physically and in turn help prevent that stress from building up and leading to burnout.
2. Increased Cognitive Function and Productivity – It may seem counter-intuitive that by doing less you can actually achieve more however by taking care of yourself and prioritizing things such as rest, sleep, eating well and exercising, you can increase productivity and improve your mental focus. In her book The Sweet Spot, Christine Carter (2017, pp 80) tells us that overwork and the feeling of overwhelm “makes us dumber than if we were stoned or deprived of an entire night’s sleep!” Carter goes on to list the ways that overwhelm weakens our ability to function; impairing our planning, organisation, creativity, innovation, problem solving, decision-making and our ability to resist temptations or speaking fluently.
3. Physical Health and Well-Being – Stress takes a physical toll on us and can lead to obesity, fatigue, insomnia, stomach upset, cardiovascular disease, irritability, substance abuse, lack of motivation and mental illness, anxiety and depression. (Hall, J. 2020 and Wei, M. 2018) Fortunately, our bodies have a natural counter-stress system called the “relaxation response,” which is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system. This relaxation response can be purposefully activated to combat stress by making physical activity and mind-body practices like yoga or pilates, a regular part of your self-care routine. (Wei, M. 2018)
4. Work-Life Balance – “Overwork, and the accompanying stress and exhaustion can make you less productive, disorganized and emotionally depleted.” Overwhelm also effects our mood, making us more irritable, anxious, irrational and impulsive (Carter, 2017) which impacts our quality of life. Self-care habits such as setting boundaries, avoiding overextending yourself, learning to say no (No, I’m not able bake a cake for the cake stall) and being more assertive, are all self-care habits that can help keep your personal and professional lives in balance.
5. More To Give Others – Dr Laura Markham from Aha! Parenting frequently uses the term ‘emotional generosity’ to describe the giving of love, compassion and acceptance to both yourself and those around you. As parents, our desire is to be kind, caring and available to our children emotionally as well as physically. Self-care is about giving yourself everything that you need to thrive personally with the added benefit of helping to provide the energy needed to take care of others, too. Doing things that bring you joy and reenergize you will have a flow on effect on those around you.
So What Exactly is Self Care?
Self-care can mean many different things to different people, yet there are similar themes that emerge when we begin to explore it.
Firstly, self-care is a self-initiated commitment to looking after yourself. In other words, no one else can do this for you. Yes, other people may care and do nice things for you but that is not the same as self-care. Self-care is something for which you are responsible and must implement ourselves.
Secondly, self-care is something that we do deliberately to take care of all aspects of ourselves, including our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. This is something that will not necessarily happen by accident, rather something that often requires careful planning and conscious effort.
Lastly, self-care is also highly individual, depending on our needs and wants, our personality, temperament, time and motivation.
What self-care is not!
Some of the practices often cited as being effective tools for self-care include recommendations such as getting sufficient and quality sleep, undertaking regular exercise, eating well, mindfulness practices and activities which provide social-emotional support.
Equally there are suggestions of things to avoid in order to better care for yourself, such as, too much alcohol, fatty foods, stress and work. It is important to distinguish between self-indulgence (which might feel good at the time or in the short term, yet is not good for our health, like when we over-caffeinate our bodies and then don’t sleep well, or binge on Netflix at the expense of getting some exercise) and self-care (which may require more effort in some instances, like getting our sneakers on and getting out the door, yet is beneficial to our overall health and well-being).
Whilst there is nothing wrong with indulging from time to time, when quick fixes are our regular go-to or we overuse feel-good habits that are detrimental to our long-term health, we may need to re-examine our priorities.
When we are not looking after ourselves well, we often sense that things are out of balance and we may even have some idea about the causes, yet not be able to clearly articulate what it is we need. Self-care looks and feels different for each of us. In order to gain clarity on what your individual self-care requirements are, try the following exercise based on William Glasser’s 5 basic needs (i.e. Survival, Love and Belonging, Fun, Freedom and Power).
Imagine your ideal day out in detail by answering the following questions. You may like to journal your answers or even record a visual response.
Setting: Where would you be? What time of day would it be? What season, temperature, and environment would you choose? Would you be inside or outdoors?
Activities & Items: What would you be doing? Would you be reading a book, stoking a fire or experiencing an escape room? Think of the little comforts that bring you joy. A glass of wine? Entertainment? What kind of food would there be?
People: Who would you be with? Would you be with a large group, a close group of friends or alone? What kinds of interactions would you be having?
Senses: Consider your senses. What sights and sounds would there be? What aromas? Fresh country air? The sea? Freshly cut grass or freshly ground coffee? Would there be music, laughter or stillness?
Feelings: Consider the emotional aspect of your ideal experience. What kinds of thoughts and feelings are most prominent?
By doing this exercise you’ve just begun to tap into your quality world picture and identify those things that truly fulfil you. The things that you crave for an imagined ideal day are also the very things that help you identify which of your 5 basic needs (i.e. Survival, Love and Belonging, Fun, Freedom and Power) are most important to you, as well as the ways you like to meet those needs. Also, when you think about each of these five areas, consider the ones in which you are not feeling as fulfilled as you would like. These are a great starting point for identifying and implementing new self-care habits.
To conclude, I invite you to choose one thing that you are not currently doing but know that if you were to do it regularly, would make a significant, positive difference to your health and happiness. Now, go do it!
De Bara, D.(2019) Why Self-Care Is The Secret To Becoming A Productivity Powerhouse Retrieved from Trello.com: https://blog.trello.com/self-care-for-productivity
Carter, C (2015) The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. New York, Ballantine Books
Barbara L. Fredrickson, Roberta A. Mancuso, Christine Branigan, and Michele M. Tugade. (December, 2000) “The Undoing Effect of Positive Emotions.” Motivation and Emotion 24, no. 4, p.237-258 in Carter, C (2015) The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. New York, Ballantine Books
Glasser, W. (2011) Take Charge of Your Life. Bloomington, iUniverse, Inc.
Hall, J. (2020) Self-Care Isn’t Just Good For You - It’s Also Good For Productivity. Retrieved from Forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnhall/2020/01/05/self-care-isnt-just-good-for-you-its-also-good-for-your-productivity/#c1d064019ff3
Markham, L. (2018) Want to Wake Up Jazzed About the Day Ahead? Commit To Radical Self Care. Retrieved from AhaParenting.com:
Waterford.org (2020) Why Teacher Self-Care Matters and How to Practice Self-Care in Your School. Retrieved from Waterford.org:
Wei, M. (2018) Self-care for the caregiver. Retrieved from harvard.edu: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/self-care-for-the-caregiver-2018101715003.