Self-care. A simple concept. But what is it really, and how many of us actually achieve it? Practised properly and regularly, it has powerful preventive potential.
Self care essentially means to take good care of yourself and treat yourself as kindly as you treat others. Important for well-being. Vital even. In turn, influential in shaping the habits that ultimately determine our likelihood of succumbing to chronic disease.
So why do so many of us put ourselves at the bottom of the priority list?
Taking care of ourselves should be at the top of the list. It’s not selfish to want to feel good. When we’re at our best, we can give our best to others. Something as simple as attending a new class or enjoying a little quiet time a few times a week may be all you need.
The invisible disease
Stress can negatively affect many bodily processes, including digestion, blood pressure, appetite control, sleep and memory.
So addressing stress management should be towards the top of our list.
We may minimise the effect of stress because we aren’t even fully conscious of it. To be conscious of it requires time out and reflection- a rare commodity for most of us. So it becomes easy to take to on too much. When we do, we are likely to feel over-stretched, despite feeling like we’re not accomplishing much. Which has a knock on effect on motivation and self-esteem. And this in turn is likely to reduce our ability to objectively self-appraise and confidently stick to our own realistic limits. A rather efficient self-destructive vicious cycle.
Of course it’s impossible to eliminate all stress from our lives. But there are plenty of things we can do to minimise our perceptions of stress. And it’s our perception of stress that affects our response to it, and ultimately, our health. This is where self-care becomes a long run life-saver. So how to break the vicious cycle that is this invisible disease? The first step is simple. Decide that it’s important enough to pay attention to.
Easier said than done? Setting two simple goals may help.
The first is obvious: make sleep a big enough priority. This means planning ahead. If you need 7 hours of sleep and you have to be up by 6am, unless you’re fortunate enough to be able to fall asleep immediately and not wake during the night, you need to be ready for sleep well before 11pm. We all need different amounts of sleep to feel rested. Age affects requirements too. Know your ideal amount and how many hours in bed are needed for you to achieve that.
The second goal is to invest in your sleeping environment. Wind down. Get into a routine. Reduce distractions. At least one hour before bed, dim the lights, avoid bright screens and switch off from social media/internet. Keep mobile phones/ tablets out of the bedroom. Keep it simple.
Look at the areas of your life that are causing you stress. Why do you think they are stressful to you? Could you change them? Could you change how you see them? Take a look at your diary and see what you have going on each day in the coming month. Does the thought of it it lift you up, or fill you with dread? How much of it could you let go of if you had to? Nowadays it seems we can all do anything. But none of us can do everything. Is there anything you could do to create some time for self care? Which commitments could you step back from? How could you adapt your working patterns to suit you better? If family commitments are the barrier, could you get some extra help? Recognise what you truly enjoy doing and do anything necessary to replace what stresses you with what nurtures you. Maybe for now it can only be 30 minutes twice a week, but that’s a start.
Learn how to say no
Learn how to not say yes right away. Know that it’s okay to say no.
It’s hard to say no sometimes, especially when asked to help with something. While it matters that we all find a meaningful way to contribute, it becomes a problem if this means being over stretched. Especially if this means you end up dreading your commitments, or don’t have enough time left for other life priorities.
Evaluate your abilities, commitments and your values. If you truly want to take on an extra commitment, you have the time to do it, and it’s not going to impact negatively on your physical and emotional wellbeing, say yes. If not, say so and stand firm.
Focusing on self-care means aligning your priorities and goals. Often the effects of stress are experienced when our core values are not aligned with how we’re spending our time.
Where do you feel most energised and at peace? Maybe it’s being surrounded by friends and family. Maybe it’s doing meaningful work. Maybe it’s being completely alone enjoying a quiet walk in peaceful surroundings. We’re all different. What matters is that you recognise what brings you peace and that you make space for that in your daily life.
Give it a go
Starting today, try working on just one of these four goals, and take it from there. Try working on one each week over the next month. Even if you feel there’s no point – just give it a go. A few simple changes really can make a big difference.