What comes to mind when you think of the word “selfish?” For many, it carries a negative connotation and is associated with concepts such as greed, egotism, lack of consideration for others, and meanness. At the root of the word, it simply means “to be concerned with oneself” and can also mean to be “self-interested, self-loving, or self-serving”--what exactly is so wrong with that? Why is caring for oneself and caring for others often implied to be mutually exclusive?
We have all heard the analogy of putting on your own mask first before attempting to assist the person next to you in an emergency situation. Another wonderful example of this exists in the human body: for each heart beat, the heart first pumps blood to itself before sending it out to the rest of the body.
In today’s society, where busyness and lack of sleep are worn like badges of honor, prioritizing self-care can be portrayed as passe and lead to feelings of guilt, but in this fast-paced world it becomes even more vital to slow down and check in with your mental and physical well-being. In line with this thinking, there is an old zen proverb that states, “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day – unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
Without actively engaging in self-care activities, we are at risk of remaining in a state of chronic stress, which can lead to the development of adrenal fatigue. Your adrenal glands are two thumb-sized organs that sit on top of your kidneys and are an integral part of the endocrine system. The adrenals play a vital role in stress response. When faced with an actual or perceived threat, they release adrenaline (i.e. epinephrine) to help you leap into action, which is referred to as “fight-or-flight” mode. Next, they release corticosteroids which function to slow down what are, in that moment of crisis, seen as less vital processes, such as digestion and immune function. They are responsible for cortisol production, and play a role in balancing sex hormones as well as aldosterone (which is important for blood pressure control). From an evolutionary perspective, these adaptations were intended to be a transient response to a dangerous situation, but in this day and age, many of us---in some estimates, up to 80 percent of the population—are in this state chronically, which can have serious short- and long-term implications for our health and well-being.
Research has shown that individuals who take time for self-care practices are more creative, successful, and happier. So how do we begin to start moving away from maladaptive behavior and place self-care practices at the top of our priority list instead of leaving them as an after-thought? The journey begins by checking in with your physical and mental health, as well as social relationships and your professional life. Just like any other healthy habit, it can be easiest to integrate them into our routines if we build on other solid habits we have already established. For example, before my 11:00 p.m. bedtime, I will take 15 minutes for stretching and deep-breathing exercises and gratitude journaling. During my lunch break at work I will often take a 15-minute walk outdoors to enjoy the sunshine.
What counts as a self-care activity or practice? This is highly personal and individualized. It is really anything that relaxes, restores, and rejuvenates you, and contributes to your overall health and well-being in a positive way. Take some time to examine your schedule as well as your personal needs to begin to determine how to integrate regular acts of self-care into your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly routines. Self-care activities can range in length from a few minutes of deep-breathing to a two-week vacation in Colorado!
Daily practices might include:
- Gratitude journaling
- Dancing in your living room to your favorite Prince album
- Meditation (try phone apps such as Headspace, Calm, Meditation Studio, or Insight Timer)
- Setting your intentions for the day first-thing in the morning
- Getting a full 7-8 hours of sleep
- Eating your meals without the distraction of electronic devices
- Taking a relaxing walk with your pet or coworkers
Monthly or weekly practices could include:
- Grabbing tea or brunch with a good friend
- Having a picnic at a local park
- Taking a day-trip to a new city
- Scheduling a nice massage, pedicure, acupuncture, or facial (to save money, take turns pampering a friend!)
- Curling up at home and reading a book or your favorite magazines
- Going out to see live music at a local venue
- Scheduling 1-2 days per week for meal planning and preparation
- Going out of town for the weekend (for a cost-effective option, try an Airbnb!)
- Working with a counselor, nutritionist, or health-coach
- Making a vision board to help display some of your goals and aspirations
To help identify which areas you may need to spend some time developing, take a few minutes to consider the following. Do you:
- Eat a whole-foods diet rich in colorful fruits and veggies?
- Spend time in nature?
- Feel nourished, healthy, and strong?
- Feel gratitude on a daily basis?
- Express yourself creatively?
- Find a sense of meaning and enjoyment in your work?
- Have the ability to comfortably say no?
- Get enough social time with people who make you happy?
Don’t wait until things are in a state of turbulence before realizing you need to reach for the oxygen mask. In order to be fully present, and to effectively engage with and care for the important people in our lives, we must fill our own cups first—you can’t pour from an empty cup. It may take time to develop these habits, but strive for progress, not perfection. So go ahead, and don’t just take it from me—give yourself permission to be a little more “selfish” today.
Ivy M. Carson, Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner and Certified Integrative Health Coach