Last month I had my heart set on going to Longwood for the first time. I paid for the pricey trip well in advance. The week before the scheduled departure I became dizzy, clogged and coughing from overworked sinuses. Still, not a problem. I heal fast. Ha! The night before, I was still sick. Reluctantly, I practiced self-care – forfeiting my ticket and staying home. I knew I wouldn’t die if I went, nor was I contagious. But I also knew I would probably prolong my recovery at a time when I had weekend guests visiting. Short-term satisfaction lost out to bigger-picture happiness. I wanted to be healthy and have fun with my guests.
Taking care of ourselves is not always easy. It’s hard to say no to a family member or friend who wants you to do something. We do things we don’t want to do, eat things we don’t like and go places we don’t belong because of outside pressure. It could be from friends, family, teachers, spouses, parents, TV, a church leader, social media or just simply from that voice in your head saying, “You SHOULD do this…”
When I searched for books on Amazon about self-care the sheer number (I stopped counting at 100) and categories of books on the subject astonished me. I scrolled through descriptions of self-care books for women, men, specific races, new moms, teen girls, care workers and a whole slew of workbooks and journals with daily prompts. There’s even books on self-care according to your astrological sign.
I asked myself, why are Americans so obsessed with self-care? Maybe because not taking care of yourself has become epidemic. In 2022, 76 percent of adults reported they had experienced at least one symptom in the last month as a result of stress – such as headache, fatigue, feeling nervous, anxious and/or depressed or sad. The American Psychological Association reported that according to their poll Americans struggle with multiple external stressors out of their personal control. A whopping 27 percent report that most days they cannot function.
The importance of taking care of yourself is not addressed adequately by western medicine, practices like massage are not covered by health insurance and the concept is not valued in most workplaces or in homes. People are expected to work long hours, pass on vacation days and work even if sick. Multi-tasking is a source of pride. There’s an underlying belief that we must always be productive. Taking care of yourself is looked upon as a waste of time, or worse yet, as being selfish.
Yet, unless you take care of yourself, you will live like a racquetball randomly bouncing from one wall to another. The ball can bounce up, down, across or diagonally. Its direction is not easily predictable and depends exclusively to outside stimuli. Without the realization of our individual needs, our days can go similarly to that of a racquetball – driven haphazardly by whatever is happening around us.
What is Self-Care?
“Self-care as a set of habits that someone does on a regular basis that helps maintain a sense of calm, balance, objectivity (not taking things personally) and awareness,” said LaShone Wilson, owner of One Breath at a Time Wellness Services and instructor at Hot Yoga Capitol Hill. “For example, in the middle of a conversation that I may feeling uncomfortable with, I slow my speech down and consciously stay connected with my breath (taking an inhale and exhale) to create a space. I then find it easier to say what I really feel. If I take a deep breath, look right at them, speak slowly and respectfully, eight out of 10 times they slow down, too.”
She said self-care is about, “not being manipulated and controlled by what’s going on outside of yourself. Set your pace from within.”
Wilson has a set of practices that make sure she is getting what she needs. “I identify parts of the day when I’m not available to anyone for 10 or 15 minutes. I also connect with my breath often to see how I feel. I listen to my internal dialogue. I also find it helpful to write down practices that work. I trust myself to let me know what I need no matter what’s going on around me.”
How to Take Care of Yourself
Self-care practices that work for me may be totally different for you. “Part of it is about being honest with yourself,” said Natalie Boulware, doctor of Naturopathic Medicine at Lavender Retreat. “Ask yourself questions like, ‘How am I doing? What have denied myself that I wish I was doing more of? What’s missing? What can I do right now to make me feel better?” She said we are doing a lot of things, but are we doing stuff to enhance and enjoy our lives?
Eight Dimensions of Wellness
Some organizations look at health and wellness as a continuum. They use the Eight Dimensions of Wellness –physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, environmental, occupational, social and intellectual – created by Peggy Swarbrick, an internationally recognized pioneer in peer-driven wellness and recovery.
Boulware said examining the Dimensions is a good place to start. “Perhaps the anxiety you are experiencing is because you not dealing with the physical.” If pushing the hardest, staying up the latest and working the longest becomes your badge of honor, what has become the rhythm of your life? How do you balance time for rest, time with family and time to relax? If I don’t take care of all the “to dos” what’s left in my life?”
Boulware said that exercise helps her feel strong and balanced. However, her physical needs determine the type of exercise she does. “I may choose yoga if I’m feeling stressed.” She also prioritizes social time with family and friends and recognizes the connection between what she eats and how she feels. “There such a connection between our gut and our brain.”
The question Boulware suggests asking yourself is, “What will be the thing to help me shift so I can balance my life and become the person I want to be and do what I want to do?” She asks if the ‘doing’ drives your activities, or are you enjoying what you are doing? What are your non-negotiables?
“Self-Care is recognizing need for pause and balance in your life and understanding that your mental health, physical health and well-being must take a priority” said Boulware. “Self-care is individual. It can be making time to see friends, doing art or going to the doctor. You do things that give you joy, support the foundation of your health and leave you with sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.”
Learning about what makes you happy and what makes you feel uncomfortable is a lifelong lesson. I learned at an early age if I didn’t take care of myself, no one else would. As the years evolved, my needs changed so I have adjusted. I find when I regularly follow my inner guide it takes me to what works best for me and I am better able to react to things that happen in my life.
As Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Pattie Cinelli is a health and fitness professional and journalist who has been writing her column for more than 25 years. She focuses on non-traditional ways to stay healthy, get fit and get well. Please contact her at: email@example.com.