What is self-care?
Is it an act of selfishness? Or of self-love?
Is it really ok to put on our own oxygen mask first when we are under stress?
Or should we think of stress as a push to evolve into the best version of ourselves?
For the past 20 years, I have studied how stress affects the brain and I have understood one simple thing about stress: stress it is not all in our heads. It may be created by our heads, but it rules our entire system.
Stress has been what made us evolve as human beings for better or worse.
However, this extremely common and powerful response to life challenges is still poorly understood and most people avoid looking at its effects on their bodies.
The concept of self-care has been explored by ancient Greek and Latin philosophers. Marziale was a Latin philosopher who first explored the concept of the “Care of Self. “
More recently, in 1984, the French philosopher, Michel Foucault dedicated to the notion of self-care an entire volume of his four-volume study, called Le Souci de Soi. He expanded the ancient concept to describe self-care as “an attention and an attitude towards the self, towards others and towards the world.” In his study, he writes that to pursue the care for our own well-being, the fundamental skill required is self-awareness. In other words, to take care of ourselves, we must first know ourselves.
The critical questions are, “How can we learn to become self-aware and listen to our body? How do we recognize and label the symptoms of stress? What do we need to do or think in response to stress?”
1. The first step is to recognize the impact of stress on your body.
Many think that the main effects of stress are psychological or are related to our emotions. In reality, these effects are physiological, having to do with the body, the immune system, our gut, the way our DNA is transcribed, the way we age, and the time and ways we die. The key is understanding that we cannot separate the mind from the body. Unfortunately, medical professionals for too long have made this separation that is actually impossible to make in life because they have not understood the power and intricacy of the mind-body connection.
2. The second step is to understand that the effects of stress depend on your own perception of it. There are many studies that looked at the effects of chronic stress on cellular age (a way of measuring our longevity) in people exposed to high levels of stress, like mothers of children diagnosed with cancer and caregivers of patients dealing with chronic diseases like dementia. Most of these studies found that people with the highest perception of stress had a cellular age that was 10 years shorter than their chronological age. This means that how we perceive stress makes a huge difference to our health and longevity.
3. The third step is to understand that if you don’t learn to manage stress, it becomes chronic and toxic for your body. Chronic stress is toxic because it causes the dysregulation of your neuro-endocrine-immune systems. These three systems regulate your stress response and when they are deregulated, they end up creating a lot of inflammation and imbalance of your stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones circulate in your body and can tax your system due to the wear and tear effect on the body and the brain. With time, you start experiencing symptoms of excessive stress like sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, headaches or stomach aches, a sense of vulnerability, increased mood swings, irritability, and anger, a sense of isolation and withdrawal, increase in alcohol or drug consumption, or problems in your relationships. Over long periods of time, all those byproducts of stress can accumulate in your body and brain, like a lethal metabolic cocktail that affects your health and well-being. They can even alter how your genes are transcribed, how you age, and when you die.
When it comes to self-care, learning to keep your life in balance is one of the greatest challenges.
We live our lives as walking contradictions. If we see signs of stress in a friend, we would tell them, “Hey, you should take a break. Be kind to yourself. Put on your oxygen mask first.” But when it comes to ourselves, we don’t act as if we are our own best friend.
Learning to become self-directed and self-aware is the most difficult thing we will ever do in our lives and yet it is so important because when the time comes—and we are under higher levels of stress—we need to be ready and have an action plan to take care of ourselves.
Unfortunately, for most people, when they are under increased stress, all of their self-care behaviors just fall apart, so they forget about diet, exercise, and actually eat more high fat high sweet food. They become more sedentary and have trouble sleeping. So instead of using stress as this big awareness alert to organize their daily lives, they become victims of stress and enter a cycle of unhealthy behaviors.
It’s my absolute conviction that to be strong enough to cope with what life presents to us every day, we have to be strong physically, mentally and spiritually. To do so, we need to make self-care a habit and find our rituals of wellbeing to nurture our brains, bodies, and our minds.
Start today to say, “I will care for myself” and make an action plan to remind you to connect with yourself every single day, even for only 15 minutes. For example, you could start by making time to get up a half hour earlier so you can spend time for yourself. Learn to breathe, walk, meditate, do yoga, write your journal or simply rest and learn to listen to what your body needs.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. What does self-care mean to you?
Leave a comment in the comment box below and let me know.
And if you want to learn some very powerful rituals of self-care, go to my website and download my free audio-training of the 4 rituals that will change your life forever.
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And remember you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!