The Elements of Self-Care

6 Things You Should Be Doing Every Day

By Lisa King

Self-care is a term that is thrown about freely, but few understand what it really means. When I ask a client, “How do you take care of yourself?” I am often met with the look of a deer in headlights.  Answers can range from, “I take bubble baths on occasion” to “I take a vacation to the beach once a year” or, “Self-care? What do you mean? I don’t have time to take care of myself, I have too many other things to take care of.” 

Some clients have even stated that to them, self-care is equivalent to being self-indulgent or selfish. It is easy to put off taking care of yourself. I hear things such as, “I am so tired after work, school or a day of taking care of the kids, I just don’t have time to do these things like I know I should.” 

The truth of the matter is, if we are not taking care of ourselves, we cannot effectively take care of our loved ones or the things we need and want to do. Self-care is an ongoing, interrelated, daily process, that if left unattended can affect all areas of health – mental as well as physical. Simply stated, self-care means to take care of one’s whole self in a way that contributes to overall health, functionality and well-being. Self-care is not optional.  

Over the course of my work as a psychotherapist, six overlapping elements stand out as a foundation for overall mental and physical well-being. All six areas must be consistently attended to, and if neglected, they will have a domino effect that will begin to affect other aspects of health and happiness. 

A Healthy Diet

Most of us know, “we are what we eat,” but did you know that what you eat on a regular basis can have an effect on mood? We don’t always follow through with making good food choices. It is easy to grab a meal on the go, forget to bring healthy snacks to work so we aren’t as tempted to eat whatever is available later or become so busy that we wind up feeling “hangry” and then overindulge on junk food. 

We are what we eat.

Food plays a vital part in keeping our engines running and our minds clear and sharp. If we are eating healthily, we will have more energy to get through the day and feel less slugglish and irritable later on. Sugar and caffeine will cause our energy to spike and then crash; heavy foods take longer to digest and will make us feel slow. Hydration is also important. Not getting the necessary nutrients and liquids our bodies need to run optimally will, over time, leave us feeling run down and susceptible to illness and fatigue. 

It makes sense. If your body and brain are deprived of good-quality nutrition, consequences are to be expected. What’s interesting is that for many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food. We know now that the foods you eat affect how you feel. Nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new field, but their findings show there are consequences between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave – but also regarding the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut. The gut brain connection is often overlooked as a contributor to anxiety and depression in particular. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods and inhibit pain. We know now that about 95 percent of the brain’s serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons. Neurons are partially responsible for guiding our emotions. These neurons are strongly influenced by the “good” bacteria that make up intestinal microbiome. This type of bacteria plays a very prominent role in good overall health – physical as well as mental. 

A good start would be to pay attention to how you feel after eating different foods, not just in the moment, but the next day as well. Begin by consulting a nutritionist or researching nutritional articles about changing your lifestyle to include more whole foods, as well as fermented foods which are loaded with beneficial bacteria for the gut. When we are not eating properly, it may lead to other daily issues, such as less desire to be physically active and sleeping difficulties.     

Exercise and Time in Nature

If you’ve ever gone for a run, taken a walk or a yoga class after a stressful day, chances are you felt better afterward. There is a strong link between exercise and mood. 

Research repeatedly shows that regular exercise can help alleviate long-term depression. Exercise can also be a tool for treating and preventing anxiety. The reasoning behind the research is that regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience fight-or-flight sensations. The body produces many of the same physical reactions in response to anxiety, such as heavy perspiration and increased heart rate. 

In 2008, a study was conducted with 60 volunteers who reported experiencing heightened sensitivity to anxiety. The participants underwent a two-week exercise program. The results showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group. Through regular exposure, the researchers concluded that people learn to associate the symptoms of anxiety with safety instead of danger.

For those who struggle with chronic depression, some researchers believe exercise alleviates symptoms by increasing serotonin, the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants, and brain-derived neurotrophic factors which supports the growth of neurons. Another theory suggests exercise helps to normalize sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.

Exercise may boost a depressed person’s outlook by helping her return to meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment. It may also be a way of physically strengthening the brain so that stress has less of a central impact. In addition, the extra oxygen produced while exercising increases blood flow to the brain, rendering it healthier. 

Physical activity when combined with time in nature has double the impact of simply going to the gym. Studies indicate that virtually any form of immersion in the natural world heightens overall well-being, as well as more positive engagement with the larger human community. Spending time in nature and practicing mindfulness by simply being present, conscious in the moment, observing the flow of your mental and emotional activity; but not being pulled into it. That conscious “now” allows for greater inner calm, clearer judgment, and it enables more focused, creative responses to everyday life.

Research has shown that we don’t have spend hours outdoors or go on a hiking or camping trip; simply paying attention to the positive aspects of nature in any form can influence the human mind.

Good Quality Sleep and Rest

 We all know that sluggish feeling we have when we don’t get a good night’s sleep. Numerous studies have been done to research the effects of sleep on the mind and body. When people are sleep deprived, they usually feel more irritable, angry and hostile. Sleep loss is also associated with feeling more depressed and anxious, increased negative mood and a decreased ability to regulate emotions.

One of the jobs of sleep is to clear out the “junk” from the brain. Our brain fluctuates between sleep states throughout the night. However, if we do not get to the proper sleep brainwave pattern for long enough – a few hours at least – our brain cannot do its nightly housekeeping.  

We live in a go, go, go society, so taking the time to rest our brain and our body is a challenge for many. Not to mention, those who struggle with anxiety, depression or trauma may struggle with sleep in general. It is important to ensure that we are getting the right amount and type of rest, which includes not only sleep, but down time to enjoy quiet activities and connecting with our loved ones.   

Sleep deprivation also seems to put a damper on people’s ability to reap the emotional benefits of a positive experience. In one study, people who were more sleep deprived did not report increased positive affect after an achievement, whereas people who’d had an adequate amount of sleep did feel better after their achievement. 

If you find that sleep is an issue for you, be sure to talk to your doctor. There are also several phone apps available that can assist with occasional sleep issues via ambient sound, relaxation techniques and sleep tracking.  

Feeling a Sense of Meaning and Purpose

Meaning and purpose in life can be described as a sense of physical and mental well-being, as well as belonging and recognition through personally treasured activities. These activities are often things you do that make you feel that what you are doing matters. 

Meaning and purpose implies big questions such as, “Why am I here?” For the most part, we want to think that something we do matters. Seeking happiness for purely happiness’ sake can be fleeting and disappointing. Having meaning and purpose in life is a factor that leads to ongoing happiness.  

While purpose and happiness are different concepts, feeling a sense of meaning in your life can be an important factor in experiencing long-term happiness and well-being. The concept of happiness changes as we age. When we are younger, we associate happiness with excitement, but as we age and have more experience with life, we begin to associate happiness with peace. Shifting our focus from the future to the present and walking mindfully through the world can help us experience more of this peace. 

Those who have experienced long-term job loss, disability or retirement report higher levels of depression and anxiety – unless they fill their time with a sense of purpose and meaning through a hobby, volunteer work or some other meaningful endeavor. For example, during the economic downturn in 2008 when unemployment rates were at an all-time high, those who were experiencing long-term unemployment were vulnerable to depression, anxiety and suicides. 

This may be common sense in reference to the above scenarios, but many who are gainfully employed need to feel a sense of purpose and meaning as well. Having a job does not necessarily equate to a sense of fulfillment. Finding fulfillment in life can be established through meaningful work, hobbies, volunteer work, family or community involvement. 

Finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life is shown to reduce suicidal thoughts and depressive symptoms in older adults and all across the age spectrum. When we feel a sense of meaning, we are more likely to do the other things that make us an overall healthier person and our perspective of our life is more likely to reflect a more positive outlook. 

Social Connections and Support

Social support refers to the psychological and material resources provided by a social network that are intended to help individual’s cope with stress. Social support can come in different forms. Sometimes it might involve a group of people who do regular activities together, or it could simply be people you value and talk to or see regularly. In other instances, it could simply be helping someone; giving advice to a friend when they are facing a difficult situation or providing caring, empathy and concern for loved ones. Whatever the situation, social connectedness is something we are wired for. 

Social connectedness is often identified as an important component of solid relationships and strong mental and physical health. Essentially, healthy social support involves having a network of family, friends and community that you can turn to in times of need. Whether you are facing a personal crisis and need immediate assistance or just want to spend time with people who care about you, these relationships play a critical role in how you function in your day-to-day life. 

Keep in mind that social support is certainly not a one-way street. In addition to relying on others, you also serve as a form of support for many people in your life. In addition, we need to feel a sense of belonging, feeling valued and validated, and feeling like others “get” you. When trying to reach our goals or deal with a crisis, experts frequently implore people to lean on their friends and family for support. 

We need to feel a sense of belonging, feeling valued 
and validated, and feeling like others “get” you. 

On the other hand, poor social support and loneliness has been linked to depression. Loneliness is a phenomenon that is well documented to have a negative effect on the mind, body and spirit. Among other things, loneliness is shown to increase the risk of depression, suicide, alcohol use, cardiovascular disease and altered brain function – including dementia. 

In 2018, Cigna health insurance surveyed more than 20,000 adults, where concerning facts about loneliness in our society came to light. Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. One in four Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others. One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people or feel like there are people they can talk to. 

Americans who live with others are less likely to be lonely compared to those who live alone. Interestingly, this does not apply to single parents or guardians. Even though they live with children, they are more likely to be lonely. Only around half of Americans have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis. Generation Z (adults ages 18 to 22) is the loneliest generation and claims to be in worse health than older generations. Social media use, however, is not a predictor of loneliness; respondents defined as very heavy users of social media have a loneliness score that is not markedly different from the score of those who never use social media. 

The survey also revealed some important helpful food for thought. The findings reinforce the social nature of humans and the importance of having communities. People who are less lonely are more likely to have regular, meaningful in-person interactions. More specifically, the survey showed people who engage in frequent, meaningful, in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better overall health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.

Researcher Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University suggests that there are two essential aspects of our social worlds that contribute to health: social support and social integration. Social integration is the active participation in a variety of social relationships, ranging from romantic partnerships to friendships. 

This integration involves emotions, intimacy and a sense of belonging to different social groups, such as being part of a family, a partnership, a social activity or religious community. The research suggests that being integrated into these types of social relationships creates a protective benefit against unhealthy behaviors and consequences. 

As the old saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Participation in social groups has what psychology and sociology call “a normative influence” on behaviors, which often influences whether people eat a healthy diet, exercise, smoke, drink or use illegal substances. On the other side of this, social groups can sometimes have a negative influence when peer pressure and influence leads to poor or even dangerous health choices. In the best sense however, group pressure and support can also lead people to engage in healthier behaviors. 

According to Cohen social support generally comes in three ways: emotional support, instrumental support and informational support. Emotional support can be a good friend, family member, clergy member or therapist. Instrumental support are those who take care of your physical needs and offer a helping hand when you need it. Informational support is usually someone who provides guidance, advice, information and mentoring. 

Social support also helps people cope better with stress and fend off loneliness. Excess stress has been shown to have serious health consequences ranging from reduced immunity to increased risk of heart disease and dementia. 

Being surrounded by people who are caring and supportive helps people to see themselves as better capable of dealing with the stresses that life brings. Research has also shown that having strong social support in times of crisis can help reduce the consequences of trauma-induced disorders, including PTSD.

An Active Spiritual Life

Spirituality can play an important role in helping people maintain good mental health and live with or recover from mental health problems. Those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction overwhelmingly report that along with good social support, a strong spiritual connection is the key to recovery.  

Spirituality means different things to different people, and people express their spirituality in a variety of ways. Spirituality may be a religion or faith, or it may simply describe meaning and direction in life. Sometimes spirituality is described as a personal “journey,” a way of understanding the world and our place in it. For others, it is a belief in a higher being or a force greater than any individual and is often a core part of personal identity. Spirituality can also be a feeling of belonging, connectedness or interconnectedness, a quest for wholeness, hope or harmony. Ultimately, spirituality is usually described as a sense that there is more to life than material things. Spirituality as far as we know, is unique to human beings, and is an important aspect to being human and finding fulfillment in life. 

People who are active members of a spiritual community are more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than those without strong religious ties. Keep in mind however, that going to religious services is not directly responsible for improving people’s lives. It is more likely that certain kinds of people tend to be active in multiple types of activities, which may provide physical or psychological benefits. People who are more active overall tend to be happier and healthier.  

Spirituality can help people maintain good mental health. It can help us cope with everyday stress and keep us grounded and resilient. Spiritual communities can also provide valuable support and friendship. There is some evidence of links between spirituality and improvements in people’s mental health. Because of the foundation that spirituality plays in our lives, one red flag to depression is a loss of interest in anything connected to spirituality or religion. 

Spirituality can bring a feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself. It can provide a way of coping because it can help people make sense of what they are experiencing and help them feel grounded. Those with a spiritual orientation exhibited less physiological reactivity toward stress and expressed greater feelings of overall well-being. People report that they feel comforted using spirituality as a coping mechanism for stress. Spiritual involvement, along with the gratitude that can accompany spirituality, can be a buffer against stress and is linked to greater levels of physical health – translated into less stress reactivity, greater feelings of well-being and ultimately even a decreased fear of death. 

Self-care comes in many forms, and holds different meanings depending on your lifestyle and values. However, the six elements as described here are the fundamental basics for the day to day. By attending to your diet, getting enough sleep and rest, staying active and spending time in nature, having good social support, feeling a sense of meaning and purpose and maintaining a strong spiritual life, you will begin to notice that managing ongoing stresses and maintaining a healthy attitude is a whole lot easier. 

We all need a break or a relaxing vacation from time to time, but if we aren’t attending to our day-to-day wellness, sooner or later we will be forced to attend to our illness. WGW 

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