Seven Self-Care Strategies Backed by Science

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Sick and Tired

My typical client is a woman who is a master juggler: work, kids, pets, friends, partner, aging parents, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and now, homeschooling and boomerang children. It’s a wonder she can keep all the balls in the air. She doesn’t get enough rest, is bone-tired… and yet she can’t sleep at night.

She has trouble saying no — who’s going to make everything happen? It also happens that this woman has an autoimmune condition or two, typically Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, IBS, RA, lupus and/or MS. By the time she comes to me, some balls have started to drop and she is sick and tired of being sick and tired. She is finally ready to do something about her health but where to start?

Granting Permission

So what’s the problem? Is it her diet? Toxin overload? Hidden infections? Too much stress? The answer is likely “All of the above”. Each issue must be addressed, but often this client first needs me to give her permission to take care of herself before taking care of other responsibilities.

She says she’s desperate for a good night’s sleep, but she can’t wear earplugs — what if someone calls in the middle of the night? — And she doesn’t think it’s possible to keep the dog off the bed (that’s where Fluffy sleeps!).

That’s when I use the metaphor of putting her own oxygen mask on first, as flight attendants always advise, so she can in fact be better able to help others. She gets the analogy immediately. But then she’ll say something like, “But they depend on me to [help with homework, take them to doctor appointments, manage the team, do the shopping and the cooking, etc.], and I just don’t have time or energy left to do things for myself.”

So I offer some tough love: Of course everyone depends on you — you have shown everyone that you will take care of everything. But look at what this is costing you in stress, sleeplessness, and your health!

I Can Relate

I know a bit about this profile. I’m married, used to run a sales team, sat on boards, founded a non-profit, and at one point had both parents in hospital beds an hour’s plane flight away. Did I mention that I had MS, and stress often exacerbated my symptoms?

I knew I had to manage my stress or suffer the consequences of MS flare-ups, so I pursued simple stress reduction solutions. I found a life-changing course called, “Love Yourself: For Everyone Else’s Sake.” I remember sitting in a circle with about 8 women and ‘fessing up that my first sentence (as the precocious daughter of a fighter pilot) was, “I can do it.” I had lived into that declaration my whole life, and I remember feeling understood as every head nodded in recognition.

For Everyone’s Sake

We were guided by Mark Abramson, DDS, founder of Stanford’s Mindfulness Meditation Stress Reduction program. Mark knows the costs of the do-it-all-yourself personality type, and sees the effects daily in his practice. He specializes in addressing TMJ – the clenched jaw disorder — and sleep apnea.

Mark drew graphic pictures of what happened to our bodies during the stress response. We learned that chronic and unrelenting stress leads to systemic inflammation and disease. We imagined what might happen to us if we continued down this path. And if something happened to us, who would care for us and everyone else?

Mark showed us how to practice mindfulness to counter our habitual stress responses. He led us through guided meditations, breathing practices and movement exercises. He gave us permission to fill our minds, bodies and souls up before attending to others.

Self-Care is Not Selfish

Women often resist taking care of ourselves first because we think it’s “selfish”. But prioritizing our wellbeing actually gives us more energy for our caregiver roles and other activities. Caring for others and ourselves are not mutually exclusive.

Since the end of the course, I’ve been wearing earplugs and an eye mask every night, and I’ll tell you that the greatly increased quality and quantity of my sleep has had a big impact on my ability to function better in all of my roles. And, not surprisingly, I’m much happier and well-rested than when I feel depleted, and resentful.

So what will you do to fill yourself up? That depends on what brings you joy. Everyone is different. For me, getting out on a hiking trail, soaking in a hot bath, losing myself in a good book, or connecting with friends even by phone all nourish me. Imagine what you would do if you had an hour or an afternoon to yourself. Write a list of things that fill you up and decide to do one thing a week – even better, one thing a day. It’s not decadent; it’s essential to your sanity and your health!

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Seven Self-Care Strategies Backed By Science

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    Stay Connected

    Feeling connected to others is a vital component of health and wellbeing. It may be harder to connect with COVID, but imperative for your health. Who can you reach out to today? Many MeetUp groups, yoga, and qigong teachers have online meetings and classes now. Join friends for a safe distance hike; or if you’re being extra cautious like me, do separate walk and talks. Research shows that investing in shared experiences rather than material items makes us just as happy as taking a vacation, which we could all use right about now. 1http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1057740814000631

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    Get Outside

    Just getting out in nature is an amazing stress-reducer. Research shows that spending time in nature has a long list of health benefits including decreased feelings of depression, anxiety, aggression, procrastination, and increased feelings of self-esteem, compassion and competence. For greater benefits, take off your shoes and get grounded to soak up Earth’s beneficial negative ions, and get some sun without sunscreen to generate vitamin D naturally.2http://www.naturalnews.com/037693_nature_deficiency_mental_health_benefits.html

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    Do A Little Yoga

    Just 20 minutes of yoga can improve focus and increase mental clarity. Find numerous online yoga classes that match your interest, energy. and fitness levels. 3(“The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function” by Gothe N, Pontefex MB, Hillman C, McAuley E, Journal of Physical Activity & Health https://news.illinois.edu/blog/view/6367/204796

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    Read a Good Book

    There are loads of studies on the health benefits of reading regularly. One study suggests that reading a good book for just 6 minutes reduces stress even better than even taking a walk.4http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/5070874/Reading-can-help-reduce-stress.html Another study reports that adults who read regularly are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.5http://www.neurology.org/content/81/4/314

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    Sit a Little Every Day

    The studies on meditation are piling up. A few of the most recent confirm that meditation helps relieve anxiety and depression, and improves attention, concentration, and overall psychological wellbeing. You don’t need a lot of time — start with 5 minutes of sitting quietly and paying attention to your breathing.6http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/

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    Take A Bath

    Research reveals that soaking in a warm bath each day for 8 weeks was more effective at soothing anxiety than a prescription drug. Taking a warm bath before going to bed is a smart move: The bath temporarily raises your body temperature; afterward your body temperature gradually lowers in the cooler air, producing melatonin that cues your body that it’s time to sleep. A bath-time bonus: relaxation releases pain-killing endorphins in the brain.7http://www.prevention.com/health/science-backed-reasons-take-bath

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    Do a Self-Massage

    The most popular massage in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine is abhyanga, a warmed oil head-to-toe massage. Find and use organic oil  that is stored in glass like coconut or sesame oil. Gently warm and apply in circular motions from your scalp to your soles. Either shower or towel off before sleep (protect your bedding too). Research shows numerous stress-reducing benefits of regular abhyanga massage: reduced blood pressure, improved heart rate variability, improved lymph flow, and better sleep.8http://www.prevention.com/health/science-backed-reasons-take-bath

Your Turn

Once we understand the perils of not putting our own oxygen mask on first, we can embrace opportunities to love ourselves more, which has a profound ripple effect.

What’s your experience? Are you giving yourself permission to put your own oxygen mask on first? If not, I hereby grant you permission until you take the reins. What are you waiting for? And, what is it costing you?

Take very good care!

p.s. If you want my personal help uncovering your personal root causes with modern lab testing and a custom treatment plan, consider Functional Medicine consulting. If you live in the U.S, you are welcome to a free 15 minute discovery call to discuss how we might work together. If you’re ready to take control of your health outcomes, I’d love to work with you.