Self-care is the conscious act of taking responsibility for your own physical, mental and emotional health. Life can throw a lot of challenges our way - we live within a culture that prioritises hard work, long working hours, achievement, money and status and it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid getting sucked into a life where aspiration, work and caring for others takes precedent over our own health.
Most of us are aware of the need to look after ourselves but fail to truly understand why it is important or even what that entails. If you are busy at work or rushing around during the day it can become quite difficult to tune in to the needs of your body or even to recognise its signs of distress, which is why conscious self-care is so important.
If you are interested in maintaining or improving your mental, physical and emotional health to better cope with your life and to avoid becoming overwhelmed, then here are some of the steps that we can take to help....and remember if you don’t look after yourself, nobody else can.
In this article:
- Importance of sleep
- Keeping a healthy diet
- Exercise, fresh air, sunlight and nature
- Staying hydrated
- Effects of alcohol & smoking
- Taking time away from responsibilities
- Breathing, relaxation and meditation tips
Try and get a good night sleep - it is one of the single most important changes you can make to look after yourself and to feel better about your life. It can be difficult if you live a busy life with lots of responsibilities but the repercussions of not taking sleep seriously are many, with research showing that regularly sleeping less than 6 or 7 hours a night is hugely detrimental to all aspects of your health.
Try and find your sleep window, this is the period of time during which your body wants to sleep. Electric lighting and other distractions can allow us to push through the feeling of sleepiness during the evening so try to recognise when the pressure to sleep hits you and take it. If you struggle to sleep well there are many practices you can employ including avoiding caffeine before bedtime and making sure you get exposure to light early in the day and less in the evening.
Life can be busy and can get in the way of making time for good sleep hygiene but if you want to practise self-care you should make it a priority.
The old adage, “you are what you eat” is very true so practising self-care means making sure that the food you eat is the right food for good health. A healthy diet provides the body with sufficient energy and all the nutrients it requires and although there are lots of conflicting information around food and its benefits, the consistent message is to avoid processed foods where you can, reduce sugar and try to make sure your diet includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meat.
Gut health has been shown to be extremely important for our mental and physical health so ensure you are consuming a variety of natural foods with plenty of fibre and try not to eat within 2-3 hours of going to bed as the digestive process will impact on the quality of your sleep.
3. Exercise, fresh air, sunlight and nature
Incorporating exercise into your life is one of the more important aspects of self-care. If you want to feel better, have more energy and generally just feel good about yourself then make time for exercise. We are designed to move and long periods of inactivity are not good for us. Alongside all the obvious health benefits, if you’ve had a stressful day any activity that raises your heart rate and forces you to breathe a bit more will help you to feel happier, more relaxed and less anxious. Who wouldn’t want this in their life?
If you find it difficult to make time to go to a gym, try to find time to walk. Walk to work if you can or make sure you take a lunch break spending at least 20 minutes walking with purpose... however tired and sluggish you felt before you’ll be amazed by how much better you will feel afterwards.
Time spent outside in nature has also been shown to be hugely calming to the soul so even if you live in a city, take a walk round a park or just spend some time engaging with nature.
Exposure to daylight also helps set our body clock which helps with sleep and our circadian rhythm - a win all round!
4. Stay hydrated
Drinking water is best for maintaining hydration but water does also come in the form of food and other drinks including tea and coffee, though be careful about consuming the large quantities of sugar that exist in many juices and sodas.
You may not be conscious of the signs that you are running low on water but they may include feeling tired, irritable and having a headache. Being aware of this is important because ignoring your body’s need for fluid will be detrimental to your health.
A well hydrated body works so much better than a dehydrated one. Your immune system, organ function, digestion and energy levels will all benefit. You could be meeting many of the other criteria for a healthy life but dehydration will make you feel tired and weary and your mental health can suffer as a result. Your brain is around 80% water so keeping hydrated will help you function better during the day and help you sleep better at night.
5. Alcohol and smoking
Though many people use alcohol and smoking as stress relievers both products actually increase anxiety and tension. They may both appear to relieve stress in the short term but only by relieving the anxiety that is induced by their need. Long term use of both has been shown to be detrimental to almost all aspects of your health and so any self-care program would have to include looking seriously at their use and reducing it if possible.
6. Time away from responsibilities
Take time for yourself away from the stresses and strains of daily life to avoid feeling run down and overwhelmed. Socialise and meet up with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. See this time as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle giving you the space to tune in and notice yourself and to become conscious of your mind and body. You will find you sleep better and feel better and be able to cope with life better if some part of each day is just about focusing on your own self-care.
7. Breathing, relaxation and meditation
Take some time out of every day to just sit and consciously breathe. There are many different types of breath work which fundamentally help bring about a reduction in stress and anxiety. There are huge benefits to mindful breathing including improved sleep and mental health.
Finally... self-care is a combination of all of the above strategies. You should be caring for yourself in all of the above domains to ensure that you are caring for your mind, body and spirit. See it as an investment that you and everyone around you will benefit from.