Two questions strike fear into the hearts of my patients. The first, are you stretching enough? (The answer is usually no, and will be the subject of a future blog post). The second, are you self caring?
Most of my patients will hedge at this one. I’ll get told that they do what they can, or they self care when they have time, or they go to the gym and are eating healthy.
Eating well and exercising are both good things, and we’ll come back to these later. But Just doing these two things does not constitute good self care.
I hear you. You don’t have time to do more than that. In fact, some weeks you don’t even have time for those two basic things. Well, stick with me. We’re going to go for a little adventure here in this blog post and by the end of it I’m confident you’ll have a different perspective on self care and how you can make it work in your busy lifestyle.
Self care is the practice of preserving or improving one’s health. It requires taking an active role in protecting one’s own well being and happiness, especially during periods of stress.
On the face of things, that seems pretty straight forward. The sticky part is that self care is different for everyone. Take an introvert, for example. They need quiet time to themselves in order to recharge their battery, while extroverts find it more energising and revitalising to be around other people in busy social situations.
A fit, healthy woman in her 20’s will need to do less to look after herself than a 50 year old with arthritis and a high stress job. And the amount of self care required to keep you healthy, happy and well will change in relation to how much stress you have in your life.
So while the definition of self care is straight forward, figuring out how to self care in a way that works for you is a little more complicated.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s response to anything that requires attention or action, or a force, tension or strain. In the days of prehistoric man, stresses involved things like lions chasing them across the savannah, tribal disputes, and shortages of food.
These days stress is a much more complicated beast. It can be physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual. Your body can be under stress internally from poor diet, alcohol, drugs, or existing medical conditions. These are stresses you don’t very often feel as stress, but may pop up in the form of digestive issues, low energy, or trouble healing from cuts and small injuries.
Your mind can be stressed from the demands of a hectic job, study, or a complicated family situation. This might show up as general fatigue or feeling run down, a mind that won’t stop running at 90 miles an hour, and poor sleep or waking feeling tired.
You can be emotionally stressed from difficult social situations, loss of a loved one or relationship, or from the excitement of a potential or new relationship. This stress may present in loss of appetite, general unease or unrest, fidgeting or inability to sit still.
We are also living in very uncertain times. All of the uncertainty and tension over the pandemic is a constant background stress on top of anything else we have going on in our lives.
Not all stress comes from negative situations, sometimes things we love cause us stress too. Personally, I suffer from an addiction to really hard exercise. I love to work out hard and really exhaust my body - but this is a form of stress. While my body benefits in some ways from exercising, going too hard causes damage such as fatigue, slow recovery, and headaches and migraines.
I am always better if I moderate my exercise and do smaller or less intense sessions. The same is true of my weekly scheduling.
I have a terrible habit of loving productivity, which leads to chronic over scheduling. I schedule my patients, my community clinic, my teaching of kids karate, qigong, and adults karate, then try to shoe horn in my own training, study, and work on my business around this. Add in a dance class and some socialising and my calendar gets pretty crowded!
I’m finding the busier I get and the more I pack into my week the less I take the time to listen to my body and check in with how I’m feeling and what I need. I’m too busy for that, my mind is always racing ahead to the next ten things on my to do list. As a result, I miss cues that could prevent injury, fatigue, or burn out.
This is one of the issues with being busy all the time and not making time for yourself - you ignore your body when it gives you the little warning signs that all is not well. This means instead of listening and slowing down or addressing the issue, you push through until the issue gets so bad it can’t be ignored.
The end result can be injuries, sickness, or even chronic fatigue or burn out.
Burn out - The body’s enforced rest
I am no expert on burn out, but I did manage to get some first hand experience on the subject in my late 20’s. I was studying a full time degree in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, two part time diplomas, working three part time jobs to keep myself afloat, working out, and travelling from Wellington to the Marlborough sounds most weekends to support family going through cancer.
I was up at 4am every morning and got home with enough time to eat, throw some laundry on and pack my bag for the next day before I collapsed into bed at 8:30pm and slept like the dead.
I thought I was fine at the time. When asked if I was stressed I would answer no. And I honestly believed that - I didn’t feel stressed.
I wanted to be doing all of the things I was doing, and most of them I enjoyed, so I didn’t see how stress could possibly come into the equation. And anyway, it all needed to be done so there was no point thinking about it.
Boy was I wrong!
What I didn’t realise is that I was so busy I didn’t have time to feel that I was stressed. Any and all warning signals my body was throwing up were summarily missed in the rush to get everything done for the day, put on the back burner as something I would get to when I had time and money, or just flat out ignored.
Because I refused to listen to my body and take care of myself, it decided to enforce some serious R&R.
I hit the wall. Big time. I accomplished all of the things I wanted to accomplish but I ruined my health in the process. I had no energy, my sleep was rubbish, and I would wake feeling tired. I lost my passion for karate and Chinese medicine and was just drifting through life.
I’d lost my drive.
These things did come back and I recovered but it took a long time. And a lot of self care. What I learned from it all was that I need to take better care of myself. That sometimes saying no, delegating a task, and prioritising myself and my health saves time in the long run.
If I had just taken better care of myself back then I would have saved myself months of recovery and lost productivity.
Why should you care?
It’s really a question of short term pay off versus long term suffering. I used to think I was pushing myself because I needed to get things done and because there just wasn’t enough time to slow down and take care of myself. But in the end I cost myself months of time in recovery from burn out and made my life miserable in the process.
I fell victim to the productivity paradox. I thought I would get more done by pushing through and prioritising work but in fact this meant that I found it hard to concentrate, felt foggy and tired, and everything got harder and took longer. The irony was that if I had stopped to rest when my brain started to lag and if I had scheduled time for myself I would have gotten far more done in a shorter amount of time and to a higher standard. And I would have been healthier and happier to boot.
There are lots of reasons to over load your plate, and in the short term I’d wager you’re getting away with this too. You’ll get a lot of things done and there will be lots of satisfying ticks on your to do list. Your boss will probably love you.
The trouble is the cost. After a while your energy will start to spiral down. The quality of your sleep will drop and you’ll wake feeling tired even after a solid 7 hours. Your memory will start to decline and your thinking will get fuzzy - it will get harder and harder to focus for long periods on your work. By evening you’ll be so tired all you’ll want to do is collapse on the couch in front of the tv and zone out. You’ll have no energy for yourself or your loved ones or the things you used to be passionate about.
You may even start to feel bitterness and resentment and be taking it out on those closest to you. This is the trouble when we give too much - we eventually start to feel short changed and cranky about it.
This kind of self thrashing makes life harder across the board and steals the fun from your day. It can also impact your mental health which further drops your energy levels and can become a vicious cycle.
The good news is it really doesn’t take that much work to straighten this out. What works best is making small changes and sticking with them consistently over the long term. Done properly, you’ll have more energy, better sleep, and enjoy your life rather than dragging yourself through it.
Ok, so what am I supposed to do about it?
Great question! The good news is there are loads of things you can do yourself that will cost you nothing, and you’ll see some change with just choosing one or two.
1) 10 Minutes of “You Time”
A good place to start is to carve out 10 minutes for yourself every day. This means 10 minutes of uninterrupted you time. Cobbling together 1 minute intervals where you are running to get somewhere, driving the car, or running errands does not count.
It has to be 10 minutes of scheduled time for yourself, uninterrupted. If you have to, try getting up 10 minutes earlier to find the time before the rest of the family or your flat mates are up. Turn your phone off or onto airplane mode, stay away from your laptop and the tv.
Do something purely for you. Have a hot cup of tea. Read a book. Go for a walk in nature or around the block. Take a bath. Sit somewhere quiet and just breathe. Listen to your favourite music. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as it’s just for you and not anyone else, you enjoy it, and so long as you don’t let that time get interrupted.
You will feel better if you choose something that doesn’t involve screens. This gives you time to settle, check in with yourself and how you’re feeling today.
2) Take Breaks
If you find yourself lagging during the day, your attention slipping, your mind getting fuzzy or slow, or your enthusiasm for something you usually enjoy waning - TAKE A BREAK!
Even 5 minutes can be enough to hit your internal refresh button and give you a new perspective. Put the task down, take a few deep breaths and focus your mind on your breathing. Try a few short stretches, or walk around the room, house, office, or flight of stairs. Or go one better and get outside for a walk around the garden or the block and get some fresh air and sunshine while you’re at it.
When you come back you’ll feel more alert and you’ll be more productive. You’ll get more done than you would have had you stayed put and pushed through.
If you doubt this I challenge you to give it a try, I look forward to hearing how you get on. I think you’ll be surprised by the outcome.
Get outside! Breathe in some fresh air, get a bit of sun on your skin.
0-30 minutes a day, seven days a week is the recommended amount of sun for a healthy body and mind. If your lunch break rolls around and it’s a nice day - go for a walk around the block! Get some sun and a little movement into your day, you’ll feel better for it.
4) Eat Well
I told you we’d circle back around to diet and exercise. Eating well is important and by now we all know that lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, a little meat or protein, and some healthy grains, seeds and nuts are all necessary staples of a good diet. I won’t beat you over the head with it, you know these things already.
What I will point out is this - changes don’t have to be big.
If your eating habits are not the best you don’t have to change it all at once. Pick one thing and make the commitment to change that one thing and stick to it. Breakfast is a good place to start. Making sure you eat a balanced breakfast every morning (before 9am is best for most people) is a great way to start the day and sets you up for sustained energy. Including a little protein in the form of an egg, or nuts and seeds is a great boost for your morning.
If you find it hard to eat breakfast, try going for a short walk before eating. This will kick your digestive system into gear and give your appetite a nudge.
5) Exercise - little and often
Our bodies were made to move and many of us work jobs that keep us seated for most of the day. By the time we get home, we’re too tired to do much more than blob out on the couch for the evening.
If you’re not exercising at all, start by choosing three days of the week and go for a short walk on these days. It can be as little as walking to the end of your drive and back, or down the street and back, or around the block. How far you go doesn’t matter, it’s the moving that’s important.
Once you’ve managed to make this a normal part of your week start increasing the days you move or the length of time you’re moving for until you’ve found what works best for you. You just have to stick with it and you’ll be surprised at the changes you’ll start to see and feel.
Conversely, if you already do a lot of exercise you may want to check in with your body and make sure you’re not doing too much. And this is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle black - I struggle with this myself and am constantly having to rein myself in.
Your exercise levels should change with your energy levels and overall workload for the week. Stubbornly pushing through the same amount every week regardless of how you’re feeling is a great way to hit burn out or injure yourself.
Too much exercise can be as damaging as not enough. If you notice your body isn’t recovering from exercise, you’re injured often, you’re getting headaches or migraines post workout, or you’re feeling run down all the time and are not making progress with your fitness, you may be over training.
Stretching is a great way to get some gentle movement into your day. It’s often the first thing that gets sacrificed when you’re busy as most people feel they get more out of the workout than they do the stretching at the end.
Here’s the thing - stretching can be a workout too. Yoga is a great way to gently get into body movement and incorporate some stretching at the same time. If you are struggling to get to an actual class there are millions of videos on YouTube you can do at home for free. I recommend Yoga with Adriene, but have a look around and find one that works for you.
7) Sleep Routine
Sleeping is crucial. When we don’t sleep well we get tired, and when we get tired our body craves high energy foods. We reach for that chocolate or those lollies when we have that afternoon dip in energy when really what we need is more rest.
Worse, when you’re tired you don’t make good decisions. All of those plans you make to exercise and eat well go right out the window because your brain just doesn’t function the same when you’re short on sleep. All of that seems too hard, so instead of going for that walk and cooking a healthy meal you end up parked on the couch with pizza.
It is super important to set yourself some rules around sleep. Figure out what time you need to be up in the morning and how many hours you need to feel human. Make sure you go to bed with an extra half hour to spare to account for drift off time, and STICK TO IT!
For example, if you need a good eight hours of sleep and you need to be up at 6am, you need to be in bed around 9:30-10pm.
Set yourself a ‘time for bed’ alarm and hold yourself to it. The temptation of another episode of that show is strong but you will feel so much better tomorrow and have more energy to do the things you love if you go to bed now!
It also helps to stay away from screens for an hour before bed and an hour after you wake. Try reading a book or going for a quiet walk, or having a conversation with someone else in your household instead. The blue screens and even the excitement from action or drama shows are enough to seriously impact the quality of your sleep and your hormonal balance in the mornings - and not in a good way.
8) Get up when you wake up
This goes hand in hand with your sleep routine. The worst thing you can be doing for your body and energy levels is waking at 6:30 and lying in until 8. You are far better to get up now and have a cat nap later in the day if you get tired.
You may feel a little tired when you wake, but if you’re doing a few of these self care things and sticking to them this will get better. And once you’re up and moving that tiredness fades fast.
This also gives you that extra time to do something for yourself or get in a walk or some stretching.
Try it for a week and see what happens, I dare you.
9) Good quality social time
This differs person to person. An introvert may only need one short social activity during the week with one person they know well. An extrovert may need a lot more than this.
The key here is quality over quantity. You’ll feel best for this when you choose to do activities you enjoy with people who you feel good spending time with. Often this is partners, close friends or family.
And the second part of this is not to do too much. Staying out late every night of the weekend to socialise may not be as good for you as doing that one night of the week and going for a walk with a friend on one of the other days.
10) Ask for help
Asking for help or sharing the load is a great way to get through the week. It may be organising to do your cooking for the week with a friend, or finding yourself a work out buddy. It might be asking for help around the house or with the kids.
You might be told no, but if you don’t ask you don’t get, and people love to help.
If you have injuries or more serious medical conditions or are concerned about your health, seek help from a professional. Don’t leave those little niggles and concerns until they get so big they stop you living your life. Address them early and they’ll be easier to recover and heal from or manage in the long term.
Have a think about your weekly schedule and if you need to, write it down. Look at all of those commitments and have a think about how much energy it takes you to fulfil all of them.
Don’t leave anything out - groceries, dropping the kids to school, volunteering your time, gardening, sports, house work, your job - put everything on there.
Now write down all the things you’re doing for yourself or that top your energy back up - this can include sleep, eating well, time for yourself.
Things like exercise you may find you need to put on both lists - they make you feel better but they also cost energy.
How does it look? If you’re anything like me, that energy out column gets really long really fast.
This may be a bit scary to begin with. Many of you will find that your energy out list is pretty long and intimidating. The good news is you don’t need to do a lot to counter this, you just have to be consistent.
In fact, going overboard and trying to change everything or pack 100 new things into your week will just end up making things worse.
So start by picking one or two things from the list and making those a priority. I recommend focusing on “You Time” and a sleep routine to start with and then go from there, but choose what feels right for you.
The key to all of this is preparation and planning. Abraham Lincoln is famous for saying “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe.”
If you want to make these changes and stick to them, the best chance you can give yourself is good preparation. Look for ways to make this easier for yourself.
Set alarms on your phone for when it’s time to put screens down or go to bed. Arrange to exercise with a friend and set a day and time so you feel you have to go and meet them. Meal plan and make sure you do the shopping and the ingredients you need are in the cupboard and easy to prepare. Do some of the prep before you need to cook - all of these things make following through easier.
You can also designate one day of the week as a cooking day. Cook all of your meals on this day then freeze them in meal sized portions - then all you have to do is take them out of the freezer, heat and eat!
Life is about priorities. The sum total of your life is made up of all the little things that you give priority over the course of your day. Most of us put everything on our to do list ahead of ourselves, and this just isn’t sustainable.
Make caring for yourself your top priority. Instead of saying “If I have time”, MAKE TIME.
Acknowledge that self care is important. If we don’t look after ourselves we can’t work well, look after our loved ones or patients, or do the things we love.
And learn to say NO!
This is the best word I ever learnt. Stop agreeing to everything and over loading your plate. Learn how to delegate tasks that you don’t need to be doing yourself (for instance, have the kids do some of the house work or mow the lawns, or if you can afford it pay a student to do some of these things for you).
And finally, learn to let go of the things that just aren’t important. Some weeks you just need a break and while house work is important, sometimes letting that slide for a day or two so you can go for a walk or have some time to yourself is more important.
Figure out what really is important and make these things your focus. Everything outside of that needs to be expendable.
It is your life, after all. If you self care, you’ll be able to enjoy it for a long time. And self care can start with just 10 minutes a day.