Self-Care Basics: Why It Matters and Where to Start

In case you haven’t noticed, self-care is everywhere. Trust me, it’s definitely a buzzword. In fact, every day, I get an email from Google Alerts listing three articles about self-care that were published the previous day. Clearly, people have a lot to say about self-care.

But the thing with these articles is that they take a very surface-level approach to self-care. They tend to define it as a self-indulgent activity that is similar to the “treat yourself” mentality. You’ll often see self-care described as treating yourself to a manicure and indulging in a movie marathon. Sure, these activities feel good in the moment (I definitely don’t have anything against manicures and movie marathons) and can help you temporarily feel better but, once that manicure is over or once the movie credits start scrolling, you’re back to feeling the same way you were before. Is that really all self-care is?

The real answer is that self-care is so much more. Authentic and long-lasting self-care is not about feeling good in the moment. Rather, it’s about taking care of your physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual needs so that you can be at your best and to build up your resilience to stress. When you are feeling your best emotionally and physically, you’re up for whatever life sends your way and self-care can help you do that. It’s far from being lazy or self-indulgent. Instead, it’s more of a discipline that, in the long run, can help protect you against the effects of stress and feel good about yourself.

Whether it’s physical or mental, stress is part of our everyday lives. Stress can come from having a busy schedule, being in a high-pressure job or school program, strained relationships with family or friends, dealing with a physical illness, or living with a mental health issue like anxiety or depression. And if you aren’t already taking care of yourself (e.g. eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, reaching out to your support system, etc.) stress can take a toll on your health.

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that stress levels among Americans are rising: 71 percent of Americans reported experiencing stress in the last month of 2016 and that number increased to 75 percent in 2017. Stress can affect you in many ways including headaches, increased depression or anxiety, insomnia, compromised immune system, high blood pressure, digestion issues, and muscle tension.

When you’re stressed, you’re not at your best. You feel exhausted, short-tempered, and overwhelmed. And if you don’t take steps to manage the level of stress in your life, it can lead to chronic stress, which is also called burnout. Think of it as your body running on fumes. You can only do that so long before you run out of fuel and crash. In order to prevent that from happening and to keep your tank full, it’s important to have some kind of self-care routine in place.

While escaping to a deserted island can seem like an ideal way to get away from the stress in your life, it isn’t realistic for most of us. So how can you practice authentic self-care in your busy life right now and have it still be effective? The APA recommends maintaining a healthy social support network, exercising regularly, and getting proper amounts of sleep as important aspects of stress management. These three strategies can be a good place to start if you want to begin practicing some basic self-care.

Maintain a healthy support network

Human beings are social but stress can feel so isolating. Spending time with family and friends can prevent that isolating feeling from becoming overwhelming. Maintaining healthy relationships, especially when you’re stressed, is a simple yet effective way to help you manage stress. In fact, research shows that spending quality time with friends reduces your body’s stress response. This can look like simply calling a friend or family member to chat if you’ve had a stressful day, asking a friend to go for a walk with you, or inviting a friend over for dinner. Supportive friends and family can listen to what you’re experiencing and can provide you with advice and support.

Exercise regularly

Exercise is a great way to combat the effects of stress. When you exercise, your body reduces stress hormone levels, which can help to combat the physical symptoms of stress. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting 30 minutes of exercise six days a week.

When I tell my clients this, most of them feel overwhelmed at the thought of adding exercise into their busy schedule. But remember: exercise doesn’t exclusively mean sprinting on a treadmill or joining a spin class. Instead, think of exercise as anything that gets you up and moving. Exercise can be going for a walk or bike ride with a friend (look, you’re accomplishing two self-care strategies at once!), taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or taking a fun exercise class like Zumba.

Get enough sleep

The Sleep Foundation recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night. However, the APA’s 2013 study on stress found that the average American adult is only getting 6.7 hours of sleep a night. And a lack of sleep can affect your memory, judgment, and mood, and it can contribute to feeling listless and more severe health problems.

So getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night can be a simple way to help you manage stress. Give yourself 20–30 minutes to fall asleep and factor that into your bedtime. It’s also important to avoid screen time before you go to bed. Instead of scrolling through your phone before you go to sleep, try reading, journaling, or listening to calming music.

These three simple self-care strategies can be personalized to fit your particular lifestyle, ensuring that you can easily accomplish them each day. Make a commitment to take care of yourself by cultivating healthy relationships, exercising daily, and getting enough sleep, and watch as you grow stronger while the effects of stress melt away.

Grotto quote graphic about self-care basics: "1. Maintain a healthy support system; 2. exercise regularly; 3. get enough sleep."

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