By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
The phrase, self-care, has been said pretty darn often lately. Every social media post seems to talk about “taking time for self-care.” Heck, even my posts talk about self-care (check out mindfulness: the art of becoming calm, cool, and collected) So I feel it is time to answer that question you have: what in the heck is self-care?
Self-care is a broad, blanket term that is simply defined as “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health” (Oxford, 2009). Many of us practice this without giving it much thought. For example, did you change your underwear today? That is a way we take care of our health. Did you eat at least one piece of food today? Again, you are preserving your health by doing an action that continues your life.
When we talk about the above definition, we have to understand the why. Self-care is, essentially, self-preservation. Self-care is what we do to keep our bodies healthy, feeling connected to the world around us, and developing comfort with our lives. Without self-care, we simply cannot exist.
The basic building blocks of self-care are: physical, mental, and social. Think about it, these are all needed to maintain a certain level of health in order to keep surviving. Even if we think about our pets, what happens if they are missing one of these things?
With physical self-care (which I think is the easiest type of self-care), there are actions we do to ensure our body can keep living. These particular actions do something to our brains. When our brain (in particular, that darn amygdala), senses we are in stress, it raises the alarm to the rest of the body. If you recall from my post, Fight-Flight-Freeze: the Ultimate Coping Skill, that darn amygdala releases a whole slew of neurotransmitters into the brain that tells our body that we are stressed. When we engage in activities of physical self-care, our darn amygdala tells the adrenal gland that is safe to relax. Do you know what that means? That means our brain releases GABA to calm your body down, glutamate to decrease muscle tension, and dopamine to say “congratulations! You accomplished staying alive!”
There are plenty of things that constitute physical self-care. These things include (but are not limited to):
- Brushing your teeth at least once a day
- Changing your clothes daily
- Taking a bath/shower on a regular basis
- Getting in those 8 hours of sleep
- Eating food from every food group once a day
- Participating in art of seeing your doctor/dentist/therapist on a consistent basis
I bet some of these things you are saying “I do those already.” To that, I say “Thank you!” When we engage in these activities on a regular basis, we do a couple of things for our brains. First, we are establishing a routine our hippocampus can store into memory. Second, that memory then allows that darn amygdala to know what to expect next, which decreases symptoms of anxiety. Third, the prefrontal cortex can use these items of self-care to check the facts to prove to that darn amygdala that the world is not coming to the end. Fourth, the insula (remember, the part of our brain responsible for coordination), becomes more active. This means we are developing muscle memory and are less likely to forget how to do something. Finally, we increase the size of our hippocampus. Whoah, that is a lot of benefits!
Think those benefits are awesome? I haven’t even gotten to the part of mental self-care! Mental self-care is exactly that: things we do that take care of our emotional health. Just like we talked about above, when we are experiencing stress or burnout, the stress neurotransmitters and cortisol are having a hay day in our brain. When we engage in just 15 minutes of mental self-care on a daily basis, we are:
- Increasing the size of your hypothalamus, which allows us to recall memories faster
- Decreasing our heart rate, which slows down the production of cortisol
- Releasing serotonin into our brain
- Reducing the activity in that darn amygdala
- Increasing the activity in our prefrontal cortex
- Improving the oxygen exchange rate, which decreases the triple F response
- Releasing endorphins which decreases our physical bain levels while feel good at the same time
I told you that there were going to be more benefits! Now, what constitutes as mental self-care? I’m happy you asked! There is a whole list of them (again, this is not an all-inclusive list:
- Taking time to practice mindful breathing
- Tell a joke (and laugh at it)
- Taking a break from looking at a screen
- Listening to your favorite song
- Validating what you are experiencing
- Taking a warm bath/shower, just to relax
- Participating in stretching or yoga
- Engaging in a hobby you enjoy
- Reading a favorite book
- Taking a walk in nature
I know we have talked about how participating in both physical and mental self-care can change your mental health, but there are more changes to come! We also have to take care of our social health. Social health is when we participate with the people (or pets) around us. When we engage with the people around us, we release the neurotransmitter, oxytocin. This amazing little neurotransmitter helps us feel connected and safe with the people around us. It also aids in creating an emotional bond and trust. The best part of oxytocin? It helps our darn amygdala remember that we are accepted and appreciated. I bet you can take a guess what that does for our self-esteem, confidence, and overall mental health. You got it! It boosts it all!
When it comes to boosting oxytocin, there are activities we can engage in. Even engaging in these activities for a mere 20 minutes a day can reap all the above benefits. These activities include (but not limited to):
- Petting an animal friend
- talking with someone you care about
- validating someone’s feelings
- Engaging in volunteer opportunities
- Spending one-on-one time with someone important in your life
- Participating in a club/sport with other people
Looking at these lists, you may notice something. There is a bit of overlap. Why is that? Because many of these activities can release more than just one type of feel good neurotransmitter. For example, if you go horse riding with a club of friends, you are releasing dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin all the while releasing endorphins. Isn’t self-care awesome!
Now, if you are super busy (like me), you may think self-care is one thing you can sacrifice to make the rest of the demands placed on you. Let me tell you now: YOU CANNOT DO THAT!! Remember that post I did on burnout? Yeah, that happens if you don’t take time for self-care.
But when the heck do I find the time to do self-care? Great question! As we have talked about in all of my other posts, we know it takes 66 days to make anything a habit that sticks. Many of these self-care things are things you are already doing. But what about the things I know I need to do but can’t find the time to do it?
That is where those famous SMART goals come in to play. In case you missed them, SMART goals are goals that are:
- Specific in intention
- Measurable (meaning they have a time frame to complete them)
- Actually attainable
- Realistic in nature
These goals are super beneficial when you are trying to create a new habit because they start small and build off of the progress you area already making. By setting one small self-care SMART goal each week, you are preparing your brain to release dopamine (because you accomplished something), serotonin (because there was joy in that accomplishment), endorphins (since you got your body moving), and maybe even some oxytocin (if that goal connected you with people).
Let’s look at an example, shall we? Let’s set the SMART goal of brushing our teeth five times in one week. It is a simple goal, but if your depression is reigning supreme, it is a tough one. This goals is a SMART goal for the following reasons:
- S – it is specific (we will brush our teeth)
- M – We can measure if we meet this goal (by putting a number on it, we can count if it gets done or not)
- A – We know we can meet this goal (missing two days isn’t that bad, right?)
- R – This goal is realistic (especially since the dentist says we should be brushing twice a day and flossing to boot)
- T – We can track the progress towards this goal (we can mark it in a calendar when we did brush our teeth)
Using SMART goals can be helpful when we are trying to make self-care a regular kind of thing in your life. This, along with understanding the things that energize you (like food, friends, or quiet time), will help you make a change in your mental health journey for the better. Thank you so much for taking time with me to learn about why self-care is so important.
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- Bell, T (2020). Brain Chemistry: The Importance of Self-Care. Retrieved from https://www.solutionpsychology.com.au/brain-chemistry-the-importance-of-self-care/
- Hassan El-Ghoroury, N (2015). Self-care for the scientist. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2015/09/matters
- Joshi, Meera (2017). How Does Mindfulness Affect the Brain? Retrieved from How does mindfulness affect the brain? (bupa.co.uk)
- Powell, Alvin (2018). When Science Meets Mindfulness. Retrieved from Harvard researchers study how mindfulness may change the brain in depressed patients – Harvard Gazette
- Simpson, J. A., Weiner, E. S. C., & Oxford University Press. (1989). The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Retrieved from https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/