May 30 2024

Self-care Fundamentals

by Isobel Johnston, MA-Phd candidate, Arizona State University, Tempe

Oil on canvas painting, "Women's Art Class" by Louis Lang (c. 1868). Seven women painting in a salon.

A uniquely modern American illusion is that we can put anything into our bodies and subsequently demand everything of them without consequences. This is bunk. Our attitude and approach to self-care can either enhance the body’s effectiveness or limit it.

A common (mis)conceptualization of self-care, and one that I have been guilty of having, defines it as a set of activities separate from our personal and professional lives. It is treated as a task we attend to on an as-needed or as a single-strategy manner for coping with preexisting stress or crisis.

The trouble with this is approach is that it often allows us to reach a critical condition before we engage it. At this rate, any regularity in our “habit” of self-care more likely reflects a steady state of critical stress which forces us to find time for it, often when illness makes us unfit for anything else.

When self-care is effective, however, we manage daily and moderate stresses with a sense of vigor and accomplishment. And when real crisis strikes, we ride the wave with a more positive attitude for longer than when we enter the crisis already depleted.

Self-care is more effectively defined as a diverse set of lifestyle practices that nurture and help maintain an overall sense of wellbeing, keeping us fully present in our lives and as a preventative strategy for stress management.

This lifestyle approach integrates self-care in three areas: the body, mind, and emotional/spiritual life. Care in one area affects care in the other areas. Here are some fundamental concepts about body, mind, and emotional/spiritual care:

Body Care can be understood in four major principles:

  1. What we put in our bodies directly affects our well-being.
  2. Our bodies have preset rhythms for activity and rest.
  3. Stress depletes us.
  4. Depletion means that our need for replenishment increases.

We put food, water, sunlight, air and, yes, products into our bodies. Hands down, a diverse and colorful diet of fresh foods is best. Due to depletion though, even the best diet will not provide the nutrients that stressful lives demand, so we need to supplement with vitamins and minerals. Not only does fresh air immediately reduce stress for most of us, but unprotected midday sunshine is a critical source of vitamin D, which, among other things, affects our mood and lessens muscle pain.

Most of us have miserable sleep habits, but restful sleep is critical for physical repair and mental integration of our daily experiences. The key is getting enough quality sleep that we can wake up feeling restored and invigorated. Any mental activity that enters our bedrooms inhibits quality rest: electronics, reading in bed and even light count as mental activities.

Any exercise we can fit into our day is an investment in our lives. The balance here means a combination of aerobic and anaerobic activities. Exercise does not need to be rigorous to give you energy and clarity, but it does need to vary. Find what activities bring you more energy for a longer time and expect that some may change with your needs.

Mental care: Our work lives provide more than enough intellectual stimulation. Our professional hazard is becoming stuck in a mental rut, in one style of thought, and feeling constrained when out of our intellectual comfort zone. Here, our nonprofessional lives offer mental exercise. However, if we do not approach these tasks with this attitude, allowing them to burden us, this opportunity is lost. Take cooking, for example: add a satisfying beverage, inspiring music and attractive cookware, and daily meals become a self-care activity.

Emotional and Spiritual care: I mention emotional and spiritual self-care last because they depend greatly on body and mental care. The goal here is to maintain flexibility and a constructive outlook toward the events in our lives. Self-care in this area encompasses journaling, meditation, prayer, contemplative walks, time outdoors, conversations with friends and family, and therapy for addressing issues which weigh us down.

Because our lives are ever unfolding, self-care is a constant need. Our habits need to address each of these three areas on a daily and weekly basis. The only way to fit it all in is to integrate these habits into our routine. As with any lifestyle change, baby steps, one new habit at a time is essential for long term success.

 Image: "Women's Art Class" by Louis Lang (oil on canvas, c. 18685). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris K. Jesup Fund, 1999.