There has been a lot of talk lately about self-care; it is almost as if taking care of oneself has become trendy. Sometimes trends come and go and some stick around for a while. In fashion, women thought that animal print would eventually go out of style, but leopard prints, are still draping the runways. Will self-care stick around? Why has it become so on trend? What exactly does it mean to take care of yourself? What are the benefits of self-care? Some of these questions may seem obvious. However, statistics do show that 78% of mothers report that they put off taking care of themselves because they are busy taking care of others. Why is it so difficult and often feels unnatural to put yourself first? We will dig into these questions and explore some practical self-care tips.
Oxford Languages Dictionary defines self-care as, "the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one's own health". The definition goes on to say, "the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress". The most important two words in the above definitions are "active" and "action". The action of self-care can involve calm and nonactive activities; however, you taking care of yourself is not passive at all. In fact, I would be as bold to say, that in this time in our world, taking care of oneself is the most important task to embrace. We may think taking care of our children, our colleagues, our family members, our clients, our students, etc are our priority. However, if we do not take care of ourselves, there will be nothing left of us to take care of someone else. If you have read my other articles, you have heard me discuss the idea of filling two buckets. Each of us have two buckets that need to be filled. Bucket number one is being heard and seen. Bucket number two is having power (or being empowered). The key is you cannot even try to fill another bucket when it is empty.
Imagine building a sandcastle on a beach with no ocean. You have to have water in one bucket to add to the dry sand in order for it to be moldable. Think of a fun day at the beach with a child. He or she is excited to build a big castle with a mote around for protection. You get all ready with the right tools, shovels, buckets, etc. However, you go to the beach and the ocean is all dried up! The child would look at you with a blank stare as you are trying to console their disappointment. But, without a full bucket, the child will not be able to have a fun day building the imagined castle. Moral of the story, fill your bucket first in order to fill another's bucket.
When I asked the question, "Will self-care stick around?". The answer is an overwhelming, "YES!". We were created with a body that needs to be cared for physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. Let's dig in a bit about how our brain works and why it craves self-care. We have three networks in the brain: Default Mode Network, Salience Mode Network, and Executive Mode Network. The Default Mode is strongest when we are thinking about ourselves, experiencing various feelings, embracing social comparisons, recalling the past and looking ahead to the future. The Salience Mode is more online when we are responding to what is going on around us in our environment. The Central Executive Network helps us to plan, think, concentrate, focus and maintain attention. All three areas are essential for emotional health and achieving a balance between all three is key.
If one network becomes too dominant, then we are out of sync. For example, if you are driving on a trip and you realize that an hour has gone by and you do not even recall driving the car, your brain's default mode is highly activated. The Default Mode can also be thought of negatively too as well, because if it becomes too active, we can begin to ruminate and experience anxiety. We lose a sense of self. The Salience Mode is most online when we are aware of our environment and able to manage our emotions. If we get stuck with the Salience Mode being most active, then we are lunged into an amygdala highjack. Once the amygdala is in charge, we react with our mammal brains with the freeze, fight, and flee responses. The Executive Mode is most active when we are concentrating, planning, and focusing; however, when this mode is out of balance, then we can dissociate and check out of reality.
In the book, ADHD 2.0, by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D, and John J. Rate, M.D., the Default Mode Network (DMN) is described as the "demon of the mind" or the "chatter box". It can pull you away from being in attention. The Salience Network is the moderator to help balance the chatter of the Default Mode and the Executive Mode. Remember the Executive Mode is the problem solving part of our brain. We want to make sure we are balanced; therefore, all three networks are in check. One of the most effective ways to calm all three into a synced state is to use mindfulness activities, such as balance training and meditation.
What exactly is balance training? To understand it, the function and importance of the cerebellum needs to be discussed. The cerebellum is often referred to as the "little brain"; however, it has an important job. It is key to athletic performance by being in charge of coordinated movement, balance, body posture, muscle memory, implicit memory and much more. Actually, Leonardo da Vinci coined the name, the "little brain" after making a wax casting of the brain in 1504. The cerebellum is located in the hind brain between the cerebrum and the brainstem. Through MRI imaging, neuroscientists have determined that up to 90% of the neurons in the brain are located in the cerebellum. So, there is nothing "little" about the importance of it. Christopher Bergland in his book, "The Athlete's Way", discusses how strengthening the cerebellum plays a key role in the ability for the brain to change (neuroplasticity). In recent research, it has been discovered that there is a strong link between the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex region which is mainly responsible for executive function tasks as well as regulation of emotion. The stronger our cerebellum becomes the stronger our ability to manage our emotions and to stay on task. Balance training can be done quite simply by standing on one foot and then switching to the other foot. A balance board can also be used as well. I recommend for individuals to use the balance board or do another type of balance training technique for at least 10 to 20 minutes a day. Why is this important for self-care? Being able to set healthy boundaries out of a balanced state is essential for taking care of yourself. Embracing your feelings and learning to regulate your emotions results from setting boundaries.
Let's dive into some general benefits of self-care. This article outlines seven benefits of meditation and mindfulness for brain health. A few distinct benefits stand out to me. One, calming the Default Mode Network and balancing the Executive Mode Network through meditation can preserve the age of the brain. A second positive effect of meditation is that it reduces anxiety and depression. It can even rival the effects of antidepressants “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways." In a recent study A distinct third benefit of meditation was recorded showing an improved ability to sustain attention and focus.
Does self-care need to look traditional? Meaning, is it just about going to a hot yoga class, juicing, and meditating? The answer is no, it can take on many forms. Of course all the above activities are beneficial and even crucial for taking care of oneself. But to even get to the place that you can consciously choose to get to a yoga class, buy the vegetables to juice, and slow down to meditate, the emotional and spiritual journey of self-care needs to begin. I am not saying that the positive actions like meditating will not enhance the journey, but there does need to be a decision to just say, "YES!" Surrendering the shoulds and the false beliefs is a necessary starting point. Remember our brains were created to connect. That means connecting to oneself as well! I will be bold enough to say that you cannot connect with someone else until you connect with your True Self. Your True Self is our God given gift, our birthright. Letting go of the ego and embracing a state of love of oneself is the start of a beautiful journey.
Many times our shadows can surface from previous wounds. Understanding we have a choice to live in a state of love starts with identifying the false beliefs and setting boundaries in place. True freedom begins when we sit down with ourselves and have a serious conversation with ourself. Many of us suffer from false beliefs that cause us to play the shame and blame game. Fear can indeed creep in; however, deciding that fear can actually be a gift will propel you forward. Meditation for example can help you replace fear with self-awareness. Meditation calms the three networks in our brain allowing us to be open to our True Self.
In conclusion, my challenge is to find FUN in the idea of self-care. Many times we hear that word, and we immediately start the inner chatter of "Oh, yes, I should do that...." What does that word, fun, mean to you? For me, it may be turning up my favorite country music songs on my way home and singing like no one (thankfully no one can!) can hear me! It also may be sitting down with a candle lit and reading a good book or even watching a show that lifts my spirits. Or, taking a bubble bath and listening to some quite music. Lastly, it may be going to play tennis with the intent of just enjoying the experience but not getting caught up about the outcome. Do you need to sit down with yourself and have a frank conversation about letting go of the four demons that surface often due to past wounds? Find a trusted friend, mentor, coach, counselor, etc to share with the experience of becoming more self-aware. There is nothing passive about self-care. Our brains were created to be filled. Your beautiful and unique castle is waiting to be constructed.