by Chayim Newman, M.A.
Willing to try an experiment? Grab a Post-it note and a pen… If you slept an average of 7+ hours per night this past week, put down a checkmark on your paper. If you ate three healthy meals per day this past week, put down another check. A third check if you exercised on five or more days. One more check if you felt like you managed your stress well and felt almost no muscle tension this past week. And a fifth check if you took some time each day for yourself to do something that you enjoyed, even for a few brief moments. Did you get all five checkmarks? I’d hazard a guess that almost no one checks off all five boxes, and certainly not on a regular basis. I’d suggest trying this experiment for a month and seeing how many checkmarks we amass.
The fact is, our self-care, composed of elements including: diet, exercise, stress management, sleep hygiene, and a number of other behaviors, is critical for optimal functioning. We are all aware of the research on declines in performance after sleep deprivation and in high stress situations, and there is significant literature to suggest that proper diet and consistent exercise also crucially impact performance – at work, at play and socially. Why then did few or none of us check off all five checkmarks this past week?
We all have irrational self-statements about our self-care and we use them to justify our reluctance to change our behaviors or to put in the effort required for healthy living.
- “It’s selfish of me to spend so much time on myself and my own needs”
- “I’ll be fine even if I don’t focus on my self care; plenty of people do so and live a long time”
- “Whatever I’m working on currently is more pressing than going to the gym or spending the extra time to prepare healthier meals”
- “If I tried to live that way, I’d fail after a couple of weeks anyway”
Some of those statements may sound familiar. I’ve said them to myself hundreds of times over the years. Unfortunately, these irrational statements are, well, irrational. They’re mostly inaccurate and certainly not functionally effective or conducive to health. In fact, one of the first signs of decompensation when one is suffering from clinical depression or severe anxiety is that these self-care regimens get compromised and, for all intents and purposes, thrown out the window. Therefore, one of the first things I always do as a clinician is to help clients re-establish their self-care regimen, giving their daily life an anchoring structure with which to then begin the work of addressing what underlies their emotional struggles.
Even for the non-clinical population, I think we’d all benefit from a more long-term view. As trite as it may sound, life really is a marathon rather than a 50-yard dash. And if we aspire to complete the marathon with our health and faculties intact instead of collapsing at the midway point, it will serve us well to commit now to our self-care (starting with the above five elements) as a real priority. While doing so, we can also recognize that it’s not a selfish commitment, but a truly selfless one, as only the functioning and balanced individual can effectively give of themselves to properly and patiently nurture others. Like they always say in the pre-flight announcement, we have to put on our own oxygen masks first, so that we may go out and properly help do so for others. Take good care of yourself. You’re worth it.