Taking the Time for Self-Care

By Tracey Dowdy

How many times have you sat down to watch your favorite show or stopped to play Legos with your kids but instead of relaxing, you kept running through the list of things you “should” be doing? For many of us, the answer to that question is, “Every time.” We live our lives at full speed and rarely take the time to stop and catch our breath.

Not only is it a bad idea for your physical health – stress has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes – it’s detrimental to your mental health as well.

How do you know if you’re starting to run on Empty? The American Institute of Stress has a list of 50 Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but if you find yourself saying, “Yep, that’s me,” again and again as you read the list, it’s time for life change.

You can start by putting aside those feelings of guilt for taking time to sit in a quiet space and read a book, go for a run, have a cup of tea, or watch an episode of “Friends” on Netflix. Regularly taking the time for a little self-care can have a profound impact on your overall health and well-being.

In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Neal Burton says the next step is to come up with strategies for preventing, avoiding, or diffusing your stress. One of the most effective and easiest ways is through deep breathing. Breathe in through your nose and hold your breath for five seconds. Next, purse your lips and gradually let the air out on a seven count. Let out as much air as you can. Repeat, focusing on your breathing. Use your hands to motion in and out to help you concentrate.

You can also pair deep breathing with relaxation exercises. Begin by lying on your back, tighten the muscles in your toes for 10 seconds, and then relax them completely. Wait 10 seconds, and repeat. You can apply the same tense/release pattern to your feet, ankles, and calves until you work up to your head and neck.

Both these techniques stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system enables our “fight or flight” response, while the parasympathetic has the opposite effect by producing a feeling of calm and relaxation in both the mind and body. If your body is constantly stressed, the parasympathetic system can’t function properly, and your mental and physical health are impacted.

In conjunction with these relaxation techniques, look for long-term changes that will reduce your stress like practicing mindfulness and putting an end to multi-tasking. Easier said than done, I know. How long would it take for the wheels to fall off if you stopped multi-tasking? Perhaps it’s more practical to say, “Stop multitasking when you’re trying to relax.”

To practice what I preach, I set a single-screen rule for myself. More often than not, I found myself scrolling through my phone while watching TV. I wasn’t fully paying attention to either – no wonder it wasn’t refreshing or relaxing. Focus on the task at hand, whether it’s playing Barbies, Minecraft, or watching another episode of Stranger Things.

Learn to be present, take your time, and be proud of yourself for taking a break. Studies show that individuals who practice self-care improve their overall health, strengthen relationships, and live more fulfilling lives.

Now that’s something to stop and think about.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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