“Too busy” for self-care? Not so fast

Mental Health

by Nina Desai, MD

Oct 10, 2019

We have all heard that term “self-care,” but what does it really mean? The truth is, the practice of self-care means lots of different things to lots of different people. Regardless of what self-care looks like to you, there is no doubt that you need it. We all do.

But when life is hectic and you feel like you don’t have time to breathe (much less exercise, or kick back with friends, or get a good night’s rest), self-care can seem impossible.

If that’s you, hear me out.

One in five U.S. adults will experience some kind of mental illness this year, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-34. In light of this, it’s important that we pay attention to our mental health before it gets to that point, and that we watch out for each other, too.

First, let’s talk about stress. There are all kinds of stress, both good and bad. Bad stressors can take the form of strain in relationships, work-related stress and financial uncertainty.

Good stressors can be exciting life changes like a new job, new baby, marriage or move. All are stressors and they can affect your body more than you realize.

First, let’s talk about stress. 

There is a hormone called cortisol that increases at times of stress. We need this hormone as it helps manage and regulate our bodies during those tough times.  The levels usually taper off when things calm down and you are able to reset yourself. However, if you live in a constant state of elevated cortisol — always running from one thing to the next — it can manifest in ways that adversely affect your body.

For instance, chronic stress can cause weight gain with the inability to lose that weight.  It can stress your heart and affect your sleep. All of these things can eventually put you at a raised risk for heart disease and diabetes.

So, what can you do to help get those cortisol levels down?

Slow down.

The one thing we all can do is give ourselves a break

But first, let me clarify something. Self-care isn’t the same as self-indulgence or selfishness. Self-care means recognizing we’re all human and we take life way too fast. All too often, we are our own toughest critics when we can’t achieve personal goals.

We need to slow down and say “it’s OK” that it didn’t get done today. Your to-do list will still be there tomorrow.

Take five minutes to recharge.

Exercising, yoga, mindfulness and deep breathing are all great ways to relax and reduce stress. I understand time is always an issue but trust me, you can steal five minutes from your day to practice these things.

Related: Exercises that can boost your mental health

Get outside.

Talk a walk during your lunch break. There is research stating that nature helps fight off depression and can give your mood and outlook on life a positive boost.

Having a hummingbird feeder can do the same. So can having a green plant close to you if you’re stuck indoors. A research study found that patients who had plants in their hospital rooms had faster recovery times and spent fewer total days in the hospital than patients who didn’t have plants nearby. You can also turn off your radio in the car and notice the trees on your way to work. 

Focus on something (anything) else.

Take your mind off your work for a minute. Count the steps it takes for you to get from your office to the bathroom and just focus on that. It pulls your mind away. 

Related: Why taking a break is good for your mental health

Make time for your friends.

Social interactions are key. We live in a day and age where we are addicted to technology but there is something to be said for enjoying dinner with friends. That “high” you get from seeing friends can last three days from the event, having powerful effects on your mood and mental health.  

These things have helped me learn to slow down and take care of myself, but everyone is different. These practices may not work for you — but take the time to discover something that does. If you feel that you have tried everything and still can’t seem to find yourself, be sure to talk to your doctor. There are medications that can help if needed, but they play a small role. You still have to do your part by practicing self-care and taking care of your body.

Overwhelmed by life’s demands? We can help.

About the Author

Nina Desai, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin North Burnet.

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