Without question, self-care is critical to your overall well being, making you a better person overall when it comes to emotional, mental and physical health. Not only can self-care improve your own life, prioritizing self-care can make you a better person in relation to everyone you know and love.
This article takes a comprehensive look at the importance of self-care. We’ve gathered input from a wide range of experts for this topic, including a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a Certified Life Coach, a board-certified family physician, a neurosurgeon and a Director of Behavioral Sciences, who offer their professional wisdom on the importance of self-care.
These experts address a range of sub-topics, including their definition of self-care, the importance of prioritizing your own needs, specific reasons for implementing self-care, the dangers of not putting yourself first, and how to start implementing it in your life. Several of our experts also offer their own personal stories about life circumstances that forced them to make their own needs a priority, and how self-care changed their own lives.
Definition of “Self-Care”
Laura Rhodes-Levin, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of The Missing Peace-Center for Anxiety, said to think of yourself as a fountain, and “in order for a fountain to give, it must fill up.” Whatever ways you find yourself replenished and abundant in your energy, “these are means of self-care.” Self-care is also about pampering yourself, which means different things to different people, including:
- Going to a spa
- Going on walks
- Listening to music
- Eating in a way that helps you feel whole and healthy
- Simply enjoying doing nothing
“We are human beings – not human doings,” Rhodes-Levin added. “These are just a few and so many ideas of self-care and replenishing.”
Dr. Monica Flora, a board-certified family physician, defines self-care as taking care of one’s self physically, mentally and spiritually.
“I believe that self-care and preventative medicine go hand in hand – if you do not take care of yourself, you run the risk of getting sick,” Dr. Flora said, further adding that self-care “is about enjoying yourself when your life is going well and being kind to yourself when life gets hard.”
Brian Bosshard, a professional Certified Life Coach and owner of 2B Life Coaching, defines self-care as “making a personal commitment to yourself every day” and “to keep the focus on you,” as well as taking care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually, doing the things that you love, taking the time to relax, “and to simply enjoy life.”
Bosshard has helped many people struggling with different aspects of their lives, including mentoring college students preparing for the workforce, and helping those who are starting their own small businesses. One thing many of them share in common “is that they tend to put the focus on others first, and in the process, tend to neglect their own basic needs, including their health and doing things that make them happy.”
According to Dr. Jared D. Ament, a neurosurgeon at the Sierra Neuroscience Institute, self-care is preventative care – meaning doing what we can to live healthfully, living well, and limiting often avoidable problems in the future. Many of the issues Dr. Ament deals with are complex, and are now more than ever related to environmental exposures, aging, and degenerative problems, which he noted become worse while we age, “so the trick is aging well.”
Prioritizing Your Own Needs Is a Major Component of Self-Care
Bosshard likes to use the airline analogy in which the stewardess instructs you to put on your own oxygen mask before putting the mask on someone else that needs help, such as a child or elderly person. That’s because if we try to put the oxygen mask on someone else first, “we could pass out before we are successful, and if that happens, both you and the person you are helping are worse off.” Often in life, most of us tend to forget this, “and think we are doing the right thing by always putting others first, before ourselves.”
When we do this over and over again, we begin to neglect ourselves more and more, and as a result, our own lives tend to suffer, Bosshard warned. “If we are not taking care of ourselves, not only will we be worse off, but eventually we will not be physically or mentally capable of helping others when they need us most, as we need to be healthy and able to help others, and we can only do this by first taking care of our own needs.”
Dr. Flora agreed that we often forget to take time for ourselves, therefore “self-care is important because it prevents burnout, helps us to handle the negative effects of stress better, allows us to be better spouses, parents, children, allows us to refocus – and helps us to maintain a healthy life.”
From a neurosurgical perspective, Dr. Ament said that self-care “is critical” because the way medical professionals are able to manage problems become more complex as we age. For example, “a patient's overall health prior to surgery often predicts their recovery.” Therefore, healthier people usually have shorter hospital stays, shorter rehabilitation needs, and return to work or normal functioning more quickly. Additionally, “surgery can even be avoided in some instances just by being motivated to improve your overall health with basic self-care strategies.”
Whether times are modern or going back to ancient times, we are social beings, which means we need interaction with the world around us in order to thrive, Rhodes-Levin said. When we are only giving and not receiving, our anxiety tends to build up, and so does exhaustion and depression, and “this causes us to separate from the world around us in an effort to preserve our sense of self.”
As someone who likes to be on the go, Geny Zapata, the Director of Behavioral Sciences at the Adventist Health White Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program, said it took “practice to understand that in order to take care of others I need to take care of myself.”
“Self-care, though, is often much easier to say than do,” Zapata said. “My definition of self-care consists on making desired efforts to take care of my spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health…when you focus on taking a positive approach to self-care to improve your quality of life and different aspects of your life…you are more motivated to continue the practice of self-care. As long as we continue to try our best to take care of ourselves, we can make the practice become a naturally occurring healthy behavioral change.”
Primary Reasons for Self-Care
According to Dr. Ament, self-care allows for the following:
- Improved quality of life now
- Improved quality of life later
- Improved productivity, which can lead to better financial independence
As a physician, Dr. Flora sees many patients who come in feeling tired and fatigued, thinking that there is something wrong with them, or they must have some disease. “But more often than not, these patients feel that way because they are stressed – burned out. When people feel that way, it can lead to unhealthy habits that can lead to depression and/or poor health.”
The main reasons for self-care are so that you can live a healthy, active, fun and enjoyable lifestyle, as well as be there to help others to do the same, Bosshard said. Additionally, it is important to take care of yourself by eating well, so you can mitigate the risks of having health and diet-related issues as you age. “It is also important to stay active – if you don't you…could suffer from medical-related issues in the future, as well as not being able to do many things that you may want to do.”
It is also important to have fun and enjoy life, Bosshard further emphasized, adding that many of us “tend to get caught up” in our day-to-day routines of work, school, raising kids, taking care of the house, and other factors.
“But day after day, year after year, this can have a tendency to get monotonous, and draining, and can eventually lead to burn out and depression,” Bosshard said. Thus, “it is important for us to take a break from our day-to-day routines, and relax, and do fun things, and try to get more fun out of life. This is great for the mind, body, and spirit.”
Zapata said some of the main reasons for self-care include the following:
Self-care can help reduce the negative effects that can occur with stress. An overwhelming amount of stress can take a toll on any individual. When there is time taken for self-care you can help reduce the effect it has on your mood (e.g. worry, nervousness, sadness, irritability) and functioning. Addressing the impact of stress through self-care can help improve your level of energy and give you an opportunity to be able to work at your full capacity.
Focus on self-care can help prevent you from burnout. Burnout is understood to be a point where an individual reaches mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, an experience where a person has been exposed to stress for a long time that they may feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and unmotivated.
Exercising self-care is a way of exercising self-compassion. Self-compassion is a way of practicing love for yourself, with an opportunity to take care of yourself by making efforts to practice behaviors that can help you to refocus, perform better and cope more effectively with different stressors, as well as enhance your motivation and self-esteem.
The Importance of Self-Care in Today’s Times
Self-care is especially important in today’s fast-paced environment, Zapata emphasized. Whatever your environment is, whether it’s your home where you are a caretaker with many responsibilities, or work, or school, “our mind is constantly focused on thinking and doing.”
When we are busy during our day, we can easily forget to take care of our own needs. For example, think about a day at work, school, or home, where you were so busy taking care of tasks that you were so stressed, you decided to reschedule going out with friends, or you didn’t have your lunch at an appropriate time – or at all.
“It is easy for us to think of self-care as something that we could take care of or address later,” Zapata said. However, before we know it, “the later we were intending does not happen because we may sometimes feel that taking a moment to ourselves, pausing, doing something to take care of ourselves, might not be productive and may take away from the things that we could be completing.”
In terms of overall well-being, taking the time to focus on self-care has been demonstrated to increase the ability and motivation to complete tasks and responsibilities more effectively and with more energy. “The understanding is that your mind and body have had an opportunity to reenergize and then allows you to return to your tasks more focused, motivated, and with more energy,” Zapata said.
Benefits of Self-Care
The benefits of self-care, according to Dr. Ament, include the following:
- Improved health
- Improved longevity related to work or other activities
- Improved sexual function
- Improved psychological well being
The primary benefits of self-care are that we feel better both physically and mentally, Bosshard said, adding that we feel better physically when we are engaging in exercising regularly, which translates to being better able to do more things, such as going on a hike, going on a bike ride, or doing a walking tour of a new city.
Another great benefit to self-care, he added, “is that it increases the probability that we will live a longer and healthier life, and thus be able to spend more time with family and friends, and be around and physically able to help others when they need our help.”
Rhodes-Levin said one of the primary benefits of self-care “is that you can actually feel your life.”
Most of us are in such a rush, she said; for instance, while we’re in the shower, we’re thinking about work; while we’re at work, we’re thinking about what to make for dinner; when we’re making dinner, we’re thinking about what we need to do tomorrow. “Until we stop and slow down and fill up it’s very hard to interact with the moment you're experiencing.”
Zapata added that self-care can prevent, address or reduce symptoms related to anxiety and depression, noting that research on the subject has demonstrated “great benefits” of implementing behavior change by prioritizing self-care to help the function of your immune system due to rest, relaxation, and an active effort to pay attention to health needs.
How Self-Care Associates with Physical Well Being
Offering an analogy, Dr. Flora said a car cannot take you to your destination when the gas tank is empty. You have to fill your tank if you want to go anywhere, and a full tank will take you further than a tank that is half full or empty.
“The more time you invest in your health and mental wellbeing, the better you will be able to handle the things that are necessary for your life,” Dr. Flora said. She noted that we all have different priorities in life, and the ones that stand out to her the most are physical and mental health and personal relationships. “So if we look at our health – that includes our physical and mental well-being,” For our physical well being, this includes:
- Getting enough sleep
- Drinking enough water
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding alcohol, smoking, and drugs
“We need to also be mindful of our bodies telling us to slow down or rest,” Dr. Flora advised. “We need to learn how to decompress, not only at the end of the day but during the day. Take a minute out of your busy schedule to breathe or even take a walk during your break. By listening to our bodies, we can live healthier and happier lifestyles.”
This also ties into relationships, Dr. Flora added. “We can only be there for others when we are performing at our best. We can learn compassion and understanding of those around us.”
Self-Care Can Help You Thrive Rather Than Just Survive
The main reason for self-care is to thrive rather than just survive, Rhodes-Levin emphasized. As a personal example, she said, “I want to feel that my life is full and joyous. Just getting by is not acceptable as a way of living a meaningful life.” In other helpful advice, she provided the following insights:
Model healthy living for the world around you: For instance, if you are a parent and you practice self-care, your children will learn to do the same. If you are an employer and practice self-care, your employees, in turn, will practice self-care and have more energy and insight to offer when they are in the workspace.
Your health is a good reason for self-care: The prosperity of our mind, body and spirit contributes to the amount of disease you draw into your life. Think about that word disease: if you break it down, it is “dis-ease”. Self-care puts you at ease.
Don’t we all deserve to take care of ourselves? Sometimes we don’t think so because we weren’t taken good care of emotionally or physically as children, so we come to believe that we don’t deserve self-care. But this is an even bigger reason for self-care if you were neglected as a child. Take care of yourself as an adult.
The Potential Dangers of Not Prioritizing Self-Care
According to Bosshard, the dangers of not exercising self-care are many, including the following:
- Health issues related to diet, such as diabetes
- Heart disease
- Constant fatigue
“Also, if we don't take care of ourselves, we cannot assume that others will automatically be there to do it for us, as that is not always the case,” Bosshard said.
Rhodes-Levin added that other possible dangers include stroke, shingles, OCD, or adrenal burnout. “But the worst danger for not prioritizing self-care is that you deprive yourself the ultimate happiness of the life that you deserve.”
Why It’s Never Too Late to Start
If you’re wondering how early to begin implementing changes for overall self-care, “the answer is now,” Dr. Ament said. “It’s never too late and the changes can have a significant impact on more than your health, but also include your happiness, your relationships, your finances.”
According to Dr. Flora, self-care should start from day one. “We are born with the innate ability to care for ourselves, but somewhere along the way, we stop practicing it. I feel like self-compassion and self-care should be reinforced by parents, as well as in schools.”
She agreed that it is never too late to start, and her advice is to start on self-compassion because once we learn to love ourselves and forgive ourselves, we can start to care for ourselves.
“One thing to do is to start with journaling each night before bed,” Dr. Flora advised. “Some examples of questions I feel are important are: What do I need right now? What healthy thing can I do to support myself when I am stressed? What are my greatest qualities? What went wrong today and how can I learn from that incident?”
Regardless of your age or situation, “it is never too late to start exercising self-care,” Bosshard said. He added the statement, “Rome wasn't built in a day,” which essentially means: “Good things take time and do not happen all at once.”
“My advice is to start out by introducing one small change at a time, and stick with it until it becomes routine,” he said. “You will be amazed that after you start making small changes in your life, and make them routine/habit, over time you can build on those wins, and eventually get to where you want to be, in terms of living a more healthy and fun lifestyle.”
Zapata agreed it is never too early or too late to begin implementing changes for overall self-care, and the key is to make a decision to start and begin to practice.
“It is important for us to remember that some of the changes that we make for ourselves will take practice to get used to,” Zapata said. “The beauty of it is that…any practice, as long as it is healthy and positive, is good practice that can lead to positive changes in our functioning.”
Tips for Those Getting Started with Self-Care
For people just beginning their personal journey with self-care, Dr. Ament offered the following tips:
Start small but prioritize those small things
Organize your day so you can make 10 to 20 minutes about you and your self-care; it can be simple things like taking a walk or joining a class
Don’t do it alone – recruit friends or family members on your journey
It may seem like a daunting task, but just a few simple changes in your daily routine can jump start your way to better you, said Dr. Flora, who offered the following tips:
Meditate or practice breathing exercises. The meditation can be done as soon as you wake up or before you go to bed.
If you’re stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic on your long commute, practice your deep breathing.
If you feel overwhelmed, pause and take a break to regain yourself before continuing on with your day.
“The easiest, but also the hardest thing I find to do, is to stop being a ‘yes’ person and learn to say ‘no’,” Dr. Flora added. As a doctor, “I have that healer personality and want to help and fix everyone and everything in my sight. So for me, I am still in the processes of looking at my schedule and learning to say ‘no’ when I just absolutely cannot do it.”
For people feeling overwhelmed, or thinking that they can't do it, or they are too old, or there is no point – “start out small,” said Bosshard, who offered the following tips:
Start with something as simple as blocking out 15 minutes every day to relax and meditate.
Make a small, healthy change in your diet, such as not eating sugar one day a week.
Make a habit of walking for at least 15 minutes three days a week.
“It is okay to start slow, just as long as you don't stop, and you continue to move forward,” Bosshard further emphasized, adding that it is all about progress, and not perfection. “You don't have to, and should not try to make too many drastic changes at once. Slowly change your daily/weekly routine, and over time, you can build on it by making additional positive changes, and those will eventually become a habit, as it takes about 21 days to create a new habit.”
Zapata said it’s helpful to make a list of small attainable goals that you can practice in order to have the greatest opportunity to reaching your ultimate goal. When beginning, “start by defining what self-care means to you.”
Once you have defined this, begin to actively think and plan activities related to your definition of self-care. For example, if you want to address mental health, think of an activity that has helped to make you feel more calm, relaxed, and content, such as going to church, going for a walk, reading a book, meeting a friend, going out for tea or visiting a museum.
It’s also important to pay attention to the experience of what you do, Zapata added. This can be determined by asking yourself: Why am I doing what I do? Does it bring me joy? How does it make me feel? Is this something that I would like to continue, and can I realistically continue to do it?
Real-Life Stories of Self-Care
“I Was Becoming Stressed, Anxious, and Burnt Out on Life”
Bosshard has worked in the corporate world for the past 25 years, for multiple Fortune 50 companies, while earning his Bachelor’s, Master's (MBA) Degrees, and many other industry certifications and credentials. He accomplished all of this while being married and continuing to raise four very young children, including two boys, ages 4 and 8, and two girls, ages 2 and 5.
Bosshard discovered that even though he is being smart, driven and a Type-A Personality, “over the years of the long hours and hard work, I discovered that I was just going through the motions and checking the boxes – and was not happy.”
Bosshard was doing what he thought he needed to do in order to pay the bills and provide a good life for his family. However, he discovered his lifestyle was causing him to have very few friends, and “I was becoming stressed, anxious, and burnt out on life.”
He knew that he was highly educated and had a very diverse background with many areas of expertise, “but something was missing. Luckily, he said through a lot of research and soul searching “I found the solution for me. I found the perfect job where I could fulfill my desire to help others, while still utilizing my education and skill set that I had obtained over the years. This is ultimately what led to my life coaching.”
“Burnout Was Real”
When Dr. Flora started residency, “I wanted to learn everything I needed to know about family medicine.” She joined every possible committee she could, and started to prepare for boards way before it was necessary to – “I mean, it was three years down the line.”
When she started her second year of residency, she developed a passion for teaching and wanted to better herself as a senior resident. “I was looking around and found a Masters program that basically taught me to learn how to teach and learn how others learn.” She eventually “bit off more than I could chew,” and realized very quickly “that burnout was real and can occur and any stage of your career.”
Her life changed when she had a course in her Master’s program where she was assigned the topic of self-compassion and needed to build a workshop out of it. That’s when she discovered self-compassion is actually the foundation of self-care.
“I started to practice acts of self-compassion and realized that I needed to not only focus of my career and being successful, but I needed to focus on myself and my wellbeing in order to be the best physician I could be,” Dr. Flora said. “I started to reflect nightly on my day and focus on the positives and the blessings I have in my life. I also started to treat myself. If I have a bad day, I go to get a manicure and pedicure. The little things you do for yourself add up and you start to feel good about yourself.”
“I Had a Heart Attack at the Ripe Old Age of 37”
Rhodes-Levin said her self-care should have begun when “I had a heart attack at the ripe old age of 37.”
Unfortunately, it did not, as she merely “saw it as a weakness.” She had no idea that her heart was attacking her brain and telling her to love herself. “At the time, my way of coping was to drink, smoke or take a pill.”
A couple of years later, she got sober and started the process of loving herself through Alcoholics Anonymous. “This doesn't have to be your path but it was my mine. What I realize is that my drinking was not about escape, it was about my desperate attempt to be in the moment.”
Through the process of learning how to be in the moment and dealing with her anxiety in a different way that was healthier for her soul, body, and mind, “I discovered what real self-care is. I am now blessed to have a center where I help people to take care of themselves and be in the moment.”
My Younger Brother Passed Away
One of the most impacting experiences in Zapata’s life was when her younger brother passed away. During her journey of making sense of what had happened, and dealing with all the difficult emotions that can accompany the grieving and bereavement process, “I recognized that in our most vulnerable times, it became very easy to forget about ourselves.”
Through the healing process, she learned that life did not stop, responsibilities were there, “and at that time I felt like I was working to catch up with myself and life.”
Self-care came in the way of literally recalling the things that made her and her family smile before the tragic event happened. “We then slowly worked on bringing ourselves to practice those things one at a time, even when we did not feel like it.”
This experience highlighted the important fact that attention to self-care and self-compassion “is crucial for our overall functioning, and even in our hardest times, we have the opportunity to return to the practice of self-care one step at a time.”
The Bottom Line
You cannot give to others when you are running on empty, Dr. Flora noted, so “make sure you take time to fill yourself up with love and appreciation.”
When Bosshard started his life coaching business, he created the tagline: Become who you want 2B. He believes that, similar to the old analogy of you are what you eat, “if you want something that others have, then you have to do what others do.”
In other words, “things won't just automatically happen for you; you need to work at it, and there is no time like the present,” Bosshard said. “So, when it comes to exercising self-care, not only should you do it, but you should start today. Stop making excuses…you have the power to take care of yourself and live a longer, healthier, and happier life.”
Rhodes-Levin added: “What would be wrong with taking care of yourself? What could come of it except for fulfillment, health and joy? It is the process of the give and take of life. You give to yourself, feel filled up and it naturally goes out to help others.”
With anything that we do in life that requires change, it will be important to remind ourselves that it will take time to practice our new behavior, our new interest, our new mindset, Zapata said.
“Patience with ourselves is a form of self-compassion that we can exercise to support ourselves in the journey,” said Zapata, adding that each individual’s process of implementing something new will be different, “and that is absolutely fine.”
There is no one to compete with or compare yourself to, she further emphasized. “The main thing is to maintain focus on the healthy reason why you are choosing to make changes, be patient with yourself, and find joy in the process.”
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