To close out this month's series on self care Top Ten lists, I have researched and assembled a list of the Top Ten Habits for Self Care. These are daily activities that are essential for not only surviving, but thriving. They go beyond the basics of what we need to live and touch on what we need to live well. Take a look at the list below and let me know what you think in the comments!
Positive psychology is a field that developed in response to the mental health professionals' unfortunate historical use of the negative "disease model." Instead of focusing on pathology, positive psychology pays close attention to what is going well for people, examining what is necessary to live a happy and rewarding life. Positive psychologists researched and identified a mental state that is common among happy and successful people, in which they experience intense focus on a certain task, leading to sense of control and agency. During experiences like this, people lose track of time, lose any sense of self-consciousness, and feel that they become one with the task on which they are working. They named this state "flow," and urge people to find ways to experience it daily by engaging in meaningful activities about which they feel curiosity, engagement, and reward.
The importance of sleep is not a mystery, and hopefully it isn't surprising to anyone that it appears on this Top Ten list; sleep significantly influences our physical and emotional health. We have all heard that the average adult needs about 8 hours of sleep per night. Some of us actually function best on a bit less than this, and some of us need more. A good way to determine how much sleep your body needs is by going a week or so without setting an alarm clock. Pay attention to how many hours pass before your body wakes you up naturally, and try to make sure you always get this amount of sleep each night. Other tips for healthy, high quality sleep include: stopping use of technology 30 mins before bed, engaging in physical activity throughout the day, and avoiding heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime.
What sorts of things help you feel care-free and calm? Do those things every day. An old Zen proverb says, "you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes each day, unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour." Meditation may not be the way in which we all choose to relax, but the message that relaxation is most necessary when we feel we don't have time for it, is true. Each day, especially on busy days, we need to prioritize down time, and make time to recharge our batteries by engaging in a low key activity we enjoy. Without moments of peace and calm, we exhaust ourselves and burn out. When it comes to health and productivity, relaxation is just as important as effort and hard work.
Laughter has positive influences on physical and emotional health, both in the short term and the long term. This article from Mayo Clinic suggests laughter may help to immediately sooth the stress response, providing us with both emotional and physical relaxation. Over time, laughter also contributes to immune system health, pain relief, personal satisfaction, and mood. Find a way to include humor in your daily life. For me this looks like watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or Bob's Burgers, chatting with friends and family who I find hilarious, looking at photographs of animals doing crazy things, or reading over old journals of mine from childhood. What makes you laugh?
We need water to survive. It is absolutely essential and necessary for self care. But even if we are technically drinking enough water to continue living, we might not be drinking enough to really be thriving, or reaping the full benefits of excellent hydration. We should all be drinking about 6-8 glasses of water each day in order to be functioning at our full potential. Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can alter mood, not to mention numerous physical symptoms including headache, exhaustion, and dizziness. Consider getting a water bottle to carry around, or invest in some La Croix (all natural, flavored, sparkling water) to try to bump up your water intake.
Mind/body separation is a myth (more on this next month!) In order to feel well emotionally we truly do need to eat well physically. Eating well does not mean starving or eating tasteless "health foods." Eating well means eating enough and eating things we truly like. Most of what we eat should be natural and healthy; but sometimes nourishment looks like eating a big bowl of ice cream, if that's what we want. It's all about moderation. Providing ourselves with nourishment means listening to our bodies and loving ourselves enough to give ourselves what we need.
Movement doesn't have to look like a "workout." It can be a walk around the block, a good stretching session in the morning, candlelight yoga, walking around your office while on a phone call, or dancing to your favorite song. Being intentional about moving your body can be extremely helpful in adjusting mindset. Whether you are winding up for your day, preparing for a difficult conversation, trying to rid yourself from stress or negativity, or simply attempting to stimulate creativity when feeling stuck, initiating a period of movement is a good way to transition out of one frame of mind and into another.
Pausing means taking breaks in the middle of doing work*. It's different from relaxing, in that pauses generally take place in relatively short periods of time, whereas activities you engage in to relax would ideally last longer. Oftentimes, people struggle with guilt and stress around taking breaks, worrying that they aren't using their time well, but recent research has shown that taking frequent breaks actually helps increase productivity. One study suggests that the ideal work/break schedule would consist of 52 minutes of work followed by a 17 minute break before getting back to work.
*I'm defining work as an activity that is necessary, but not all that engaging, making it different from "flow," which I described above. Pauses would defeat the purpose of flow, but should be relied on to help boost health and productively when engaging in work.
Connecting with the breath is helpful for self care in many different ways. Breathing exercises are used to manage anxiety, treat panic, and to aid in calming and centering the mind, leading to increased focus. On a daily basis, we might need help in one or all of these areas. I've listed some breathing techniques below that clients in my clinical practice have found to be helpful:
- Imagine you are holding a cup of hot cocoa close to your face. Take a deep breath in through your nose, as if you are smelling the chocolately drink. Then, purse your lips, and breathe out through your mouth in a controlled and steady exhale, as if you are trying to cool the drink down. Repeat this several times to calm yourself when experiencing anxiety.
- Place your hand on your belly, and inhale deeply, noticing your stomach expand as you breath in. Exhale through your mouth, making a "whoosing" sound as the air leaves your body. Repeat several times when feeling panicky in order to keep you from hyperventilating.
- Engage in mindfulness meditation by sitting in a comfortable position and closing your eyes. Focus on your breath. Pay attention to how it feels as you inhale, the temperature of the air entering your lungs, then as you exhale notice the feeling of your breath on your upper lip. Try to notice all your can about your breath. Be aware and present to pay mindful attention. When you mind wanders, which it will, try not to become frustrated or involve yourself too much with whatever thought has come up. Simply acknowledge the thought and redirect your attention back to your breath. Engaging in mindfulness meditation is a daily practice that lots of people around the world find incredibly rewarding and centering. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
Work your new self care habits into a daily routine and stick to it. Try to do each of the things on this list every day. Of course sometimes things come up and we need to prioritize certain self care activities over others, but the most important thing is to continue checking in with yourself about what your needs are and how you're going to meet those needs for yourself. Good luck! Please let me know how you're doing in the comments below.