Many of us in health care tend to have qualities that brought us to our professions, which hinder our self-care. We tend to be self-sufficient to a fault, at times lacking the humility to acknowledge or accept we need help. We may also think we are invisible and that we can endure all suffering we witness or experience without any need to process what we experienced emotionally. Additionally, we have been led to believe in an unhealthy manner that we can do it all with little or no rest.
However, the results of these qualities that are imposed or perpetuate lead to chronic stress and burnout. Instead of facing our pain, fatigue, and loneliness, we pursue activities to distract us from our emotions. We may overeat, compulsively shop or numb our emotions with drugs or alcohol.
To take a moment for your own self-care, these are some easy things you can do to stop the stress cascade and prioritize yourself.
1. Learn to say no. This is a challenge for those who think “I am superhuman” or are people-pleasers. Saying no to something means saying yes to something else, which is usually your self-care or sanity. Learning boundaries is crucial in self-care.
2. Check in with yourself. I recently heard a great acronym by psychotherapist Elaine Smookler describing “HALT.” Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? These are easy ways to check in and see what you may need more of: food, awareness of what is causing your anger, connection, or rest. Usually, when you have awareness and address something you are scarce on, your outlook on the day will improve.
3. Have awareness. Be aware of your internal state. It is like above but start to focus on your thoughts as well. What are you thinking and why? How is that helpful? Can you think of it in a different way? Sometimes we get focused on a certain thought that causes us suffering, and there is another way to look at it. Sometimes even thinking the opposite thought can help unlock the grip that thought can have on us and our suffering. Try it.
4. When in doubt: breathe. Yes, it sounds simple and underrated, but consciously breathing will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve. This will stop the chronic stress cascade and counteract cortisol from being released. Who knew you had the power to change how you feel with something so simple and free? When in doubt about how to do this, take three deep breaths. Try it now.
5. Write things down or draw them. Writing can be very healing because by putting thoughts on paper, you become an “observer” of the thoughts, and you can release the emotional charge they may have on you. You can also draw instead of write. Try drawing your biggest problem and then the solution to your biggest problem on the other page. You don’t have to be a world-famous artist, even stick figures will be OK. It will allow you to visualize your problem in either words or pictures in a different way and can be very healing.
6. Practice daily gratitude. You can do this verbally throughout your day and even ask yourself, “What went well today”? Better yet, write it down. Have a gratitude journal and write on it daily. Some people prefer at night as this can help calm the mind before they sleep. Practicing gratitude causes a release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Those are our happy hormones that are decreased in anxiety and depression. It is easy, quick and the effects can be seen in as little as eight weeks.
7. Move. Yes, move. Move 30 minutes a day. We prescribe movement to our patients but never do, even though it has important neurophysiological benefits. It can counteract endorphins from the previous 12 hours and even until the next day. Linking breath with activities like yoga, tai chi also has benefits too — because breathing and moving are forms of meditation (meaning you put your senses and mind into an activity), and that takes your attention away from past that you cannot change or the future which you are likely catastrophizing about and has not occurred.
8. Sleep. You need at least 7 to 8 hours, and human growth hormone, which repairs our cells, is secreted mostly during sleep — about 75 percent of it. There is also a peak released during sleep from 10 pm to midnight, so it is essential to sleep at that time and not miss out on the benefits.
9. Use imagery. Imagery is a powerful way to start the release of hormones that can be soothing, calming, and make you feel happy. Close your eyes and think of a place imagined or real that makes you feel safe and calm. It can be your room as a child, a place you vacationed in, or anything that makes you feel calm and safe. Imagine all the details of the scene, including sounds, scents, or temperature. The more you imagine it, the more it will be helpful. Go to this place anytime you need to feel calm or safe.
10. Have a mantra that helps you. Think of the three most difficult things you have done in your life. When you achieved them, what did you feel? Did you feel courageous or confident? Think of those feelings and change it to “I am courageous. I am confident.” Repeat ad nauseam to help you in times you need to have your own back.
11. Practice self-compassion. That means recognizing and accepting our shared humanity and treating yourself with love and kindness. Realize you are human and release the harsh self-judgment.
Go ahead and try them and see how you feel. You won’t regret taking care of yourself. If doubt creeps, think to yourself, “I deserve to take care of myself like I do my patients.” Now go and take care of yourself.
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