After a nearly one month hiatus, Ms. Vagina Science is back! But not to discuss vaginas. Instead, I want to address an issue which is near and dear to me as of late, and of which I think everyone should make a priority – Radical Self Care.
I say radical because I don’t see many messages in our culture that tell us it’s acceptable to take care of our emotional selves. Instead we’re discouraged from self care by words like “selfish,” “lazy,” or “self indulgent;” we’re told self care is a “treat.” Most of us are of the belief that making time for ourselves to do things we love, to relax, or to just be alone are things we do under special circumstances, like on a vacation or if we’re home sick from work, instead of as an extremely vital part of our daily lives. I think it’s fair to say most of us have been told to “take care of” ourselves a whole lot during our lives. Eat “right,” work out, do some yoga, read a self help book on stress reduction. I’m also fairly sure a lot of us don’t have the slightest idea why we should or how we should “take care of” ourselves. The concept comes off as flimsy, don’t you think? It remains this elusive, far away idea that we’ll get around to eventually. When such an important concept is represented in such a vague way, without a framework for understanding it’s importance or how to successfully integrate it into your life, it simply does not happen. Ever. Someday you’ll have enough money to take a trip, someday you’ll have enough time to meditate. I’m going to reveal a real big secret about “someday” – It never comes. There will always be an excuse to ignore your needs and put off being good to yourself. Something will always be more pressing. This is how Life works. Stress will sneak up, attack, and, if you allow it to, adversely effect your life.
The science part
First, I want to make something clear – this is not an article where I try to convince you to eat vegetables and work out more. You should probably do both of those things, but you already knew that. When I speak of self care, I mean being nice to yourself. That’s it. Creating space and time to be “selfish.” It doesn’t cost anything, but it will take some time out of your day. That may or may not make you feel like you have yet another thing to fit into your schedule, but hear me out.
When you feel stressed, your body functions differently than if you weren’t feeling stressed. There’s this cool thing your body does called “fight or flight.” It’s a response to stress, real or perceived, and it alters the way your body functions. It kicks your system into high gear, setting off alarms that tell you to fight the source of stress or run far from it. You get flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones which elevate your heart rate, blood pressure, and brain function. It was super handy back when we were living outside and hunting buffalo or elk or what have you. We don’t really do things like that anymore, but our bodies still function in the same way. Instead of a buffalo it’s a deadline at work, instead of an elk it’s a fight with your partner. The thing is, when you constantly live with stress, your body constantly believes you’re being threatened and keeps adrenaline and cortisol flowing. The problem with this is that Fight or Flight prioritizes body functions. When facing a threat, you need all your energy in your heart, lungs, brain, and limbs. Fight or Flight goes ahead and suppresses body systems that aren’t “vital,” such as the digestive, reproductive, and the immune system. Literally, when you’re stressed, your immune system is suppressed, and that’s where things get tricky for us.
In an article called, “How the Mind Hurts and Heals the Body,” author Oakley Ray touches on a study (Cohen et al., 1991) measuring the relationship between illness and stress:
“…as the stress level measure increased from high to low, the percentage of participants with replicating viruses (infection) increased…the percentage of of participants with cold symptoms also increased from 27% to 47%…those participants with stressful life events greater than the median were more likely to develop illness.”
Additionally, a lack of self care can have a dramatic effect on your personal relationships. In an article called “Self Care and Relationship Conflict,” author Meg Barker says,
“Another thing that we may gain from a commitment to regular self-care in the manner suggested is an awareness of what we are bringing to a situation… Psychologists of aggression propose that circumstances escalate because each person is interpreting the behavior of the other and responding to their interpretation rather than the behavior itself…paradoxically, it is in turning our attention on ourselves that can lead us to a more ethical way of being with others”
From here it’s easy to extrapolate the rippling effect stress and a lack of self care can have on your life. Physical and emotional stress can (and will) effect your physical and emotional health, your job, your ability to provide for yourself and your family, your relationships, and the quality of your life. Far from being a new age concept, self care is just as vital as earning a pay check, finishing your homework, getting your car fixed, or doing your taxes, if not even more important.
Identifying emotional stress – Warning signs
I think the first step in understanding how to be good to yourself is becoming aware of how your stress may be manifesting. Not all of us are present or introspective enough to identify when emotional stress is taking over. Here’s a few things that may happen that could indicate it’s time to take a time out:
- You’re getting sick all the time
- You can’t sleep at night
- You have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning (or a harder time, if you’re like me)
- Feeling “touchy” or “thin-skinned”
- You’re getting headaches all the time
- You’re having chronic back pain
- You have a change in your appetite, either a lack of or increase
- You find yourself arguing more with your partner
- You’re having gastrointestinal issues (ew)
- You’re overall more emotional than usual
How to make space for yourself
I’ve thought long and hard for several years about the “how” in this whole Self Care concept. I’ve spent two years in therapy, read countless book and studies, talked with professionals, and even took a whole class in self care recently. After all this information gathering I’ve come to one simple conclusion about how to make time for yourself – You have to decide to do it. That’s it. You have to choose it. It will not come to you, it will not be given to you. You, and only you, can create space for it by making it a priority. Maybe that means literally scheduling it into your day planner, eliminating stressful relationships or connections, or just by telling the people in your life that you need it. Either way, you must choose it.
One thing you can start doing right now is keeping a journal. And no, not a blog. I mean a private paper journal. Just keep it next to your bed and before you roll out of bed in the morning, write in it. Even if you feel like you have nothing to write about. This swell author named Julia Cameron came up with “Morning Pages,” which is simply journaling every morning.
“I compare Morning Pages to be my morning shower. While I’m not visually dirty in the morning, I feel refreshed and ready for my day after taking a shower. Your shower takes care of your body. Morning pages is a shower for your heart, mind, and soul.”
Say with me now, “NO.” “NO, I will not do you a favor. NO, I will not go out tonight, I’m tired. NO, I won’t take on that extra project.” Remember, you can always say yes later and if the people in your life love and respect you, they will understand. Anyone who would rather you be overburdened than hear “No” is not someone you need in your life, anyway. Embrace being the party pooper and trust your gut when you’re feeling overextended.
Take care of your basic needs
What would you say to a friend who told you he or she was too busy to eat, sleep, hydrate, or go to the bathroom? You would probably tell them that there is nothing so pressing that basic needs like food, rest, water, and taking a comfortable crap should be ignored. So, why is it okay for you? Are you above being human? What are you doing that’s so important that you literally cannot eat? Nothing short of a disaster is worth ignoring the most basic of bodily needs.
I know, I know. We’ve all been heard a lot of lip service about meditation but damn it, it works. Take a class if you want, but you don’t have to. Put on some relaxing music, listen to a guided mediation on YouTube, and just sit comfortably alone with your eyes closed for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s low-cost, easy, and makes a big difference. You don’t have to be “good” at it, you just have to try.
Personally, I don’t like being alone too much. I’m a pretty extreme extrovert. However, even the most social animals need alone time. Being alone, just sitting in your room or in a cafe alone can provide room for self refection and introspection. You’ll be surprised what comes up for you- issues you haven’t dealt with, areas in your life that need attention, or feelings you didn’t even know you had. As Meg Barker puts it in “Self Care and Relationship Conflicts,”
“Self-care is not just about making sure that we get enough sleep and food and that we are not under too much pressure. I believe that an important part of self-care is allowing ourselves some time alone.”
The great thing about art is that it’s subjective. Personally, I paint. My paintings are totally ugly, but that’s not the point. The point is moving a brush across canvas in a messy, emotional way. You can paint, write, knit, play music, sing, dance. It doesn’t have to be “good” and it doesn’t have to be observed by anyone else. It just has to engage your mind, body, and spirit.
Respect your voice
It’s not easy to decide that what you think and how you feel are important enough to express to other people, but I believe they are. With honesty always comes the risk that we may piss someone off or be the bad guy, I know. However, telling people how you really feel can be downright cathartic. Additionally, part of respecting your voice is not apologizing for taking care of yourself. Don’t say you’re sorry for taking a day off work if you’re sick. Don’t apologize for saying no to someone who needs attention you simply cannot give. You don’t need to apologize for taking care of yourself, and what’s more, when you do apologize you subtly reinforce the idea that self care is wrong.
Now I’d love to hear from you- how you create time for yourself? Do you have a ritual? How do you manifest emotional stress? What can you ad to my list?
Next week we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled vaginal dialogue, so please send all your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org