What do you think of when you hear the words “self-care?”
Most people think of long bubble baths, listening to music, or spending time with loved ones. And while those things are certainly activities that “count” as self-care, the topic itself runs much deeper.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at what the science says about self-care, including the role it plays in our day-to-day health, research-based strategies for regulating the brain-body connection, and how to incorporate good self-care habits into your daily routine.
If you search the internet for the definition of self-care, you may be overwhelmed with all the different answers that pop up. For us here at The Lily-Jo Project, we think the following two definitions explain it the best.
- The practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own physical and mental health.
- The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.
In essence, self-care is proactively caring for your physical and mental well-being. In turn, this can help to reduce stress and prevent certain health concerns from reaching a crisis point.
Because we all have different backgrounds and health needs, the specific actions we take to protect our well-being will be unique for everyone. However, once you have an understanding of the basic principles of self-care, you’ll have all the tools you need to create a self-care strategy that works for you.
Stress and Self-Care: How They’re Intertwined
When it comes to the science of self-care, the best place to start is stress.
According to the World Health Organization, stress is defined as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.”
Biologically, stress impacts the following systems throughout the body:
This can then lead to a number of unwanted physical and emotional symptoms, which can worsen in cases of severe and/or prolonged stress.
For example, some individuals may have trouble sleeping when stressed. Others might have difficulty focusing or remembering things. Some may find that they have a shorter fuse than normal and become easily irritated, while others may experience changes to their appetite – see the American Psychological Association’s article on how stress affects the body for a more comprehensive list of symptoms.
While you cannot eliminate stress from your life completely, you do have the power to reduce its impact on your body.
How? By prioritizing self-care.
Research-Backed Strategies for Reducing the Impact of Stress
Regulating the brain-body connection
When we perceive a threat, our nervous system springs into action. This is the system that is responsible for sending and receiving messages between the brain and the body.
At first, the nervous system prepares the body to deal with a stressor by releasing adrenaline and cortisol. The rush of these hormones causes muscle tension, increased heart rate, and slowing of the metabolism – essentially helping us stay “on alert” so that we can deal with the stressors we are facing. Once the stressor or threat has passed, the body then calms itself down by halting the release of further stress hormones.
However, when we are chronically stressed, the body is not able to recover or calm down. Instead, it is in a perpetual state of being stressed out – and this can lead to a number of long-term physical and mental health problems.
To help, here are a few research-backed techniques that promote a sense of calm and realign the connection between the brain and the body.
Breathing exercises can help to calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure, and lower heart rate. In fact, one research study found that deep breathing was effective at improving mood and reducing stress.
Mindfulness is another technique that can help regulate the nervous system. Mindfulness is an exercise where you actively focus on the present moment. This involves paying attention to all of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that you are currently experiencing.
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. It can be as simple as taking 5 minutes in the morning to fully focus on and enjoy a cup of tea. Meditation, yoga, and tai-chi are other forms of mindfulness techniques to try.
Here is a 5-minute mindfulness exercise with Lily-Jo that may also be helpful!
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a type of deep relaxation technique involving the tightening and release of one muscle group at a time. Research shows that this type of exercise can help to alleviate stress and induce psychological and physical relaxation states.
To try this technique at home, we recommend reading through this step-by-step guide for progressive muscle relaxation.
Lowering cortisol levels
Certain habits and activities are clinically proven to lower cortisol levels, which can help to ease symptoms of stress. Here are a few key examples to bear in mind.
On average, adults need around 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. The best way to ensure that you get enough sleep is to establish a bedtime routine, avoid tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine at least six hours before bedtime, and make sure your bedroom is a cool, calm, and quiet place to rest.
For more tips and advice, check out the sleep and insomnia guidance from the NHS.
Exercise is another strategy that can help lower cortisol levels. In fact, research suggests that regular exercise can help promote emotional resilience during times of stress. Even a simple walk around the park can do wonders for your mental and physical well-being.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, maintaining a healthy diet and being mindful of what we are eating can help to control stress levels. One strategy that can help is by planning your meals ahead of time on a weekly (or even monthly) basis. The Meal Planner from EatWell is an excellent tool that can assist with this.
Believe it or not, research shows that laughing can actually decrease cortisol levels. In addition to having a laugh with friends and family, it’s also worth your time to watch a funny TV show, listen to a funny podcast, or read a funny book when feeling stressed.
Our social connections are actually much more important than you may think. In fact, research suggests that individuals with lots of social support are not only happier, but they live longer, too. It’s so easy to cancel our social plans when we are stressed. While this is harmless on occasion, it’s important to make sure that we do not become isolated as this may be harmful to our health in the long term.
Changing your perspective
Another big piece of the self-care puzzle is perspective – meaning, switching the focus from what others need from you and focusing on your own needs. Here are just a few research-backed strategies that can help with this.
In the context of self-care, boundaries are simply limits that we set for ourselves in our personal and professional life.
For example, boundaries can be physical, such as not wanting to hug or touch professional colleagues or acquaintances. They can be based on time, such as not accepting calls after a certain time of day or leaving your weekends free from appointments. Boundaries can also be based on space, meaning you choose to not have guests in your home unless certain needs have been met – the list is endless!
Interestingly, in one research study, individuals who displayed greater “boundary control” were better protected from experiencing negative ruminations about work.
Controlling negative thoughts
Research suggests that negative thinking on a consistent basis is associated with a decline in both cognition and memory.
It may feel a bit strange to “think” about your thoughts, but it is possible to identify and overcome negative thought patterns. The Harvard Stress & Development Lab has an excellent list of the various different types of negative thoughts, which include “all or nothing” thinking, overgeneralization, jumping to conclusions, fixating on negative details, and more.
It’s important to note that controlling negative thinking is not to be confused with toxic positivity. Instead, it’s about being more mindful of your thoughts and making a conscious effort to think about situations in a different way.
For many of us, we are our own worst enemy. We think that we need to be hard on ourselves in order to be successful. However, research shows that having more self-compassion can actually lead to decreased stress, increased productivity, and improved well-being.
If you’re not quite sure what having self-compassion looks like, think of it as treating yourself in the same way that you would treat a dear friend. Would you be hypocritical or unnecessarily negative to your friend? No! And you should give yourself the same compassion and grace.
Self-Care in the Real World
All too often self-care is portrayed in the media as extravagant acts – such as spa days, big vacations, or shopping sprees.
It’s important to be aware though that this is not really self-care. Self-care isn’t something that you do once a year after seeing an advertisement on TV. It’s something that is fully integrated into your regular, day-to-day routine.
Here are a few examples:
- Emotional self-care can look like saying “no” to tasks and activities that deplete you. It can also look like rearranging your schedule to ensure that you make time for activities that you enjoy doing.
- Physical self-care can look like going to bed (or waking up) at a time when you will get enough sleep. It can also look like prioritizing your evening walk or exercise class.
- Spiritual self-care can involve going to a place of worship, keeping a gratitude journal, volunteering, or engaging in regular acts of kindness.
While it’s perfectly normal to spend some money on self-care activities, it’s also important to remember that self-care can also be totally free. What’s important is that your self-care activities and routines bring you a sense of peace, joy, and excitement for your life.
7 Steps for Building a Self-Care Routine
If you have never thought about needing to be proactive with self-care, you’re in the right place! Here is a step-by-step guide for building your personal self-care routine.
- Step 1: Make a list of all the possible activities in your life that bring you joy and make you feel relaxed (this can be two separate lists).
- Step 2: Make a list of activities or day-to-day obligations in your life that make you feel stressed.
- Step 3: Choose up to three activities that you would like to be intentional about making time for in the following month.
- Step 4: Choose up to three obligations that you would like to be intentional about setting boundaries for in the following month.
- Step 5: Take a look at your week (or month) ahead and choose just one positive activity to make time for and one obligation to let go of.
- Step 6: Reflect on how you feel about these changes. Refreshed? No difference? Adjust accordingly.
- Step 7: Add and let go of more activities and obligations when you’re ready, making sure to be kind to yourself during the process of settling into a routine.
It’s also worth mentioning that maintaining a self-care routine is much easier when you also feel supported by your social circle. Reach out to your loved ones and let them know about the changes you’re making – they’ll be excited to cheer you on!
Final Thoughts & Additional Resources
We certainly don’t have all the answers – but we hope this article helped you explore strategies and techniques that can help you find relief from stress in your day-to-day life!
If you did find this article helpful, we recommend checking out the following resources on self-care:
- Article from The Lily-Jo Project, Let’s T.A.L.K. Self-Care With Lily-Jo\
- Article from The Lily-Jo Project, Self-Care for the Whole Family…How to Create a Plan to Strengthen Our Bodies and Minds
- Resources from The Happiness Project
- Mental Health self-help resources from the NHS and The Lily-Jo Project
About The Lily-Jo Project’s International Weekend of Self-Care
This blog article is a part of The Lily-Jo Project’s International Weekend of Self-Care campaign which takes place in August. To learn more about this campaign and access additional self-care resources, visit www.thelilyjoproject.com/internationalweekendofselfcare.
About the Authors: Shelby Hale and Brandy Browne
Shelby has been with The Lily-Jo Project since 2018, serving as the platform’s Content and Communications Manager. Having lived in four different countries throughout her young adulthood, Shelby is passionate about the positive impact new experiences can have on mental health.
When she’s not working with The Lily-Jo Project, she supports other projects through her creative agency, Hale Marketing and Communications. If you’d like to stay updated with Shelby’s story, you can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Brandy Browne is the shelter manager for a family crisis center in the United States, as well as a counseling student and blogger for UnStuck (www.unstucks.com) – her area of passion is helping families develop positive habits and breaking the cycle of generational trauma and poverty.
Her education is in early and elementary education, and she also has a masters degree in parenting and child/adolescent development. Brandy is currently in the process of obtaining her counseling license as a marriage and family therapist. Brandy is a wife to her high school sweetheart of seventeen years, and together they share three children, aged twelve, nine, and seven. In her free time, she enjoys reading, gardening, writing, walking, and biking.