Physicians, therapists, and other medical professionals are an integral part of your healthcare team, but the first line of defense against health problems is you. Good self-care can prevent, delay, or reduce most health problems, including mental health issues. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and adherence to your physician-recommended medications are all important, but effective self-care is also about pampering yourself from time to time.
Taking some time to relax each day can have measurable effects on your health.
Stress is bad for you. It can lead to everything from headaches to anxiety to eating disorders, and it can also worsen existing conditions. Stress triggers the production of the hormone cortisol, which is fine in small doses, but in large doses can lower immune response, increase the risk of mental illness, and negatively impact bone density levels.
Relaxation, on the other hand, is good for you. Not only does relaxing remove or reduce the ill effects of stress, but it generates positive effects of its own. It’s been known for a quite a while that relaxation can produce a lot of great effects on the body, including lowered blood pressure, reduced muscle tension and pain, and improved concentration and mood. Recent studies have looked at the effects of relaxation in more depth, and the results are impressive.
Relaxation triggers a genetic response that leads to improved function at a cellular level in the body. Mitochondria, which are the “batteries that power cells,” become more resilient. Insulin production, which controls energy conversion, is boosted. Telomeres, which protect chromosomes (part of DNA), experience an extended lifespan. It was also found that these changes are more pronounced the longer you practice relaxation techniques, but results become apparent after as little as two months of regular relaxation.
Relaxing self-care activities also trigger the production of the body’s “feel-good” hormones, like serotonin and oxytocin. These hormones are connected to better moods, better sleep, and naturally-occurring pain-relief.
Anything that relaxes you will aid in your self-care.
Some of the most often-recommended ways to relax are yoga, meditation, or journaling. Yoga is a very low-impact, low-stress form of exercise, and exercise in general works wonders to reduce stress. Meditation, especially when accompanied by deep breathing exercises, is one of the fastest ways to trigger the body’s relaxation response. Journaling is a popular way to work out whatever’s bothering you so you can move past it.
However, an article at Psych Central had a few words of wisdom about self-care and relaxation, stating:
“My definition of self-care is letting yourself do whatever you want to do. If yoga, meditating, or writing endlessly in your journal about your woes isn’t your thing, don’t do it. It won’t work. Self-care only works when you listen to your body, and do what you want without resistance.”
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give yoga, meditating, or journaling a try. It means that if you give it a shot and it just doesn’t do the trick, it’s okay to try other things. Relaxing with self-care is about doing whatever it takes to reduce your stress. Maybe that’s yoga, or maybe it’s walking the dog, or maybe it’s weeding the garden.
As long as it makes you feel less stressed and more relaxed, it’s a great way to take care of yourself. You’re aiming for at least a few minutes a day when you’re experiencing the body’s relaxation response, which is essentially the opposite of flight-or-fight stress.
Repetition will be your friend when it comes to self-care. Pick a few self-care activities, and do them on a regular basis. Eventually, your body will become conditioned to respond to certain actions with the relaxation response. For instance, your body will become accustomed to the actions of brewing a pot of tea, the chanting before meditation, or a specific song you always listen to in the bath, and after time you’ll start to relax faster when you go through the motions of your favorite self-care activities.
There are lots of low-cost and free ways to relax.
This self-care calendar from Greatist is from August 2014, but it still works. You can print it off or copy it onto this month’s calendar. As you learn what works best for your self-care, personalize it to make it yours. There are endless ways to pamper yourself and work in a little self-care, but here are some suggestions for free at-home self-care activities:
- Search YouTube for a relaxing yoga or meditation routine.
- Write down what’s stressing you. If you want, you can rip up the paper, and maybe even write a new list of things that make you happy.
- Close your eyes and listen to some relaxing music.
- Listen to some fun music and dance around the room.
- Go for a walk.
- Pet or play with a pet for 15 minutes.
- Take a bubble bath.
- Whip up a homemade, edible facial mask and let it do its magic.
- Invite a friend over and do each other’s nails.
- Ask your partner to give you a massage.
- Give yourself an afternoon tea break, alone or with a good friend.
- Spend some extra time getting ready in the morning, just to get that looking-good mood boost.
- Find a free, local event that sounds like fun, or keep an eye out for free days at museums, botanical gardens, or zoos.
- Take up a new creative hobby, like reading, embroidery, gardening, or painting.
- Pick up a favorite treat at the grocery store (or if you like cooking, set aside an afternoon to make it yourself) and then take a break to slowly savor it.
- Volunteer somewhere, such as the hospital, an animal shelter, or at a museum.
If you’ve got a little extra money in the budget, you’ve got even more relaxing, self-care options.
Of course, splurging on a professional massage, manicure, or pedicure can be a fantastic way to relax. Even getting your hair done can be relaxing if you choose a salon that takes its time. In addition to these, you could go out for coffee or a meal. Go by yourself if you’re craving some quiet time, but both human touch and laughter can help trigger the relaxation response, so think about asking your partner or a friend along.
Other options include movies, plays, concerts, gym memberships, yoga studio memberships, or anything else that you think will help you relax. Buy yourself a new outfit or pair of shoes. If you’ve noticed that you’re always in a cheerier mood when shopping for holiday gifts, go out and buy a present for a loved one for no reason at all – some people enjoy shopping for others more than for themselves.
Also, animals are some of the best stress-relievers there are. If you don’t have a pet and find yourself stressed out all the time, consider adopting an animal from a local shelter. This will give you a whole new set of self-care options, like walking the dog or snuggling the cat.
Keep in mind, though, that self-care is just one part of staying healthy. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and following your doctor’s orders (including medications) are important, too, and self-care techniques are much more effective when used in conjunction with other healthy habits.
What self-care activities help you relax after a stressful day?
Image by Unique Hotels via Flickr