Self Care Tips To Take Care Of Your Body And Mind
by Dr. Talia Marcheggiani
Dr. Talia Marcheggiani is a naturopathic doctor practicing in Toronto. She has a special focus in mental health and hormones and uses an individualized mind-body approach to uncover and treat the root cause of disease. She is registered with the College of Naturopaths of Ontario and is a member of the Ontario and Canadian Associations of Naturopathic Medicine.
Take a few seconds to imagine your “happy place”—the place you feel most at home.
Where are you? What are you doing? Who's there with you?
What are the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations that fill the air and tickle your skin?
What emotions do you feel?
I’ll venture some guesses: you feel calm, at peace, safe, energized, connected, and integrated.
If you turn your attention to your breathing you probably notice that it’s slow, deep, restorative.
That head cloud of frenzied thoughts and worries that you tend to spend your time in might have cleared. Your sense of “self” has probably moved out of your head and into your body.
Maybe, through doing this short exercise, you’ve come home to yourself, even just a little.
Wouldn't it be nice to feel like that every day? That's where these self-care tips come in...
About Self-Care And Stress...
1. Understand what “self-care” means.
A friend recently shared a video with me depicting three women in a nail salon, bragging about what horrible things they’ve done - from eating 13 glazed donuts in a single sitting to “enslaving the entire office” - in the name of their own self-care.
Because, according to the video, “You can be terrible if you call it ‘Self-care’”...
An accurate depiction of self-care? Well, no.
I asked followers of my Facebook page to tell me what the phrase “Self-Care” means to them.
They enthusiastically replied:
- “Silence. No social media, or anything electronic.”
- “Floating in water—buoyant, effortless.”
- “Being kind and gentle to myself.”
- “Meditation and time to oneself.”
- “Eating healthy foods.”
- “Respecting your body.”
- “Epsom salt baths.”
- “Hygge.” (a Danish word that is roughly translated as “warm and cozy”)
In essence, their responses boiled down to, “Self-care is feeling good, taking care of myself, and taking care of my body, by engaging in activities that feel nourishing while reducing external stress and overwhelm.”
Put even more simply, self-care is the act of practicing self-compassion, whatever that might look like to you.
2. Understand the impacts of stress.
The relationship between self-care and stress is important.
According to The American Institute of Stress, about 75% of us have significant physical and psychological stress in our lives.
This stress takes a toll. It produces physical, mental and emotional symptoms, sending us into emergency rooms with panic attacks, and drugstores with prescriptions for pain, anxiety, or anti-hypertensive medications.
Stress lands us in doctor’s offices, pouring over junky magazines waiting to discuss our latest health complaint—digestive issues, mental health issues, fatigue, autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, chronic pain, weight gain, and so on.
Our bodies have a built-in stress response to save our lives when triggered by a life-threatening danger.
Now, this fight-flight-freeze mechanism is chronically set off by the abundant stressors in our modern era—traffic, deadlines, relationship woes, artificial lighting, and in-laws.
When our body encounters a stressor, one of the hormones it releases is cortisol.
Cortisol affects every system in the body. It elevates blood sugar, heart rate and blood pressure. It suppresses the immune system, redistributes fat, shrinks certain areas of the brain involved in learning and emotional regulation, causes painful muscle contraction, impairs digestion, and affects our sleep.
Managing stress involves two main goals: lowering external stressors, and managing internal perceived stress by boosting our physical, mental, and emotional resilience.
These self-care tips are our armor against the internal and external stress we put up with daily.
3. Recognize perceived stress.
Whether or not external events elicit a stress response in our body depends on our perception.
Stressful events are woven into how harmful and uncontrollable we perceive them to be, rather than their intrinsic capacity to cause us harm.
Our perception of stress can be influenced by biochemical factors, such as our levels of neurotransmitters, and hormones. It can also be influenced by our mindset, our capacity for resilience, and how far into burnout we’ve begun to drift.
Lowering our perception of stress requires that we practice the skill of mindfulness: being aware of how external situations affect our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and behaviors.
It also requires that we pay attention to our internal physiology - our hormones, circadian rhythms and inflammation levels - to support our body’s physical capacity to deal with stress.
Nourishing and Depleting Activities...
4. Make a list of your nourishing and depleting daily activities.
Let’s try an exercise from Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
Write down a list of routine activities in your typical day:
- hauling yourself out of bed,
- brushing your teeth,
- eating breakfast,
- sitting in traffic,
- making dinner,
- and so on.
If you want to do this now, you can open the exercise template by clicking the button below.
Decide if each activity is nourishing, depleting, or neutral.
In other words, does this activity fill your cup or drain it?
For instance, I find that breakfast is nourishing, but less so when I scroll through Facebook feeds or answer emails while eating it.
Coffee immediately feels nourishing to me but, hours later, caffeine-fuelled and wired, I often feel more depleted than if I had opted for an herbal tea, or hydrating water instead.
5. Find out what brings you pleasure or mastery.
To get a deeper understanding of your day, determine if the activities that nourish you provide you with pleasure, mastery, or both:
Pleasurable activities feel good in our bodies and minds when we do them. They bring us positive emotions like safety, calm, peace, happiness, joy, excitement, gratitude, and awe.
- Sleeping, eating, laughing with friends, cuddling with my dog, and consuming art, are all activities that give me pleasure.
Activities of mastery give us a sense of accomplishment and achievement. We feel that we are developing ourselves and moving closer towards an important goal. We experience our lives to be rich in meaning.
- Checking things off a to-do list gives me a sense of accomplishment. So does making strides at work and taking a course or studying.
6. Make some changes to your list.
Oftentimes, patients recoil in horror when they realize that their lists contain only depleting and neutral activities.
There are no activities in their day that nourish them: either through pleasure or self-development.
I ask them:
- Are there any depleting activities that you can stop doing?
- Are there more nourishing activities that you can start doing?
- How can you make a depleting activity feel more nourishing?
Self-care practices and self-compassion are the agents through which we answer these questions.
7. Set healthy boundaries.
Before we can reduce the invasion of depleting activities in our lives, we must learn to prioritize our needs.
Many of us put others’ needs first. We ignore the advice of every flight attendant—we put on everyone else’s oxygen mask before our own.
Before long, we run out of air.
In order to nourish ourselves, we need to learn to create healthy boundaries around our energy and time. We need to say “no.”
Author Cheryl Strayed writes, “'No' is golden. 'No' is the kind of power the good witch wields… [It involves] making an informed decision about an important event in your life in which you put yourself and your needs and your desires front and center.”
When we say no to the people, activities, commitments, and responsibilities that drain us, we say “yes” to ourselves.
Think of your list of depleting, nourishing and neutral activities. What activities, if you could just say “no” to them, would bring you immense relief?
What would saying "no" to those activities allow you to say yes to instead?
Self Care Routine...
8. Practice Mindfulness.
A tarot reader friend of mine once said, “It is impossible to be healthy in this day and age without mindfulness.”
She was probably right. Mindfulness is definitely a key part of my own self-care routine.
Mindfulness helps us lower our perception of stress. It is the act of bringing attention to the present moment, intentionally, without judgment.
Through mindfulness, we can be intentional about our behaviors: how often we exercise and what it feels like, what certain foods feel like in our bodies, and what activities we engage in.
Mindfulness also allows us to parse out our overwhelmed, worried, personalizing, catastrophizing, black-and-white, future-telling, and negative, thoughts from our body sensations and emotions.
We realize that our thoughts are just that—thoughts. Thinking something doesn’t necessarily make it so.
Research shows that mindful meditation strengthens the connections between the rational brain and the emotional brain. It helps us develop awareness of our moment to moment experience. It connects us to our bodies and our emotional states.
There are many different mindfulness techniques. You can do sitting meditations, standing meditations, and walking meditations. You can do mindful yoga. You can wash the dishes mindfully.
However, the simplest way to begin a mindful practice is to sit or lie down in a comfortable position, with a relaxed and alert posture, and focus on the experience of breathing.
Focusing on the breath helps us practice bringing our awareness to the present moment. As we learn to ride the waves of our breathing, we eventually learn to ride the waves of stress that sometimes lap gently at our floating bodies and other times rock us to our core.
With mindfulness, we can begin to relax our resistance to the waves.
As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Mindfulness is the surfboard that carries you.
9. Practice self-soothing.
Self-soothing helps us regulate our emotions helping to regulate mood in the presence of external stressors. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy teaches self-soothing as a means of returning to the “Window of Tolerance”.
When we’re in the Window of Tolerance we’re not in fight, flight or freeze. We aren’t depleted, disconnected and dissociated. We feel relaxed and safe, but also alert and focused. We're present, in control of our bodies.
Self-soothing allows us to enter the Window of Tolerance by boosting the hormone oxytocin, which helps us feel calm, nurtured, and connected.
To boost oxytocin:
- Lie or sit in a comfortable position, place your hands on your chest and breathe slowly and deeply.
- Connect deeply with a trusted other: a person in your life, a pet, or an entity (God, your higher self, a deceased loved one, etc.).
- Use body weights or heavy blankets on your body.
- Recite believable affirmations or mantras.
- Ask someone you trust for a hug.
- Boost pleasure through engaging the senses: listen to soothing music, savor delicious food, look at beautiful images, touch soft fabrics, and use aromatherapy and calming essential oils, like lavender.
Poet Mary Oliver tells us, “You do not have to be good... You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Self-soothing requires practicing mindful awareness to recognize if you’re slipping outside your Window of Tolerance.
It also involves implementing nourishing rituals that “the soft animal of your body” loves, to release oxytocin, and return to feelings of calm.
10. Balance blood sugar to balance your mood.
Our blood sugar is complexly intertwined with our other hormones, like insulin and cortisol, but also our neurotransmitters, like serotonin, epinephrine and dopamine, which influence our mood.
More than 1 in 3 American adults has pre-diabetes. This indicates an impairment in the body’s ability to control blood sugar, which throws our mood and hormones off balance.
One of the main life-saving actions of the body’s stress response is to regulate glucose in the blood. Fluctuations in blood sugar can trigger cortisol and stress hormone release.
Stressful events can also wreak havoc on our body’s ability to control blood sugar.
Regulating blood sugar, therefore, becomes a priority for managing our body’s internal stress cues.
To balance blood sugar:
- Eat a full 20 to 30 g serving of protein and healthy fat at each meal.
- Eat a large, protein-rich breakfast that contains at least 200 calories’ worth of healthy fats: 1 avocado, a handful of nuts or seeds, coconut oil, full-fat yogurt or kefir, 3 eggs, etc., within an hour of waking.
- Eat snacks that contain 10-15 g of protein. A great snack for balancing blood sugar is a 1/4 cup of pepitas or raw pumpkin seeds. Rich in protein, fiber and healthy fats, they also contain zinc and magnesium, two important minerals for balancing mood and supporting stress hormones.
- Ensure that every meal contains gut-loving fiber: eat 2-3 cups of vegetables at every meal.
- Avoid refined sugars and flours wherever possible.
- Experiment with Time-Restricted Feeding, leaving at least 12 hours of the day open where you consume only water and herbal teas, to give the digestive system a rest. For example, if you have breakfast at 7am, finish your dinner by 7pm, to allow 12 hours of fasting every night.
Self-care practices are not simply lying around getting massages (although that's nice, too). Eating well is an important part of any self-care routine.
11. Calm your stress response through healing your circadian rhythms.
The body’s stress response is tightly connected to our circadian rhythms.
Cortisol (the stress hormone), follows a predictable daily pattern, rising within an hour of waking in the morning and then falling throughout the day.
Low cortisol levels at night coincide with the rise in melatonin, our sleep hormone.
Morning fatigue, afternoon crashes, and waking at night all point to a flattened or altered stress response that has negatively impacted our body’s circadian rhythms.
Sleep is also the greatest reset for the stress response. We build up our metabolic reserve and internal stress resilience every night when we rest.
To heal your circadian rhythms:
- Expose yourself to bright, natural daylight soon after waking.
- Eat a large, fat and protein-rich breakfast within an hour of waking.
- Avoid exercising too close to bedtime.
- Keep blood sugar stable.
- Practice sleep hygiene: keep your bedroom dark and cool, and reserve your bed only for sleep and sex.
- Avoid blue light after 7 to 8 pm. Wear blue light-blocking glasses, use a blue light-blocking app on your devices, such as F.Lux, or simply avoid all electronics in the evening, switching to paper instead.
- Try to get to bed before midnight, as the deepest sleep occurs around 2 am.
- Talk to your naturopathic doctor or other natural healthcare professional about melatonin supplementation or other natural remedies to help reset your sleep cycle.
12. Manage inflammation and nurture your microbiome.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is an important anti-inflammatory. High levels of inflammation have been associated with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
Keeping inflammation levels low not only reduces our need for stress-hormone-signalling, but keeps us healthy.
Most chronic conditions, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are associated with inflammation.
To keep inflammation levels low:
- Eat a variety of anti-inflammatory colourful fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid processed oils like soy and corn oil, whose omega 6 fatty acids are known to contribute to inflammation.
- Eat healthy fats from avocados, fish, coconut, olives, nuts, seeds and grass-fed animals.
- Avoid processed foods and fried foods wherever possible.
- Nurture your gut health by eating lots of fiber, and consuming fermented foods, like kefir and sauerkraut.
Our gut is the seat of the immune system. Keeping it healthy is a powerful preventive measure for keeping inflammation levels low.
Our gut bacteria also play a role in our mood and stress-hormone regulation. Therefore, keeping them healthy and happy is essential for boosting our internal resilience against external stressors.
13. Recognize that balance doesn’t exist.
None of us are born cool and collected.
Those of us who seem to “have it together” are simply quick to respond to life’s tendency to fall apart.
Balance doesn’t exist. As soon as we feel like we have the details our lives lined up, a sharp gust of wind sends them tumbling in all directions.
Therefore prioritizing these self-care tips becomes an ever-evolving balancing act that we must commit ourselves to through nurturing our internal resilience.
A poem by Kelly Diels says it best: “when your love knocks you down or your weak ankles trip you up, stop worrying about balancing — ‘cuz you’re not — and bounce.”
Hope these self-care tips have been useful to you.
P.S. If you want to talk to a naturopathic doctor (from the comfort of your own home) about any of the above, you can start here and we'll get you into an online session within 24 hours.