How real self-care can make you healthier
The term ‘self-care’ is sometimes misunderstood as a requirement to be independent, and to not be a burden to other people. In this spirit, and probably also because few people enjoy seeing a doctor, many nowadays turn to the internet to try and get clarity about their symptoms. Unfortunately, this can result in the opposite of the intended effect, with symptoms worsening due to increased worry. This ‘cyberchondria‘ is a perfect example of how the mind can affect the body, with negative thinking making physical symptoms worse.
Most people have an intuitive understanding that their health depends on more than just the condition of their bodies. We are not just physical, but also emotional, mental and spiritual beings. When one is affected, so are the others. For example, if you have a cold, you may feel down, with ‘brain fog’ and it may make you struggle spiritually, especially if there are other negative repercussions for you. When you then go and see your doctor, she may examine you, tell you that it is just a viral infection you caught for which antibiotics don’t work and you will probably be advised to rest, drink fluids and take over the counter flu medication. Unfortunately, most doctors don’t have enough time to explore some of the other questions that patients commonly have about their illness, such as: “Why now? Why me? Why this?” Looking for a deeper understanding and meaning, these are really interesting questions, which are sadly often dismissed as pointless.
In Western medicine traditionally there has been an artificial divide between these four parts of us: doctors mainly look after the physical body and the mental side, psychologists look after emotions and religion after spirituality. However, for full healing, none of these can be seen in isolation. I believe that modern medicine limits its own effectiveness, by not sufficiently integrating the value of a whole person approach, which gives equal weight to the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual side. By not looking beyond a physical explanation, modern medicine often condemns patients to just cover up their symptoms, without giving them a chance to discover and address the real root causes of their illness. Just as a physical illness can affect your thinking, emotions and spirituality, your thoughts, feelings and beliefs can also manifest as a physical illness. Therefore, exploring these thoughts, feelings and beliefs can help address the real causes of physical symptoms.
So, in the example above of the cold, what if you asked yourself: ‘Why do I have this now?’. It is likely that you would have a good knowing about what is going on. The answer may be that you have run yourself down over a number of weeks and months by trying to juggle huge and increasing work demands with family life. There may be strains in your relationship which are upsetting you. Due to lack of time, you may have stopped exercising and your diet may have suffered. With all your worries, you are drinking more alcohol and your sleep is poor. This is all contributing to your body gradually getting depleted and then the cold comes along and stops you in your tracks.
Most illness is not random or bad luck. What do you do when you are trying to get a message through to someone who is not listing? You speak louder, repeat the information, maybe reword it or give it in a different format too, for example in writing in addition to speaking. Your body is the same: it will try to tell you until you listen. Illness is often a sign that fundamental human needs are not being met in a consistent manner. Children should have responsible adults providing for these needs, but adults have to play that role for themselves. So self-care is about fulfilling your very human needs, not about avoiding being a burden.
The huge health benefits of simple self-care strategies such as making time for yourself, resting, reading, taking up a new hobby, dancing, enjoying music, being outside in nature, playing with a pet and socialising are getting confirmed by science over and over again. Just enter ‘the health benefits of…’ (add whichever activity you want to explore) into a search engine to find reports on it. It is no coincidence that we are all drawn to these activities from an early age: we enjoy them because they are good for us on every level. Now self-care might begin to sound selfish, but read on to find out why it isn’t.
Listening to your whole being, instead of ignoring the signs, and engaging in stress-relieving, enjoyable activities allows you to gradually adjust your life to ensure that you stay healthy. By nurturing your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual side, you achieve balance and increase your resilience. Self-care is the means by which you can be well enough to be fully available to help others. If we are biologically wired to be well with such activities, self-care can’t be selfish. Instead it is your birth right.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu, 6th century BC). If you have read to this point, you have taken the first step! Now, which one enjoyable activity could you do today, to take the second step towards looking after the whole of you?
With my best wishes,