Although “The Giving Tree” is a children’s classic, let’s be honest—when you give and give, like that beleaguered tree did, eventually you risk ending up as a stump of your former self. Putting energy into charity and do-goodery is, of course, a worthwhile pursuit, but it can be draining if you haven’t put effort into some self-care as well.
“Many of us are living in fight-or-flight mode on a regular basis,” says Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., author of “Habits of a Happy Brain.” “That reaction is useful if we’re facing actual, immediate threats,” she says. “But we usually aren’t, so instead, we’re getting burned out. And when that happens, we’re not very useful to anybody, including ourselves.”
And for people living an active lifestyle, rich in biking and camping, drinking craft beer and spirits, delighting in quality food, and staying out late at concerts and events, self-care can take an even further backseat. So how can you integrate more self-care strategies into your everyday deluge of tasks? Let us count the ways:
1. Put your hands on your heart
National anthem furor aside, there’s a different reason to place your hand over your heart: It actually boosts your sense of compassion toward yourself and others, according to Christopher Germer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who was one of the founders of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School.
In his co-authored book, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,” he writes that the simple gesture of putting one or both hands on the heart can create awareness that helps deepen the breath, which can “help to reestablish a more balanced flow of warmth.”
2. Create moments of mindfulness
Sure, sitting on a meditation cushion for an hour sounds like a sweet pursuit, but you don’t have to get uber-zen about it to harness the power of mindfulness. In fact, it can take just a few seconds. Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s around you. That could mean consciously focusing on a few deep inhales and exhales, or truly tasting your next bite of food, or hearing the whoosh of traffic around you.
When you practice strategies like these throughout the day, it tends to pop you into the present moment, where there can be considerably less stress than thinking of what’s ahead or chewing over the past.
3. Imbibe with a plan
Here at The Growler, we’re obviously big fans of artfully crafted beer, wine, and spirits. But especially during the holiday frenzy and new-year deep freeze, it can sometimes be easy to, let’s say, be more enthusiastic in your fandom than you’d anticipated.
“If there’s a point where you’re consistently having more alcohol than you’d intended, it’s a good idea to take a look at that, and perhaps come up with a different strategy,” says Rebecca Block, Ph.D., a New York-based clinical psychologist who works with people around substance use issues. She encourages people to set goals and create a plan based on upcoming events. For example, when planning for a party, choose a specific, reasonable number of drinks for the evening—then tap into those mindfulness techniques to really enjoy them.
4. Chunk your time
Feeling frazzled can come as a result of believing that there’s not enough time for everything you want to do, says Jen Sincero, author of “You Are a Badass.” Yet, if someone were to challenge you to get a project done in 30 minutes, you’d likely be finishing it up right on time. That’s a result of finding the focus you need, when you need it.
“Rather than overscheduling your day with overlapping items, figure out how much time you need for each task, and then stick to it,” she says. Quit out of your email, set a timer on your smartphone, and then turn it over so you don’t look at the device until it chimes. Do your task, and embrace the supreme calm that comes from single-tasking.
5. Eat your veggies
Yes, it can feel like a chore. But it’s worth making the effort to incorporate more vegetables into your day, every day. Tons of research has shown that vegetables, more than any other type of food, confer benefits that are system-wide.
Simply put, vegetables have been shown to lower inflammation in the body, which can boost heart health, immunity, digestion, circulation—truly, name a system and vegetables can make it happier. That includes your brain. Studies show that inflammation inhibits frontal lobe function, where reactions like stress and anger live. More veggies can equal a better mood and more calm.
6. Use tech wisely
The prevailing wisdom these days is that calmness comes from disengaging from technology, says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of “The Distraction Addiction.” But you don’t need to choose between your smartphone and self-care, as long as you’re viewing technology as a tool that can spark creativity, provide social connections, streamline your workflow, and boost other abilities.
“We should celebrate and embrace all that technology lets us do, instead of seeing it as a hindrance to ‘real life,’” he notes. “What can technology provide for you that expands your abilities and makes you happier? Focus on those functions, instead of ones that feel like a waste of time.” For example, you can download apps that help motivate you to exercise, or meditate with a timer, or reduce unwanted interruptions and distractions.
7. Practice rest
It seems like we’re all pretty good at rest, given how easily we can blow through a Netflix binge. But truly restorative rest takes a bit of practice, says Soojung-Kim Pang.
“Rest turns out to be like sex or singing or running,” he notes. “Everyone basically knows how to do it, but with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better. You can enjoy rest more profoundly and be more refreshed and restored.” Rather than thinking of rest as a completely passive and mindless activity that comes up whenever you’re not doing something else, Pang encourages people to turn rest into its own exercise, and that means putting it in your schedule.
Let yourself get bored. Look for activities that are active but not too mentally absorbing. That’s when your muscles can be doing necessary repair work from exercise, and your brain can refresh its creativity and problem-solving skills.
8. Refine your sleep schedule
If you skimp on sleep during the week and try to “make up for it” by sleeping in on the weekends, here’s some bad news: That doesn’t work. According to W. Christopher Winter, M.D., president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, even a couple nights of sleep deprivation can cause a ripple effect that impacts just about everything — concentration, memory, learning, immune function, even your nutrition choices.
“I know it’s tough to get up early on the weekends,” he says. “But having a consistent sleep schedule really is key. Build in some naps if you feel like you need them, but try not to sleep in as a way to ‘catch up,’ because it doesn’t work that way.”
By focusing on aspects of self-care like sleep, de-stressing, nutrition, and moderation, you can keep yourself replenished—and that gives you more energy and compassion for helping others. No stumps allowed.