A Closer Look

Self-Care Lessons From the Field

A 2-week Hawaiian vacation. Cozying up in thick fleece sweat pants, an oversized hoodie, and half a pint of cookie dough ice cream on a Friday night to watch your favorite movie. Taking backroads to work and marveling at the turns and hills and many shades of green along the route. Walking from the parking lot to the office, choosing not to focus on the deafening sounds of the ride-on mower zig zagging across the lawn, but instead attending to the sweet smell of fresh cut grass, brilliant sunshine, and crisp hint of autumn in the air. Self-care is different things to different people.

I've collected data from close to 1,000 people in my self-care workshops throughout the country. Their feedback and my own experiential reflections have taught me a few lessons about self-care.

1. Self-care is important. Following workshops, the vast majority of participants conceded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being Not At All Important and 5 being Most Important, that self-care is a 5. They needed to be (and were) persuaded that self-care is not selfish but critical in order to do their best work and experience a meaningful quality of life. It seemed many simply needed permission to take care of themselves.

2. Self-care is a mindset. When you commit to proactively attending to your own well-being-whether going to the gym, taking time to eat lunch, or setting better boundaries-you develop a habit of self-care. After deliberately and repeatedly burning new neural pathways of thinking and behaving by exerting effort in the prefrontal cortex, the behavior/thinking eventually moves into the basal ganglia and becomes automatic. A habit is created. A habit that chooses to prioritize well-being over self-sacrifice. A habit of seeing the glass as half-full versus half-empty. For example, a self-care mindset seeks to nourish mind, body, and spirit by eating nutritious smoothies, reading books for pleasure, pausing in the parking lot to feel the warmth of the sun, cold snowflakes, wet rain-whatever is there in the moment. What nurtures you? Can you make it (or some aspect of it) a regular part of your life?

3. All self-care is not created equal. Spending quality time with a friend or serving dinner at the local soup kitchen releases feel good neurotransmitters that soon subside. Self-care activities with mindfulness components double the return for your effort with their ability to actually change the brain. A stronger prefrontal cortex can result from mindfulness practice, fostering the ability to stay calm when confronted by strong emotional triggers. Just being more present and nonjudgmental in the moment can bring peace-a highly coveted goal of self-care.

4. Buoyed by mindfulness practice, self-care strengthens the muscle of awareness. Self-care and self-awareness have a reciprocal relationship that is fundamental to a self-care mindset. Self-care provides the impetus for creating space to take regular, reflective, self-aware pauses, and awareness is necessary to understand the need to practice self-care. For instance, engaging in a self-care exercise, I became aware that one of my biggest stressors (and byproduct of poor time management born of ADHD) is driving impatiently because of being chronically late. Learning this about myself, I set a goal to leave more than enough time to get places. This way, on a beautiful day, I can take backroads (one of the things I've become aware brings me joy). In the self-care/self-awareness feedback loop, a self-care mindset provides the awareness to turn back before following the monkey brain down a rabbit hole of ruminating negativity. Awareness sounds the alarm to take a short break to reset your brain when a fuzzy thinking cloud has descended after working for 6 hours straight trying to meet a deadline. Awareness is essential to pivot and twirl in harmony with the myriad relational interactions we bow in and out of at work and home daily. Awareness is the first step in practicing self-care. Awareness is the first step in making any change.

5. Self-care doesn't have to add to your to-do list. Informal mindfulness can turn everyday tasks into seamless self-care. Activities that you have to do anyway, if done with nonjudgmental, focused attention, can yield mindfulness benefits. When you bring focused attention to any menial daily task-cooking, showering, driving, folding laundry, walking, brushing your teeth, brushing your dog-in the process, you are creating a more self-aware, self-care mindset, while not adding a single thing outside your daily routine.

6. One size does not fit all. Telling people what they should do to practice self-care is foolish. As stated at the outset, self-care means something different to everyone. The important thing is to find some self-care practices that are appealing and insert them into your daily schedule. Things that nurture and support. Things that you have to do anyway. You can start small. Become aware that prioritizing your own self-care will improve your life and the lives of everyone with whom you interact. And go from there. Do something for yourself. You're worth it. Trite but true.

About the Author

necessary Dr. Paula Gill Lopez
Dr. Paula Gill Lopez is a professor and program director at Fairfield University. In 2008, she attended her first mindfulness conference and found her personal and professional passion. She’s presented self-care workshops throughout Connecticut and nationally. Paula has written articles and book chapters on self-care in schools. In a recent book chapter, she discusses mindfulness and implicit bias. She and her student research team are currently investigating the benefits of inservice and preservice self-care.