Self care has become a hot mainstream topic, probably because of the skyrocketing levels of depression, addiction, obesity and other lifestyle-related problems.
Because of the commercial nature of American culture, a lot of ideas around self-care are being co-opted and packaged as products/services to be purchased and consumed. But the reality is that the most fundamental and essential aspects of self-care cost nothing.
Your body is designed to move. It is optimally healthy having plenty of physical motion. Unfortunately modern life involves very little of it. And we know now that this is unhealthy. The designs of our systems of living have not evolved yet to address this so we have to address it ourselves. The #1 thing you can do to take care of yourself is to move your body intentionally every single day. The bulk of this movement really should be walking. It is what our bodies are designed to do and, unlike running, the physical impact of walking is very low. You can do it for hours without stressing your body. Walking is restorative.
But your body also needs some brief physical intensity on a regular basis. These kinds of brief stresses are actually health-promoting in the long run because they push your body to adapt without overwhelming it. Short runs, sprints, bike rides, fast walks up hill, etc. are beneficial for many aspects of the body, including the muscles, tendons, the heart and the lungs.
Just as importantly, brief intense exercise offers huge benefits to our minds and our moods. One of my favorite hand-outs is this brilliant compilation from a literature review done at the NYU Center for Neural Science. This one page shows all the different findings of how exercise effects our brains and our moods, including which neurotransmitters and brain regions experience increased activation.
Exercise is care for your brain and your body.
Creating Internal Space
Due to the miracle of information technology, we are bombarded with messages, ideas, and information as never before. Between our phones, computers, and television, we are chronically exposed to other people’s messages. Many of these messages are designed to get you to do something or buy something: they have an agenda. This mental load is toxic to the psyche. Not only can it lead to mental overwhelm, but we are literally receiving drip after drip of programming designed to manipulate us into feeling a certain way (usually insecure, fearful, or greedy/hungry/lusty). None of this is designed for our wellbeing, so we have to make space for this ourselves.
Creating internal space means tuning out the outside world and all its messages and experiencing your mind and your consciousness in an internally directed way. This can be in the form of prayer, meditation, contemplation, day-dreaming, or imagining. It doesn’t really matter the form. You don’t have to sit in full lotus position and chant ‘ohm’ reverently to experience yourself. The point is not to perform what you think spirituality or peace looks like, but to create an experience where the external stimulus is tuned way down and give your mind (and body) a break from the onslaught of the high-paced external world.
It’s also ok to use external stimulation here, such as gentle music, guided meditations, or perfumes/incense. Some people find being quiet or spending time with themselves very challenging. If so, having some gentle guided intentional stimulus can be very helpful. The point is that you are creating your own space and determining what goes in it, and just as importantly, what doesn't go in it.
Tuning In To Nature
Few things are more pronounced in our modern urban environment than our disconnect from nature. Unless you are living in a rural environment, the entirety of everything you come into contact with during a given day is human created or designed. This leads to a disconnect from what is our natural environment. The natural world is what we are evolutionarily adapted to and lack of exposure to it is alienating on a deep level. Usually we don’t notice this until we’ve spent some time in the country, the mountains, or the forests and get a direct experience of relaxation that comes from resonating at the level of the natural environment. It is almost always experienced as slower and more still than our frenetic modern lifestyle. Often there is a feeling of peace and tranquility.
This is something that urban life denies us. Slowness and stillness themselves are often missing ingredients in our lives and experiencing the natural form of them is inherently restorative. This is the wisdom behind the Japanese concept of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.
Putting All Together
In my personal experience combining some or all of these elements is incredibly beneficial. Meditating at the beach, walking in the forest, or biking through the mountains are all ways of combining different approaches to self-care in a holistic experience that is better than the sum of its parts. One of my favorite activities is short solo backpacking trips in the mountains because it allows me to connect to nature, to my body and to my self in a quiet and intentional way. And for someone living in the fast-paced urban hustle, this truly is medicine.