“I want to sign up for that yoga class, and I have been meaning to, but I just don’t have the time!”; “I really want to eat healthy and cut down on sugar, but I’ve had a stressful day at work today…so, I’ll let myself indulge and begin fresh tomorrow!”.
Perhaps many of you are familiar with this sort of internal conflict and mental bargaining that occurs on a daily basis in our lives. In today’s fast paced lifestyle, many of my clients report that there’s an increased pressure to perform successfully in all areas of life – whether it is parenting, relationship, career or socializing. However, the more we are pulled in many directions, the less centered and connected we are to our own selves. This disconnect from ourselves often times deprives us of the precious feedback loop we need to balance our lives and feel empowered. Life then becomes a blur and our thoughts and actions tend to become mindless and frenzied. This often tends to have a direct impact on our work, productivity and quality of relationships.
But the good news is that we can learn to re-center ourselves by creating and instituting simple structures in place to help be more mindful and intentional. I call it the 5 pillars of self-care, and it helps to create a balance and internal harmony in our lives. They are – diet, sleep, exercise, social interactions and mindfulness. At the outset, these 5 pillars seem so simple. However, when you look closely at your everyday life habits, it might give you insights as to what of these 5 areas you naturally tend to gravitate towards, and others where you need to pay extra attention.
In many ways, we are what we eat. There’s a reason why the diet industry is a billion dollar goldmine that churns out new diet fads every season. However, the simple rule of thumb is to be mindful of what goes into your body. Ask yourself, “Am I eating regularly spaced meals a day, and eating foods that are healthy, nutritious and wholesome?”.
Food is medicine, and it directly impacts our mood and our ability to regulate emotions. You might notice that when you skip meals, it causes irritability in general; you might get short with colleagues and family, lose patience and lack the calmness to assess things with a cool head. It also decreases your ability to concentrate on tasks, and creates a mental and physical imbalance. When you intake too many sugary treats, it impacts blood sugar, mood and energy levels. It is equally important to keep your body regularly hydrated throughout the day to replenish lost fluids and to have a sound body and mind.
When was the last time you enjoyed 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep? In this information age, many of my clients report that it is difficult to turn the ‘off’ button on work. The incessant demands from bosses and customers for always being ‘on’ has taken on a whole new form, thanks to smartphones, ipads, email and texts. Even vacations are not real getaways when you have your smartphone and laptop with you! It is not uncommon for people to sleep with their phones by their bedside, or work in bed until the wee hours of the morning. As a result, they get very little sleep and/or poor quality of sleep.
Research has shown that staring at your laptops or smartphones at night significantly reduces the melatonin produced in the brain, which then compromises your ability to fall asleep. Having a sound sleep helps the brain rest, process and sort information from the day, and aids in restoring and rejuvenating the body machine for the next day. Sleep has a direct impact on mood, ability to concentrate, mental faculties, judgment and reasoning. Studies have been done on people driving with sleep deprivation, who tend to perform poorly or almost as poorly as those who are driving drunk.
There are a few actions that you can do to prepare for a good night’s rest:
- Turn off all electronic devices at least an hour before you intend to sleep.
- Do not watch violent or stimulating TV shows before you go to bed.
- Wind down mentally by doing some breathing exercises and guided meditation
- Read something inspirational or calming before going to bed.
Exercise is the best and natural antidepressant available on the market! Most of us have jobs that keep us sedentary and tied to our desks and cubicles most of the day. No wonder that research has shown that Americans who visit their chiropractors and massage therapists have been steadily increasing over the years. It is essential that we get good cardio exercise for 30 minutes a day, at least for 5 days a week. This helps to release endorphins in the body that helps to keep us happy and positive. Exercise improves circulation, muscle function, memory and rational thinking. Walking or jogging stimulates both the left and right side of the brain, (due to the left and right movements) thereby activating the logical as well as the emotional centers of the brain. It also helps us in making good decisions at work and home, and in having a generally positive attitude.
Here are some ideas to incorporate exercise in your life:
- Take your dog for a walk at a certain time every day. Soon, your dog will remind you to exercise!
- Have an exercise buddy to run or power walk with you several times a week
- Use an evening walk with your spouse to catch up on each others’ day
- Do some yoga or stretching as you are watching TV in the evenings
- Take regular breaks during your work day to walk around the block
4. Social Interactions
We are by nature social creatures, and we thrive when we feel a sense of belonging and connection to our group or social circles. However, the level of connection needed differs from person to person. For instance, introverts tend to feel more recharged and energized when they have alone time to reflect and introspect, while extraverts feel rejuvenated and come alive in the company of others. No matter if you are in introvert or extravert, every human being feels a sense of safety, security and joy in spending time with their friends, families, colleagues and peers. If you happen to be an introvert, then it might be useful to notice when you tend to withdraw more into your world and make a conscious effort to spend more time with your friends. On the other hand, if you are an extravert, then you might benefit from spending some time in quiet reflection, so as to not be out of balance. This sort of frequent self-checks gives you better awareness of your energy levels, needs and feelings. Being mindful of your needs also gives you a sense of choice and control in your life. A good balance between having me-time and social time is therefore needed to maintain stability, mindfulness and connection to self.
That brings us to our last, but very significant pillar – mindfulness. This has become a buzzword recently, with everyone from doctors, athletes, corporate moguls and celebrities touting its benefits. Mindfulness in its essence is the ability to be aware of and observe the present moment – being aware of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations, etc. When you practice a few moments of mindful self-awareness everyday, you are training your mind to focus on the present, be connected to yourself, focus on one thing at a time, which is less taxing on the brain (contrary to the popular belief about multitasking). Being mindful gives you a direct channel into not only your consciousness, but also be more cued into your partner’s mood, energy levels and paying attention to what he/she is saying in the moment.
So, you might ask the question, “how do I practice mindfulness?” Here are some useful ideas to incorporate mindfulness in your everyday life –
- Practicing yoga or Tai-chi which focuses on the breath and body mind connection.
- Following a daily meditation or guided imagery exercise to deepen concentration
- Doing mindful eating or mindful walking – paying full attention to the act, without any distractions like using your phones, checking email or reading the news.
My suggestion is that you take a weekly inventory of your 5 pillars of self-care and pay close attention to the pillars that tend to be unbalanced. Ask yourselves, “have I been eating, sleeping, exercising adequately this week?”; “Have I balanced social activities with sufficient ‘me’ time?”; “Have I given myself enough time for introspection and self-reflection?’. For instance, if you find yourself working late and eating out a lot, it is a good idea to make a conscious effort to cook at least 2-3 dinners a week at home and enjoy fresh, nutritious food. If you find yourself watching violent TV shows right before going to bed, it would be a better idea to turn off the TV an hour before bedtime, and instead plan to mentally wind down by doing mindful breathing exercises, taking a warm bath to calm the senses and let the mind factory rest for the night.