February – the month of the heart. Candy hearts, paper hearts, paper mâché hearts, heart streamers, heart balloons, heart-shaped chocolates, red hearts, purple hearts, pink hearts, hearts, hearts, hearts, hearts – hearts everywhere. Reminders that this is the month of love – of date nights, rom-coms, cupid, and sappy Hallmark movies. February challenges us to love better, deeper, to show our care through actions.
However, not everyone has a sweetie to pour love on. But – everyone has a self. Luckily, love goes many directions, including inward. The relationship we have with ourselves is the greatest love story of our lives. And, we are the authors of this self-love story. What kind of story are you writing?
How well we love ourselves sets the bar for other relationships and effects our health. Self-care, self-love comes in many avenues, styles, and flavors. Sometimes it is gentle, soothing, comforting and nurturing. Sometimes it is that swift kick in the tush to get motivated and do the next right thing for our growth and health. Self-care isn’t always indulgent, sometimes it is the tough love of self-discipline. Both are necessary; however, people tend to lean toward one or the other. How about you – do you tend toward soothing indulgence or regimented self-discipline? Where can you grow to incorporate more of both in your daily routine?
There seems to be no shortage of stress in our daily lives. Whether it’s the 24/7 news cycle, deadlines at work, bills and financial stress, raising children, relationship difficulties – many of us are struggling with anxiety, burnout, low energy, sadness, and overwhelm. Research reminds us stress lives not the external situation but in our internal reaction to it. Which is good news! We can’t always control the external situation, but we can learn to control our reaction. Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, states: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Changing our response is possible with practice, persistence, and commitment.
We know the body’s stress response is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system as it prepares the body to fight or flee. This response creates energy that is diverted to the muscles away from internal organs which alters their function. For example, digestion slows or shuts down during times of heightened stress response. One crucial responses we can practice is to activate our parasympathetic nervous system – the calm-down “rest and digest” response that returns the body to homeostasis. This parasympathetic state is supposed to be dominant, but for most of us it isn’t. Most of us are living lives of chronic stress response activation which has deleterious effects on global health.
Another crucial response – showing compassion to self and others. An act of compassion has been shown to lower stress hormones in the blood and saliva and strengthen the immune system. We can further regulate our bodies and return to calm dominance vs. stress dominance through practicing few techniques. Here are some suggestions:
Breathing exercises – Deep breathing is an automatically programmed response in the body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Belly or diaphragmatic breathing is a great place to start. Incorporate a pause and 3 deep breaths once per hour into your day. It is life changing, promise.
Labeling with the senses – take a moment and just look around and label: 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. This shifts the brain from the limbic (emotional) system back into the rational, calmer frontal lobes. Do this repeatedly until you start to feel more settled. Better yet, go for a walk outside and just begin to label everything you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. Try it once per day.
Soothing sensory moments – Try tying in a sensory object to your breathing practice for deeper relaxation. Something like your favorite smelly lotion, essential oil, a fuzzy blanket, a worry stone, a sip of tea. This will begin to tie the object to the response of relaxation. Essentially training your brain to respond to this stimulus with the desired response. Very Pavlovian.
Hum – Humming stimulates the vagus nerve that runs down the neck and into the abdomen, connecting the brain to all the major organs. The vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system. To stimulate this nerve creates calming responses.
Mind your mind – Brené Brown says, “Talk to yourself like you would someone you love.” Our thoughts can build stress or mitigate it. Speak kindly and encouraging to yourself. You deserve it. You’re doing the best you can.
Move your body – exercise, dance, walk, squat, climb, stretch, yoga, bike, run. The body needs to metabolize the energy created during the stress response. It needs to spend that energy to calm and relax. Movement of some kind is essential to global health.
Self-love is a conscious choice. A compassionate action. Engaging in daily activities that create calmer, more enjoyable lives takes constant choice and gentle discipline built on the belief that you deserve a better way to engage in life. Choose to take care of your own heart – the physical and the metaphorical. Choose the simple pause to take some deep breaths, the walk outside, to be kind to yourself, the daily self-care. Choose the self-discipline, the routine, the exercise, the nutritious food. Choose to show yourself the same love and care you would your sweetie, your pet, or your child. Choose to believe you are worth it. You are the author holding the pen. Write yourself well.
EAW Invites you to join us at these upcoming events in February:
Mental Health Symposium 2/13
Self-Compassion Workshop Series starting 2/27
Foundations of Mindfulness 4-part series starting 2/19
Art as Therapy 2/20
Self-Care for New Helpers Lunch & Learn Series 2/13, 2/27 and more
Please see our website for more information including registration.