It’s often hard to think about self-care, isn’t it? When I think of it, I get this image of myself on a beach with my best friends relaxing. But then I put that thought out of my head because it just seems too selfish. I mean, I have four kids and a husband! Plus, I bring home no income so work diligently to manage our home life. There is no way I could do anything as selfish as self-care!
I’ve been pondering, though, about self-care. Is it selfish? I suppose selfishness could be labeled as “self-care”, but in general, self-care is rather …Christ-like.
Now you are intrigued, right? Because it seems like I just said that it’s godly to have a beach “Va-cay” with just your ladies! Let’s dive a little into what self-care really is.
Self-care is choosing to mindfully do the actions necessary so that your body can access the resources it needs to function properly. And in one sentence, it all got a whole lot less fun. Stick with me. Because of the influences of our culture, choices, and stressors, our bodies develop an improper relationship with hormones and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, the ones that help you avoid stress, feel good, and make good choices. Either your brain is not making enough or not able to access those important messengers. And without those hormones and neurotransmitters in the right, accessible, balance, we act impulsively and irritably, we procrastinate, we get distracted, we “sweat the small stuff” more.
Jesus knew the importance of self-care (He didn’t have to label it, though. He just chose actions to take care of His body). Because He knew what He did with His physical body impacted His mission! Want some great examples? He went alone to pray and focus His attention (Luke 5:16), He slept when others were sure He needed to be awake (Luke 8:22-25), and He spent time with close friends (Healing of Jarius’s daughter, transfiguration, and others). Jesus knew exactly what His body needed, so He did it even when others were pretty sure there were more important things to be doing.
How can you engage in this? Well, let me tell you about my daily self-care. Because of the effort it takes to manage my anxiety, I have learned a lot about self-care and how to make the choices I must in order to glorify God to the best of my ability. I occasionally get to do more fun things, like spending time painting with friends, but that self-care can only work as long as my body has been getting what it needs consistently.
- Focused Prayer. This is different from sending off a prayer when I see a request on Facebook (though that is valuable and I do it every time I see someone ask for prayer). This is choosing to push aside other distractions and focus my attention on God. It clears my mind and strengthens the calming centers in my brain.
This behavior has been studied as the practice of meditation. And research shows the difference it makes in your brain and in your behavior! Meditation reduces our impulsivity. It makes us stronger against physical and emotional pain. It helps us remember things better. It makes us feel less anxiety. Because you are strengthening the areas of your brain that make these happen! It’s totally cool. And just think of how those qualities reflect our Savior Who removed Himself from the needs around Him to focus His prayers.
- Sufficient Sleep. I solve problems all day, meeting the needs of my family, my work, and my community. So I really want to spend time at night enjoying myself with my husband. But because I have learned the value of sufficient sleep, I dutifully go to bed early enough that I can get 7 hours of sleep. The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep so that our bodies can do the important, godly work that is done in sleep.
What important work? Sleep is when our brains sort data and store long-term memories. That’s when our bodies repair and build tissue. That’s when new neuropathways are solidified. So, your body needs sleep!
But more than that happens when you sleep. First of all, your body tries to reset all its hormone levels. Okay, so your brain is responsible for tons of different stuff requiring tons of different hormones. Kinda like if you were building a city you’d need different materials in different places. But in all the activity to build the thing, the workers don’t have time to get the materials to the correct spots. That happens when you sleep- all the hormones and neurotransmitters get redistributed to the correct places. And when that happens regularly, the brain functions well. If it doesn’t, it slows down the function of the brain- it just doesn’t work as well. Serotonin is one of those supplies that gets to the right spots during sleep. If serotonin is working right and getting to the right places, we are less likely to be irritable. We are more likely to exhibit self-control (can you believe there is a way to increase self-control besides just trying harder!). We are better able to be compassionate to those hurting instead of condemning. Whoa!
- Exercise. Don’t you tell me Jesus didn’t exercise! He totally walked everywhere and probably chopped a ton of wood. The Bible doesn’t mention it because everyone was doing it. But our society is more sedentary, so we don’t move as much as God designed our bodies to. So we have to choose to do it.
So what does exercise do? It improves you baseline brain function. So everything you want your brain to do, it will do it better with exercise. It improves focused attention (makes you pray better), inhibits impulses (so you are less likely to grab that doughnut or yell at those kids), improves problem solving, memory, and thinking speed.
Plus, it releases our old friends dopamine and serotonin in specific parts of our brain to provide happy effects. Exercise gets the supplies to the areas where they are needed. So that you can care, you can enjoy, and you can get things done. This makes the other self-care things (that you really want me to talk about, like reading a book or getting together with friends for that “va-cay”) more enjoyable.
Not only that, but it burns off adrenaline and controls the hormone that triggers it’s release. That helps me especially with my heightened arousal. Instead of constantly looking for things to fight or flee from, I can manage my problems and focus on the work God is asking me to do.
For me, these self-care techniques (and the others I have to do) take a lot of time of my day. That is time that I could conceivably get other things done that feel more like “productivity” for my family and God’s Kingdom. Yet when I step back from all the needs and take care of myself, the things that I do for God will be done by someone who more accurately reflects His character. So I take the example of Christ, Who chose not to meet every demand and need that presented itself to Him, and invest myself in him and his character. To the Glory of the One Who made my body work best when all my chemicals are hitting their marks.