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Self-care is a topic that, when I was in graduate school, I did not believe was terribly important. It comes up in a number of counseling courses, but my experience was that the rigorous nature of the program made it seem impossible to practice what was being taught. Taking time for self-care seemed a frivolous indulgence for which I did not have the time. Today, I understand the value of self-care for my own physical and mental health, for my relationship, and in my professional role but, as I did in graduate school, continue to experience the feeling of never quite having enough time to do all of the things that I want to do.
My most salient memory of learning about self-care in graduate school was in a practicum course. We spent one hour discussing self-care, culminating in a planned self-care exercise – meditation. I had only been exposed to meditation previously in an undergraduate health course, and it was a joke. Imagine telling 25 busy and exhausted college students to sit on a mat, close their eyes, listen to some soothing music, and shut their brains off for an hour. Nap time anyone? So, when the recent graduate and guest speaker in my practicum course told us to close our eyes and focus our attention on our breathing, I assumed it was hokum. I will admit that I did not fully engage in the exercise and was overly critical, asserting that I felt no change in my mood and that I did not see the point. I am a little bit wiser now (really, only a little bit) and understand that meditation is not, as my undergraduate professor implied, shutting your brain off and eliminating all thoughts. I have also had the opportunity to learn about mindfulness practice from some individuals who are much smarter than I, including the scientific evidence demonstrating its benefits as well as the “how.” Still, I had to close some gaps between learning and then applying this to caring for myself.
Imagine telling 25 busy and exhausted college students to sit on a mat, close their eyes, listen to some soothing music, and shut their brains off for an hour.
Finding a Passion
I moved from Alabama nearly three years ago and found the big city of Nashville to be a bit intimidating. I have always been pretty active and taught group exercise classes in college and grad school but was disappointed by the offerings at local gyms, excluding high end boutique fitness which were out of my budget. A few months after I relocated to Nashville, a friend from work told me that she had heard about a local running club and invited me to check it out with her. I responded with an adamant “no” and told her that I don’t run unless something is chasing me. She was relentless and didn’t want to go alone, so I went once just to humor her, expecting a miserable experience similar to running laps around the basketball court in high school gym class.
The first time I showed up to the running club, affectionately called “East Nasty” due to its affiliation with the hip East Nashville neighborhood, I was intimidated. There were at least 100 runners and many of them looked like “real runners.” We fell in with the slowest pace group and I was completely surprised to find myself having fun. These people alternated jogging and walking and chatted as they ran through the neighborhood. It didn’t take me long to realize that “in shape” and “in running shape” are totally different things (thank you Nashville hills), but I was hooked that day. I started running frequently with the friend who convinced me to give the group a try and we convinced more and more of our friends to join us. Eventually we signed up and trained for a 10k, the longest distance I had ever run.
If you had asked me five years ago what I might choose to do for fitness, stress relief, and socialization, there is a zero percent chance that I would have said running.
After the 10k, I shyly admitted to a runner friend that I had always secretly wanted to run a half marathon but had never told anyone because it was a crazy idea. She admitted that she had the same crazy goal and together we signed up for a free half marathon training program with East Nasty. I was adamant that a half marathon was the longest distance I would ever run, that anything else would just be ridiculous. To my own surprise, I have since run four marathons and one ultra marathon. I even met my fiancé at the running club during the second week of training for my first half marathon.
If you had asked me five years ago what I might choose to do for fitness, stress relief, and socialization, there is a zero percent chance that I would have said running. Now when I run I’m as close to meditating as I’ll ever be. It doesn’t happen every time, usually only when I’m alone and several miles into a very long run, but I actually find that the buzz in my brain is calmed. I’ve actively tried to worry during these times, and there are plenty of stressors to consider, but found it impossible. Some people say they think about and solve their problems when they’re running, but sometimes I actually find that I’ve outrun my problems. I notice myself paying attention to the cardinals and deer, trees and streams around me, for a moment thinking outside of myself.
Now, if I found something that brings me as much joy and stress relief as running, I’d want to do it and make time for it every day, right? Absolutely not.
Running may not be your passion, but there are dozens of other ways to practice self-care. A willingness to try things may lead you to enjoy something you previously thought you never would, or could, do. In Nashville, there’s a group that practices goat yoga, literally yoga with goats. If running isn’t your cup of tea, keep looking. It’s out there.
Now, if I found something that brings me as much joy and stress relief as running, I’d want to do it and make time for it every day, right? Absolutely not. I rarely want to run until I’ve actually started, usually not until I’m a couple miles in. I recently started my own private practice. There is always work to be done, which makes it difficult to step away and take time for myself. On the weekends, it’s never easy to get out of bed early, go through the preparation process, and drive out to the park for a long run. One hundred percent of the time, I would rather stay in my warm cocoon, so I battle with myself every time. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned that motivate me to get out and do the thing that helps me take care of myself.
First, I’ve realized that I’m actually more productive and efficient when I am engaging in self-care. When I know there is work to be done, it’s hard to justify going for a run, spending time with a friend, reading a book, or getting some sleep. I’ve come to understand, though, that I can accomplish much more when I am doing things to take care of myself and to release stress than I can when I don’t allow myself any time for enjoyable activities (sleep is an activity, right?). When I walk away from work for a bit and do something that engages my brain in a less pressured activity I often find that when I return the right words or solutions come to me almost immediately.
Third, my fiancé and I know that we both need to take care of ourselves for the health of our relationship.
Second, I feel less overwhelmed when I’m balancing work with getting adequate sleep, socializing, eating well, and exercising. All of the stressors still exist, but they stress me out less. I’ve been reading a book about incorporating exercise into treatment for depression and anxiety. The authors encourage readers to shift to a focus on mood benefits when feeling unmotivated to exercise. They note that we never feel worse and typically feel better after a workout and encourage individuals to get out and go for this reason. They explain that if we’re exercising to lose weight or see our bodies change we might give up because we don’t see change quickly but, if we are focusing on mood improvement we can feel this almost immediately (Otto and Smitts, 2011).
Third, my fiancé and I know that we both need to take care of ourselves for the health of our relationship. When we are not sleeping enough, eating well, exercising, or having our social needs met, we feel more stressed, perceive our bodies negatively, and have less patience with one another. We view taking care of ourselves as necessary components of taking care of the relationship we share.
“You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it” (B. Cook, personal communication, 2016).
Accountability is a must for me. If I commit to plans with a friend, I’m not going to back out. In contrast, if we leave it open (“Let’s get coffee sometime this weekend”) it won’t happen. I pay for running training groups because if I pay money and meet a coach who’s going to email me and give me a hard time if I don’t show up, I’m going to be there even if I initially didn’t want to be.
This last motivator is a phrase that I’ve often heard a dear friend and colleague utilize: “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it” (B. Cook, personal communication, 2016). Rarely do I like leaving work unfinished, getting out of bed early on a Saturday, or eating my vegetables. It’s immensely relieving to know that I don’t have to feel like doing any of these things, and I can stop waiting around for the feeling of motivation to strike me. I just have to get out and do it, or there will be consequences.
Otto, M. W. & Smits, J. A. J. (2011). Exercise for mood and anxiety: Proven strategies for overcoming depression and enhancing well-being. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.