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What is Self-Care and Why is it Important?

By: Shaila Anjum


Self-care, self-care, self-care! Feels like the word has lost all meaning, hearing it over and over and over again! Sorry everyone, but it is important to understand what it is and why it is important for ALL of us. None of us are exempt from the importance of self-care. This article will talk about how no one shoe fits all for self-care habits and what the aim of self-care really is. It will also talk about the parts of the brain and hormones that are involved in some emotions and how certain imbalances may affect you physiologically in the short or long term.

What is Self-Care?

Psych Central describes self-care as “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health” (Michael, 2018). A simple concept really – but we don’t always practice it correctly. Psychologist Agnes Wainman from London, Ontario is a big advocate on self-care and talks about what it really entails. The first question Dr. Wainman asks herself is “is this giving to me or taking from me?” (Wainman, 2018). Self-care looks different for everyone. For example, though gardening can be a relaxing activity for some, for others it’s anxiety provoking: Am I using the right soil? Is there too much water? Is it not enough? Does this plant need more sunlight? Is it an indoor or outdoor plant? When should I repot it? The list of anxious thoughts can never end! For others, it may be very relaxing and the thought of bringing something to life and watching it bloom may be exciting to them!

Wainman as well says that sometimes self-care is the absence of doing something. Especially if planning or exerting energy and money only wears you down. Sometimes people will use screen time as their way to wind down and use it as a part of their self-care routine. While after work a glass of wine and a good old show like Friends can feel therapeutic, excessive screen time can be straining to our eyes, raise cortisol levels, and cause agitation and irritability (Dunkley, 2015). Once these low moods become chronic, they are often diagnosed as stemming from depression or other disorders (Dunkley, 2015). Everything is good in moderation, even self-care routines. Just like excessive screen time, certain repetitive self-care routines may cause boredom and agitation rather than relaxation.

Why is Self-Care Important?

We know the basic importance of self-care: reduce stress and anxiety, increase happiness, health, and wellbeing. For some of us it’s easy to understand the science behind this but not all of us come from a science-oriented background in education. The main part of our brain that controls emotions is the limbic system (Dartmouth Medical School, 2006). In the limbic system you can find the hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus (Dartmouth Medical School, 2006). These different areas help decode stimuli, access memory, and produce an emotional reaction. Several hormones are involved in these areas of the brain, like cortisol, which is our stress hormone; and serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, which are our are our ‘feel good’ hormones (Breazeale, 2013). These are just some examples of hormones involved in two emotions.

An important thing to remember is that our hormones and what we see in the environment have a domino effect in our brain. What I mean by that is that one stimulus doesn’t just have one effect; they have several different effects. For example, as cortisol increases, we become stressed, and our other hormones are also affected. For example, serotonin may decrease as a result, since chances of us being stressed and happy at the same time may not be so likely (Breazeale, 2013). Major spikes with hormones in either direction affect organ functionality. One of the main organs is our brain, which affects everything else in our body.

Chronic imbalances of these hormones can cause mental illnesses. For example, a regular increase in cortisol levels over a long period of time can “slow the production of new neurons and cause the neurons in the hippocampus to shrink,” which can affect your memory significantly (Cirino, 2016).So that’s just about your brain, but your organs are also affected! For example, below is a diagram that illustrates effects of depression on different parts of the human body:

So, as you can see, there are detrimental effects on the body that have significant scientific validity. The importance of self-care is more important now than ever, as we are so accustomed to a busy and financially stressful lifestyle, trying to make ends meet, balancing our social life, and our social media life. Better to recognize it and find early interventions to effectively manage and cope with stress than to sit in denial and wait for the destruction you’ll eventually feel on your body and mind.

References

Breazeale, R. (2013). The role of the brain in happiness. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-the-face-adversity/201302/the-role-the-brain-in-happiness

Dartmouth Medical School. (2006). Chapter 9 - Limbic System. Retrieved from https://www.dartmouth.edu/~rswenson/NeuroSci/chapter_9.html

Dunkley, L. V. (2015). Screentime is making kids moody, crazy and lazy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/mental-wealth/201508/screentime-is-making-kids-moody-crazy-and-lazy

Cirino, E. (2016). The effects of depression on the brain. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/effects-brain#1

Michael, R. (2018). What self-care is – and what it isn’t. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-self-care-is-and-what-it-isnt-2/

Wainman, A. (2018). Gardening is bullsh*t: Tales of failed “self-care”. Retrieved from https://www.londonps.ca/blog//gardening-is-bullsht-tales-of-failed-self-care

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