Self-care are the latest hyphenated buzz words generating cash money for many industries who try to sell us another thing we don’t need. I explore self-care in the real world, for what it really is, just being an adult and making good daily decisions and habits.
We have the option to compare more than ever before
The upswing in interest in health and eating that has resulted from social media has really made me focus on our obsession with food and comparing ourselves. There are so many people shilling “health” information online, some good and some totally unsubstantiated and some personal opinions. If a celebrity or influencer is doing it, then I can see how it would motivate others to follow the same advice in the hopes of some kind of radical change in their lives.
When I get sucked in by this atmosphere it can be easy to think that if I just follow this smoothie-only program I too can look like that person. When I see the seemingly perfect life in a stylish apartment filled with all the expensive food and beauty products it’s easy to feel jealous or that I need to go out and buy those things. Not acknowledging that maybe they were paid to post about said products or sent them for free to try.
Smoothies all day
I have to admit that seeing beautifully styled bowls of coconut or almond yoghurt, topped with grain-free granola and chia seeds makes me want to go and make that. Totally disregarding that a meal of purely nuts and seeds won’t leave me feeling good. I have to remind myself to keep my eyes on my own plate and eat for my own needs and health goals instead of what’s trending online. I have to listen to my own body, no one else can do that for me and tell me exactly what it needs. I can’t be embarrassed if I have to make an unpopular choice of what my body needs instead of a picture perfect acai bowl that will leave my blood sugar crashing in a couple of hours and my hunger through the roof. We can’t compare what we are eating to others, in real life or online.
Broccoli as a protein source?
The other side of the influx of health and wellness information online is that anyone can post anything. There are so many totally inaccurate claims circulating out there and someone whose idea of a good time isn't reading books and studies on health may find themselves confused and conflicted. Everyone is trying intermittent fasting or keto, should I do that too? Doing a week-long juice cleanse or having smoothies for two meals a day seems popular now, is that right for my goals? It’s easy to get swept up along with the rush of people wanting to try something new.
Resisting the IG vortex
I use social media because I love being inspired, interact and see new ideas and products. But I definitely am the first to notice myself scrolling mindlessly and acknowledging that I need to put the phone down. I’m also quick to unfollow someone who’s content makes me upset, makes me feel like my life isn't enough, makes me feel unhappy with my body. I don’t need those feeling in my life, I don’t want to be triggered into feeling down.
My ultimate reminder to myself is to not spiral down the social media rabbit hole too frequently. Stick to what I know my body needs. Continue educating myself on what is best for me and not via dramatized posts online. I have to walk my own journey, we all do.
I’m reading the totally not new book “Adrenal Fatigue - The 21st Century Stress Syndrome”. I love that the first and most important part of healing is lifestyle changes. Everyone wants to take that magic supplement or pill to fix whatever is making them unwell. Unfortunately, lifestyle, mindset, and attitude play a much more important part in our health. They are not as easy as popping a pill, they take daily work. We can’t undo a bad lifestyle or a negative mindset with just ashwagandha or rhodiola or what another new adaptogen, vitamin or mineral is in the spotlight.
What exactly is adrenal fatigue?
Adrenal fatigue is the down-regulation of your adrenal gland, and the main symptoms are fatigue, inability to handle stress and a weakened immune system. There are many other symptoms I’m not going to list. I’ve had first-hand experience with these symptoms, from being hospitalized for a lung infection in my 20’s then training excessively and running multiple long distance running events (marathons and ultra-marathons) over years and taking asthma medication with corticosteroids daily. These are all detailed in the book as being possible triggers for adrenal fatigue. The feelings of sleeping for 9 or 10 hours and still waking up exhausted, trivial negative events triggering tears and hopelessness, catching any cold going around.
Chronic stress and cortisol.
The effect of stress is cumulative. For example; a hard training session, a processed sugary donut for breakfast, making a mistake at work and beating ourselves up about it, feeling bloated leaving us unhappy with how we look that day all add up to the stress load for the day. Add to that being stuck in traffic, long queues at the supermarket, staying up late to finish watching a show on Netflix. All of this snowballs into a heavy load of stress, even though conventionally none of those issues on their own would raise any alarms. Then say as I got sick and couldn't recover, had an asthma attack and had to be hospitalized. This event could have been the straw that broke the camel's back or one of many others stresses to come.
The book has made me realize that even though I experienced physical events that could have triggered the burn out of my adrenal glands, what is also most likely is my own thought process and mindset can greatly contribute to the syndrome. Negative self-talk, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, not being good enough are just as harmful as over training or a bad diet. I remember dreading to go in to work on many days, feeling overwhelmed, hopeless that I couldn't leave, unhappy.
Adrenal Fatigue - is there a way out?
It’s not easy to reverse years of negative thinking, but it can be done. Unfortunately, I can’t tout a success story about how I fixed my anxiety and adrenal fatigue by thinking positively, this is still a work in progress. Reading the book has made me more aware of how big the role of attitude and mindset has on our overall health, not just adrenal. I related to many of the emotions covered like regret, hopelessness, dread, negative self-talk.
Where do I start?
The first step is always acknowledging what I need to work on and I feel like the book helped me identify that. Now I need to isolate when I’m being negative or thinking negatively about myself. What are my most common negative thoughts? Then I can replace these with new more positive thought patterns. Or if I find myself in a negative situation then I need to reframe my view to be more positive. Stop thinking about what others opinions are of me, and do what I want to do. It also pays to practice gratitude, remind myself daily how much I have to be thankful for. The key here is practice and consistency. All of the solutions need to be worked on daily, it’s not going to be a one and done, or a quick fix. But now that I have re-focused on how important this is for my health, I’m going to give this a lot more attention.
I ran my first marathon in my early 20’s without much training. I wasn’t training in much of a structured way, I just ran for fitness. I decided to enter the Auckland Half marathon, but after entering in training I ran a 20km distance. My thought process was if I can run that in a training run on a weekend by myself, it wasn't going to be much of a challenge to do a half marathon. So I did what any sane runner would do, I changed to a full marathon. I had fun while doing it, and after forgetting the pain of the event I quickly signed up for another full marathon happening in 6 months time.
Run Run Run
After this second marathon, I signed up for another marathon and then a 60km trail ultramarathon. This led to a string of other marathons, other ultramarathons, and one half-marathon. I worked up to an 85km trail ultra and dreamed of one day doing a 100-mile race (160km). From the outside, this all seemed normal since everyone is told that more exercise is better. But I was slowly running myself ragged.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat with my heart racing. I’d walk to the bus in the middle of the night thinking it was time to head to work. I used the running high to keep me going. I’d walk to work for an hour and then run home straight after work. I couldn't understand why I had an insatiable hunger for peanut butter, polishing off jars at my desk at the office.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see overtraining manifesting itself. Luckily I didn't end up injured, any niggles I had were seen to by my mum who works as a sports massage therapist. The classic signs of cortisol and adrenaline peaking at incorrect times, like the middle of the night. The hunger for high-calorie foods. Constant tiredness. I was either running or recovering. For many runners, this could be normal but my adrenals couldn't handle it anymore.
The climax was running a marathon, then the next day tripping running to catch the bus to work. I hurt my knee pretty badly, it swelled to a huge ball and I still have the scar to show where the chunk of skin got eaten by the pavement. I couldn't run but had a 60km mountain run in a month or so. I recovered from the knee injury in time for the race but hadn't done much prep. Then the day before flying to the destination mountain race I got a gastro bug, had diarrhoea and couldn't eat anything. I decided to run the race and see how I felt. Surprisingly during the entirety of the 60km race, I didn't poop my pants. But afterwards, I was up all night on the toilet and still couldn't eat anything. In a way, my body was fed up and telling me, no more!
I broke up with running.
Reading the signs I called a hiatus on running, which was a great decision for me at the time. Since then I have run a couple of half marathons but nothing longer, I now love rock climbing and lifting weights at the gym. I still have the propensity to extreme exercising. If I could exercise hard every day or even twice a day I probably would. My boyfriend said recently, stop punishing yourself in the gym. I never thought of it that way but maybe I am, for some reason, those words really stuck with me.
Even knowing my capacity for stress on my body may be lower than other people, and exercise is stress, I still try to push it. The results are usually my body run down or sick with a cold or gastro bug. I’m finally reading Dr. Wilson’s book on adrenal health to find better ways to support myself and that will need an entirely separate post. For now, I just need to remind myself that taking more rest days is totally necessary and I have to stay conscious of my stress levels lest I keep depleting my body.
When trying to live a more intentional life and stripping away mindless consumerism, mindless consumption of media, mindless eating. What activities will add to our lives instead of subtracting? Are we “switching off” to cope with life instead of living intentionally?
A large number of people use shopping, watching TV or eating as a day to day crutch or band-aid. Tired from a long day? We watch an entire season of a new show without moving. Stressed from work? We go all out on a pint of ice cream or a bag of tortilla chips. General doom and gloom? We hit the shops for some retail therapy. Mostly these self-soothing mechanisms are tried and true. But do they really work? In the end, are we left back where we started, or maybe worse off if we have sabotaged goals we had in place?
Long-term habits and lifestyle over perfection.
It can be hard to analyze our own coping strategies, especially if anxiety and negative thinking make an appearance in our lives. It can feel a whole lot easier to just not think about what is impacting us and space out. I watched two great documentaries, one about hoarding and the other about alcoholism. Both of these are just the extreme version of seemingly coping mechanisms, spun totally out of control. The people afflicted have lost the ability to handle stress in any other way. Some could even pinpoint what could be the root cause of their issue or that they needed therapy to work through historical issues but had no means to do so. This doesn't mean it’s like this for everyone who has extreme hoarding tendencies or alcoholism. A similar problem is those who constantly overeat, with shows like My 600-pound life showing us another stress mechanism gone extreme. When the seemingly only comfort or self-soothing is to eat in unhealthily large amounts; past the point of normal satiety. This is all done just to feel good, but it can form a vicious cycle of negative emotions.
When we have made a goal to eat more healthfully, we are doing ourselves a disservice by using junk food as a treat after a bad day. When we have made a goal to be more intentional with our purchases and reduce the things we own, we are sabotaging ourselves by using shopping as a reward. If our goal is to start a business, write more, build closer relationships with our family and friends or volunteer, we are disrupting our plans to achieve these things. As with all things in life, moderation is key. And when we moderate these activities let’s do it mindfully.
When we do want to eat something delicious, how about limiting it to a serving, say a few squares of chocolate and taking our time eating it and enjoying, don't distract yourself with emails or eat it while driving your car. Sit down and have a moment to savour and relax. If it’s shopping, then spend time researching what you intend to buy, consider if you really need it or if you need a quick hit how about buying something for charity? Groceries to donate to a food bank, or toys to a shelter. And with media lets put a limit on how much we consume, and when. If you find yourself scrolling through suggestions on Instagram and see hours swim past acknowledge what you’re doing. If you are watching something that doesn't interest you just because it’s there, set it aside. These are habits like anything else, and if we want to, we can change into whatever serves us best.
When we think about health, what comes to mind? Eating vegetables, exercise, meditation, sleep. But research from a Harvard University study running for nearly 80 years makes an argument for the importance of relationships. Their words are that loneliness kills. This doesn't mean that taking care of your body is not important. Avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol, physical activity, stress management and maintaining a healthy weight are all indicators for health. But having healthy relationships is in the same category. We schedule our yoga sessions and trips to the gym. We go to farmers markets and cook healthy whole foods. How often do we think about and intentionally work to improve our relationships? The study found that those who maintained healthy relationships were happier and lived longer.
It’s easy to get caught up in the motions of every day and despite being around people still, be isolated. When we are with family and friends, are we truly present or distractedly checking our phones? Do we invite meaningful conversation with our partner and close friends? Sometimes it feels that our most intimate conversations happen at the start of a relationship and then tapers off to a kind of maintenance level. Family, friends, community all build strong social support and leave you with people you can really count on. This will directly impact happiness and satisfaction throughout life.
Maybe your relationships are more complicated and you need outside help? Repairing these or letting go may be the answer. Don’t let unresolved issues get swept under the rug and fester for years. Seek out counselling, therapy or talk to a trusted person. It can be scary to tackle relationship problems head-on, so find support. And on the other hand what if one day we realize that by taking the focus of relationships we just don’t have any people? It can be hard as an adult to make friends. After being stuck in an anti-social rut for a long time, look into things like meetup.com, volunteering, a course. Ask your existing people or person if they can set you up with a friend. If you are invited to something, actually consider attending. You never know where that one unicorn of a friend may be lurking. On a side note, meeting people at bars or nightclubs may not be the most productive option. It’s loud and people are a few drinks deep, which may seem like a positive - hello Dutch courage. But the chances of you meeting someone who you genuinely have something in common with are slim.
Let’s put relationships in the self-care basket, like drinking a green juice, taking a bath or doing a yoga class. When we are with the people we love, really be there. Focus on quality. Put the phone away. Invite a conversation by being vulnerable and sharing something going on in your life, good or bad with someone you care about. Send an email or call a friend you haven't seen in awhile, and take it beyond “hi, how are you”. And a special reminder for introvert me, you have to sometimes leave the house to actually interact with humans!