By Dr. Lisa Edwards – “It’s that time of year!” I’ve been hearing this a lot recently from colleagues, students, and friends, and I’ve been saying it myself. There seems to be a certain level of stress in the air, an energy that you can almost feel as you walk around campus or enter a school or mental health center. There are piles of work to get done, coupled with unexpected situations and crises that have to be addressed. And in the midst of it all, each of us is trying to manage our own professional and personal lives, while avoiding the latest cold or flu. Perhaps it’s the time of semester, the change in weather, or the holidays. Either way, it can be a lot to manage.
It would be easy during this time of year to push ahead and sacrifice sleep, balanced meals and exercise to get everything off the to-do list. We could spend our moments complaining about how busy things are and day-dreaming about a more calm time. I admit that I sometimes do this—my mind will wander as I imagine a day off from work (and kids) where I can sip hot chocolate, do some baking and reading, and take a few naps.
The reality is, however, that I won’t have an entire day like this. Dreaming of this just makes me frustrated, and then I find myself complaining. So, what’s a more productive way for us to approach the season rather than working to the point of exhaustion or living in a fantasy world? Slowing down and taking the time to periodically nourish our bodies and minds.
It’s exactly in these busy times, when it feels like we can’t possibly squeeze in another minute or activity that we have to make time for self-care. Research would suggest that when we take the moments to step away from work and engage in self-care, we can actually be more productive. The consequences of not attending to self-care, of course, are that we can become sick, overwhelmed, irritable and even burned out. At that point, we surely won’t be able to accomplish anything on our to-do lists!
Below are some basic self-care strategies that are easy, brief, and that you can implement today (or even right now!):
Take 5. Try taking a walk (outside, or up and down the stairs), or doing some basic stretches to get your body moving at different points during the day. Also consider trying a short guided meditation. Sitting in silence can be challenging if you don’t already have a regular meditation practice, so guided meditations are great for helping us through the process. Some of my favorite meditations (options range from 3 to 20 minutes, about different topics) can be found at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center website: http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22
Turn off the technology as early as possible. We all have grand plans to go to bed early, but then one activity leads to another, and another, and suddenly we are faced with getting less than an ideal amount of sleep. Research suggests that sleep is critical for our bodies for a variety of reasons, and a recent study even demonstrated that adults who were infected with a cold virus were less likely to develop the cold if they slept at least 7 hours per night. So let’s promise to turn off our phones/ iPads/ TV’s/ computers at a certain point in the evening and head to bed for some quality zzzz’s.
Pace yourself. There will be a lot of food temptations this season, many of which will be replete with the very ingredients that we know will zap our energy and increase inflammation in our bodies. Just because the cookies are there in front of us in the lounge doesn’t mean we have to take them every time. But, it can also feel discouraging to constantly deprive ourselves of a treat. Perhaps a little balance is more helpful. We can pace ourselves by having healthy breakfasts and lunches (think adding more whole fruits and vegetables) if we know we are going to indulge in treats later.
Extend compassion to others, and yourself. There are times when it’s important to hold others, and ourselves, to a certain standard or expectation. Sometimes, however, we can ease off a bit without sacrificing what we need. If a certain relative doesn’t pitch in during the holidays, cut them some slack. If a friend doesn’t seem to be as attentive this time of year, let it go. We’re all just trying to get through these busy times, so let’s be patient with one another. Most importantly, extend that same compassion to yourself. So you didn’t get to bake something for a party, or you didn’t accomplish everything on your list—oh well! None of us is perfect, and life will go on.
What self-care strategies do you do this time of year?
A Note on the Author: Lisa M. Edwards is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology. Her blog, hopefulmama.com, is dedicated to sharing mommy-inspired and science-informed strategies for cultivating strengths.