Nat Kelly Nat Kelly26 January 2023 Open Science
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Five Strategies for Self-Care

For many people, with the start of a new year comes a spate of new personal self-care targets. January 1st is viewed as a new beginning, a time to make—often significant—changes to one’s behavior. By the time February comes around, however, it is estimated that 80% of resolutions have failed.

Here, we present five of the most important strategies for self-care:

  1. Exercise
  2. Meditation and mindfulness
  3. Goal setting
  4. Diet and gut health
  5. Sleep

We also cover how to implement them effectively, as working towards new goals and establishing routines can be very difficult. Developing good habits, from exercise and diet to sleep, can positively impact your life.

1. Exercise

Perhaps the most common New Year’s resolution and popular self-care strategy, regularly exercising is crucial to a healthy life. However, many of us find it incredibly difficult to commit to. We set big targets, then find we don’t have the time or we’re too distracted, and thus lose motivation.

A good way to keep up with your exercise goals is to match your activity to your personality. For example, introverts generally avoid activities centered around social gatherings. Therefore, they are much more likely to sustain an activity if it can be done alone. Conversely, extroverts will feel much less motivated to do an activity if they’re not fulfilling their need for interaction. There are many more personality traits that determine whether we like an activity or not, but the most important thing is to find something you can enjoy.

Furthermore, the gamification of physical activity can help with the monotony many of us experience with physical exercise. The use of fitness trackers can be an excellent motivator for maintaining an exercise routine, particularly when starting.

Initially, we tend to start with an external locus of control with difficult tasks. That is, our motivation tends to come from outside sources—e.g., a fitness app that rewards us for reaching various milestones. As we progress, this moves from external to internal, meaning that we are able to keep to a routine because we enjoy or see the value in it. Therefore, it’s important to provide yourself with plenty of external motivators when developing a new self-care routine.

2. Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and other mindfulness activities can be just as difficult to build into your routine as exercise. Though requiring little to no physical effort, many find difficulty in switching off in a world filled with distractions.

This is unsurprising with the constant overload of notifications, breaking news, and algorithms designed to hold our attention. It is thus more important than ever to take time away from technology for self-care. The problematic use of social media, for example, has been linked to poor self-esteem and body image. It can also lead to more serious emotional problems, such as alexithymia, an inability to describe and identify one’s emotions.

An increased connection between areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation has been detected following mindfulness activities. This helps us better identify and respond to difficult emotions, facing them head on instead of letting them fester. Also, meditation specifically has been found to lower levels of depression and promote resilience.

There are many mindful self-care strategies that can be built into our daily routines. Anything can be done mindfully: eating, washing up, walking, etc. Fully focusing on the task at hand and not getting side-tracked by other worries or concerns is the essence of mindfulness. This means that it can be introduced at almost any point in your day, allowing flexibility in your implementation.

3. Goal setting

Often, people are very black and white with their goal setting. We see things as absolutes and tend to keep the details vague: “I will be more mindful”; “I will do more exercise”; “I will improve my diet”.

Whilst the intentions are undoubtedly good, the lack of a clearly defined plan for a self-care, or indeed any, strategy inevitably leads to failure. Without small, actionable steps, it is almost impossible to evaluate our progress, which is fundamental to maintaining motivation.

Two types of goals, therefore, should be implemented: proximal (short-term) and distal (long-term). Proximal goals serve as the slats across a bridge, small steps to eventually achieve your long-term goal of crossing said bridge. They should all build up on your experience and be manageable and attainable, serving as little boosters in motivation.

An MDPI study also found that as well as telling yourself what to do, you should frequently remind yourself of why you’re doing it. Outline exactly what achieving a goal—big or small—will do for you. For example, if it is just to read one page of a textbook, ask yourself how it will enrich you, or why it is important for your wider aims.

This improves one’s overall self-efficacy, improving confidence and providing a blueprint on how to succeed at tasks in all areas of life.

4. Diet and gut health

In recent years, the connection between the gut and brain has been heavily researched.

The brain tends to build up a picture of the overall health of the body—which areas are in distress, what needs to be done to minimize this, etc. As one of the body’s largest organs, the gut is of major importance in this picture. Intestinal distress results in signals being sent to the brain that convey the extent of damage to the system.

Whilst we may not be fully conscious of this process, an association has been found between gut microbiota and depression. This is because the brain perceives the gut as suffering, resulting in a pervasive feeling of anxiety or depression.

It is incredibly important, then, to eat a wide range of foods to develop a healthy gut. Unfortunately, the Western diet, in particular, is not very diverse.

Diets can be difficult to stick to, especially with the wide range of hyperpalatable meals and snacks available now. One solution can be to progressively wean yourself off unhealthy foods. Still allow yourself to consume some, but decrease your consumption in terms of frequency or amount. Replace the deficit with something healthier, like fruits and vegetables.

5. Sleep

Despite the fact that many suffer from fatigue, sleep is talked about far less than, e.g., diet or exercise.

It has been found that insomniacs are generally less active than their well-rested counterparts. It also takes them more effort to complete activities, with tiredness acting as a huge barrier to their goals.

This can be averted in a number of ways. Arguably the most important is going to bed earlier, at the same time each night, and waking up at the same time each morning. However, a 10 pm bedtime, say, is a huge shock to the system if you usually see the early hours. This is why it is important to scale back gradually. Go to bed 10 minutes earlier than normal for a few days and repeat.

Routine is important for self-care—not just going to bed the same time every night, but also doing the same things beforehand. This could involve music or reading, or getting in the shower. Basically, you just want your mind to establish certain rituals with the act of falling asleep.

Exercise is also crucial for sleep. If you struggle to drop off, it can be beneficial to do moderate-to-vigorous exercise during the day. This helps reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and can be used to kickstart your new sleep schedule.

Much more research on exercise, sleep, gut health, etc., can be found here. Also, take a look at our piece on the role of plants in health and self-care.