The Science of Self-Care: Why Taking Time for Wellness Isn't Optional
Jan 16, 2021
As a business coach for women who have been struggling with overwhelm and burnout, I love that we are collectively pushing "pause" on hustle-culture.
This past year gave many of us the opportunity to slow our roll. As we were leaning-in, it was a great time to revisit the state of our health and well-being. My social media was (and still is) full of advice on #selfcarehacks #selfcareideas and #selfcarethreads.
We are re-thinking what it means to be an entrepreneur. There is growing awareness and attention to the quality of life. Promises of glory by #grinding #hustle, #slay, #grit, #werk, #riseandgrind feel empty when you consider the costs.
And the costs are high. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, author, “Workplace environments in the US may be responsible for 120,000 excess deaths per year; accounting for about 180 billion dollars in additional healthcare expenses.”
So, why do we still struggle to create space in our schedules for wellness?
By now we know that slowing down and practicing consistent self-care has a positive impact on our health, which in turn has a positive impact on our businesses. Our bodies need to rest and reset after responding to stress. However, many of us don't realize that failing to step away from "stressors" and allow time for wellness, play, and connection, puts our nervous system in overdrive.
Many of us still view self-care as "optional" or even a luxury. What changed my perspective was understanding my nervous system and the way it responds to stress. Knowing that I can "influence" my nervous system has been a huge motivator for me, and I am hoping that you will feel the same after a little "neuroscience deep dive"!
The Science of Self-Care
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is your body's “supercomputer”.
The ANS runs in the background and regulates involuntary body functions such as heartbeat, blood flow, breathing, and digestion. Within this system, there are two important divisions: the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) handles your “fight-or-flight” response; a.k.a the “‘stress response”. This response evolved as a survival mechanism. It’s our body’s way of telling us there’s a perceived threat and we need to take action: fight or flee.
How does the body interpret “stress”? According to Dr. Hans Selye, stress is “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Today, stressors are anything that puts pressure on our minds or bodies; whether it be our work, bills, relationships, parenting, etc…
These stressors activate our sympathetic nervous system, telling the body to “take action” by:
➡Tensing the muscles
➡Increasing blood pressure & expanding blood vessels
➡Releasing blood sugar and fats from the body’s stores for energy
➡Increasing Cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
In times of real danger, this response helps us stay alert and alive.
The difficult part is that our bodies can’t tell the difference between “real danger” and “normal stressors”. While frustrating, we know that dealing with a grumpy customer and then returning home to a pile of dishes in a messy kitchen isn’t life-threatening. Yet, our SNS interprets these stressors in the same way it would an intruder or a charging bull.
Continuous activation of our sympathetic nervous system leads to chronic stress. Chronic stress is bad news and harmful to the body. While in this state, your normal processes of digestion, liver detoxification, cellular repair, immune function, and reproduction are interrupted.
Symptomatically you feel:
➡irritable & overwhelmed
➡unable to concentrate
➡unable to sleep
➡generally ill & sore
Left unchecked, these symptoms can lead to cardiovascular dysfunction, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune issues, as well as, depression and anxiety disorders.
Fortunately, our bodies come equipped with built-in “relaxation responses”. If the sympathetic nervous system is the “gas”, then the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is the “brake”. This system is known for “rest and digest”; a state of calm and relaxation.
Your Parasympathetic Nervous System holds the keys to well-being.
The PNS dictates the way you respond to and manage stress. The vagus nerve, the longest nerve in your body, sends messages to your parasympathetic system. By activating your vagus nerve through self-care, you are directing your parasympathetic nervous system.
Telling the body to:
➡Rest: healing occurs while you’re asleep.
➡Digest: the elements you need for energy and to maintain your body’s cells.
➡Repair: in adults, it’s wound healing and for children, repair includes growth.
➡Relax: the ability to ‘keep calm and carry on” with the necessary processess
Understanding the differences between these two systems allows us to make important choices for our health. Both systems are necessary. The SNS can get a bad rap, but in reality, it’s how we stay alive in life-threatening situations. We need those quick reflexive responses that ensure our safety. The goal is to maintain a healthy balance between the two states.
Practicing Intentional Self-Care
Self-care is often seen as optional or referred to as “a guilty pleasure”.
In reality, it is essential for optimal health and well-being. After we have experienced an activation of the SNS, we need to “deactivate” to return to a state of “rest and digest”. Fortunately, this is achieved without much effort or expense.
Although, sometimes we need to rewire our thoughts to help us be more consistent.
How to release shame or guilt when engaging in self-care activities.
In the early days of my business, guilt and shame prevented me from practicing consistent self-care. I would prioritize everything else, which led to chronic stress. Burning out taught me that my perspective of self-care needed to change.
A good friend offered a few words of sage advice. She said, “Jordan, you aren't feeling guilt or shame for maintaining your car or your home. You think of those activities as a necessity. Maintenance is essential if you want your car to run and your home to function and have value. It’s the same with self-care and your health.”
Whoa. Lightbulb moment.
After that, my thoughts changed from, “I’m neglecting my clients or employees when I take my daily walk.”
“When I schedule and commit to my daily walk, I am able to better serve my clients and provide better leadership for my employees.”
This simple shift helped me end the guilt, shame, and resistance I was feeling.
You’ve heard me say it before: Your Best Self does Your Best Work.
When we are consistent with our self-care, we are committing to our “health-care”. You can start by taking small, consistent actions on a daily basis.
My favorite go-to’s include:
➡Yoga Nidra Guided Meditation (check out Breath People for FREE!)
➡Saltwater & Magnesium Baths
➡Getting into nature & taking a “grounding walk”
➡Massage & spa days…
➡Turning on Pink Martini & cooking a yummy, healthy meal for my family
➡Replacing alcohol to de-stress with CBD drinks (My favorite is Infinite CBD)
➡Reading (On my must-read list: The Body Keeps The Score & Attached)
Keep in mind that the activity you choose doesn’t matter. It’s the state you achieve. One person could achieve a deep parasympathetic state while relaxing with a yoga Nidra, another an Epsom salt bath. Taking frequent breaks and practicing wellness will engage your Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Start small and work up to 30 minutes of parasympathetic activity each day. Bonus that self-care generally feels awesome as well!
I hope that you’ve found this “neuroscience deep dive” helpful. For me, it is motivating to learn the “why’s” besides to the “how’s”. Knowing the different states of my nervous systems allows me to make better choices for my health. I know exactly what to do when I am feeling “stressed” and I have the go-to activities that will get me into that state of deep rest and relaxation. Ahhhhhh…..:)
I would love to hear your feedback on this post!
What are your go-to activities? Do you still struggle with consistent self-care?
Hi there! I’m Jordan Eades, Holistic Business Coach and founder of Your Best Business LIfe. My passion is guiding women business owners who want to make a big impact in business—without sacrificing what matters most.
Your Best Business Life coaching provides the keys to overcoming overworking; allowing you to create a sustainable and profitable business, focus on the work that fuels your passion, unapologetically invest in self-care, prioritize experiences that light you up, and provide the support you need to thrive.
Want to work less & have more time for you?
Grab your FREE Business Without Burnout Guide!