Is It Selfish To Take Time For Self-Care?

Dr. Miles Nichols practicing qigong meditation.

As a functional medicine and Oriental medicine doctor seeing patients with complex chronic diseases, I admit my perspective may be skewed. However, it seems to me as if a majority of our culture is excessively worried and maintains an unhealthfully busy schedule. People are feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life and unable to commit the time to self-care and meditation practices. Further, many people today seem to be preoccupied with trying to simply get through the complex web of obligations they have. Many of my patients complain that they are struggling with fatigue, emotional turmoil, and even just getting through their day is a push.

There was a fascinating study that followed nearly 1,000 adults ages 34-93 for 5 years. The researchers tracked who died by looking at obituaries and state death records during that time. Participants were also interviewed about stressful events and about whether they had tangibly served family and/or friends in meaningful ways. The researchers concluded that for every major stressful event over the past year there was a 30% increase in the risk of dying over the next 5 years! This was a shockingly high statistic. However, those who were caring for and serving others did not have increased risk of death from stressful events. In other words, those who were caring for family and friends who also had significant stressful events had equally low risk of death as those without significant stressful events.1

Recently I was teaching a weekend meditation retreat on the system called Sheng Zhen Meditation, and one participant mentioned that she was there because she wanted to learn self-care. She commented that she had two children and a husband and that between her family and her work, she wasn’t taking time for herself. She felt like she had no issues giving to others, but she was feeling burnt out and that her fatigue and digestion were becoming bigger and bigger issues. She felt that stress and lack of self-care might have something to do with her symptoms.

So, if serving and caring for others saves lives and cultivates resilience in the face of stress, but focusing on family and work together with other obligations of life leaves little time for self-care and contributes to burnout, how does one come to terms with the appropriate balance between serving others and investing in personal care? Research suggests that meditation practice reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer today. Is it selfish to indulge in activities focused on yourself?

In order to resolve this dilemma, it is important to consider the big picture over the long-term. Right now it might seem that self-care activities like meditation are taking away from your ability to be there and help and serve your family and friends. However, what are the long-term implications are of overextending, maintaining a schedule that is too busy, and burdening yourself with increasingly more worries? Will your ability to help and serve others eventually dwindle and decline together with your energy, motivation, and productivity?
Many times I find that my patients have dug themselves into a hole through pushing too hard for too long. When they burn out and become able to barely get through their days, they are not helping or serving others at all. Instead they get sick and have a long road ahead of working through the process of reversing chronic illness, which involves establishing strong self-care habits. These habits allow for increased energy and motivation to help others.

For me, the resolution to the dilemma of how to balance self-care and service to others comes naturally from looking at how best to serve others over the long run. When I think about how I can most fully serve and support other people for years and decades into the future, I clearly realize that I must care for myself enough to maintain my energy and drive. Otherwise, I may give what seems like a lot now but then burn out and shortchange many future years of giving. It is now very clear to me that self-care is a significant part of long-term service to others. Meditation practices such as Sheng Zhen Meditation are focused on opening the heart, cultivating love, and enriching self-awareness and ability to help others more fully.

Many people complain that they do not have time for self-care. Meditation can improve focus and productivity, meaning that it more than makes up for the time invested in increased efficiency. Anxiety and depression have been found to decrease with meditation practice, allowing for a more balanced emotional state that can again focus more on serving others rather than having to spend so much time and energy regulating personal emotional struggles.

Imagine how different your life can look one year from now if you start a mediation practice today and continue it for a full year every single day. Who knows? Perhaps when you start to care for yourself, maybe your family and friends will be inspired to do the same for themselves as well, and you will find your heart opening to bigger inspirations daily.

Notes
1.Michael J. Poulin et al., “Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality”, American Journal of Public Health, September 2013

Dr. Miles Nichols, DAOM, MSOM, LAc, is a doctor of acupuncture and Oriental medicine with a functional medicine practice, who devotes his free time to studying and researching health, nutrition and mindfulness. To find out more, visit LivingLoveCommunity.com. For details about his 3-part workshop “Reversing Chronic Disease and Restoring Health and Happiness” at Eastover Retreat Center April 25-30, visit eastover.com.

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