The Power of Self-Care in a "Crazy Busy" Culture
Life today for too many of us is, at best, a juggling act in our work-addicted and overloaded society. Thanks to our increasing array of technological tools, there may be more balls than we can keep in the air at once, no matter how fast we juggle. E-mails, instant messaging, cell phones ringing, and text messaging create more sources of input to check and keep up with than there are hours in a day. How can we set our limits when what is being asked of us is more than we have time and energy to respond to?
Sadly, people today are rewarded for defying their personal limits, especially at work. Rather than recognizing that a hypomanic pace is out of balance and unsustainable long-term, this “running on empty” way of being becomes normalized. Those who push themselves 24-7, neglect relational connections and their own biological needs in the service of getting more time in on pressing projects driven by high anxiety and unattainable goals are considered modern day good soldiers. These unsung but aspiring pseudo-heroes give all their lifeblood daily only to collapse into bed totally exhausted each night.
Psychiatrist and author Ned Hallowell calls this phenomenon “crazy busy” in his newest bookCrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD1. One reviewer on Amazon.com comments, “People trying to keep up with the pace and problems of our modern society are suffering from distractibility, inability to filter information, forgetfulness and high anxiety.” It is as though people who don’t officially suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD), are showing ADD symptoms as part of a cultural epidemic that encourages “crazy business” as a way of life.
We have been encouraged to master multi-tasking without recognizing that one’s attention can only be split in so many directions before we cannot be present to any of them. Too many of us have lost sight of the efficiency and creativity that comes from being present in the moment. In this dissociated state of existence, it actually takes longer to get things done, we make more mistakes, and the quality of our life deteriorates. Like a lemming, running so fast s/he ends up throwing him/herself off a cliff, we too may be throwing our lives away. Our lives become commodities that we trade rather than a precious gift, a sacred opportunity.
The Costs of a Crazy Busy Lifestyle
In addition to running us ragged, the crazy busy pace also wreaks havoc on our health. Research on the “stress hormone,” cortisol, helps us understand why depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer are epidemic in our culture. A short exposure to stress releases adrenalin and causes the fight-or-flight response. When we are exposed to “long-term stress”—which is defined as stress lasting fifteen minutes or more — cortisol is released in our bodies. Sadly, this variety of “long-term stress” is a common daily occurrence, be it sitting in traffic, toiling all afternoon to meet a deadline, anticipating the next demand from your boss, absorbing the barrage of fear-producing media, or racing around trying to keep all the pieces together in your personal life.
Cortisol makes us hypervigilant and mobilized to cope with stress and emergencies. In her article “Love and Fear,”2 writer Marnia Robinson helps us understand the roots of cortisol and their translation in our modern day world. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors most likely faced physical stressors like starvation, severe gastro-intestinal illness and critical injury. To cope with such emergencies, cortisol begins to break down non-essential organs and tissues to feed vital organs. When cortisol stays at high levels, it automatically digests bones, muscles and joints to obtain key nutrients to maintain the nervous system and vital internal organs. It also makes us hungry, causing us to reach for high calorie food.
While today, our biggest stressors are mental, not physical, our body still has the same response as our hunter-gather ancestors did to their kind of stress.
The Physiological Impact of Fear (Cortisol)3
- Activates addictions
- Suppresses libido
- Associated with depression
- Can be toxic to brain cells
- Breaks down muscles, joints and bones
- Weakens immune system
- Increases pain
- Clogs arteries, promotes heart disease and high blood pressure
- Obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis
The Power of Self-Care
While few can argue that self-care is a good practice for well being, the health benefits of many self-care practices are farther reaching than many of us are aware of. It turns out that self-care activities that help us slow down, reconnect with ourselves, with others, with the natural world and even the divine, generate another hormone, oxytocin, which has been found to be an anti-stress hormone that counters the effects of cortisol. Oxytocin is the “bonding hormone,” best known for enhancing the emotional bond of mother and baby during labor and lactation. It turns out that meditation, yoga, massage, caring for a pet, joining a support group, engaging in spiritual practice and exercise all generate oxytocin, which offers a wide range of positive health benefits.
Self-care, then, provides an antidote to modern day stress, and helps us move from a state of fear and anxiety to one of love and peace.
The Physiological Impact of Love (Oxytocin)4
- Anti-stress hormone
- Feeling calm and connected
- Increased curiosity
- Lessens cravings and addictions
- Increases sexual receptivity
- Positive feelings
- Facilitates learning
- Repairs, heals and restores
- Faster wound healing
- Diminishes sense of pain
- Lowers blood pressure
- Protects against heart disease
Reinhabiting the Temple of the Soul
In running too fast and not taking time out for self-care, we are driven by our heads, and lose touch with our bodies. In this dissociated, disembodied state, we either don’t notice when we are hungry, when we need to go to the bathroom, when we are exhausted, when we are reaching our limit or we ignore the signals. In this sense, we lose our grounding both in the moment and in our lives.
A former colleague of mine used to love the line, “I lost my mind and came to my senses.” In many ways, this is exactly what we need to do to slow down, regroup and regain our grounding. If the body is the temple of the soul, we need to reinhabit the temple! Taking time to breathe, to meditate, to listen to our emotional, physical and spiritual sensations as they arise in the moment is essential in order to identify what we really need. We need to reconnect with our bodies to know what pace is right for us, to know where our boundaries are, to be able to say “yes” and “no” and really mean it, and to know when to leave and when to stay.
We need to be grounded in our sensual experience to have a voice and regain a sense of personal power, so we can break out of the crazy busy lifestyle and return to the practice of “having a life.” We need to practice this kind of self-care to be happy, focused and productive. This kind of self-care is also essential for having and sustaining relationships with other people — be it partners, children, friends and loved ones.
Small Steps Produce Big Results
In the Bill Murray movie “What About Bob,” a psychiatrist writes a best-selling book putting forward the idea of taking “baby steps.” While the movie takes this concept and makes it into a comedy, there is actually a lot of truth and even some radical thinking in mining the power of the baby step. When people are already overloaded and overwhelmed, if they are going to eek out a small corner for self-care, they need to start small. To overcome an obstacle or create an island of breathing room, it is best to find something small enough that not only do you really want to do it, but you can identity a time that you actually can and will do it.
Here is a list of coaching tips for self-care in the “baby steps produce big results” school of thought:
- Take a few moments for reflection and meditation. Closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths, even in your chair at work, or in your car at a red light, can allow you the quiet time and space to ask yourself, "what do I really need right now?" Even if you don’t get an answer every time, the very act of asking the question has value. If you give yourself these small moments to slow down, breathe, reflect and ask the question, in time, you may be surprised at the insights you have.
- Choose one action step daily towards self-care. If we choose one small step each day that we want to do, can do and will do each day towards self-care and actually do it, by the end of the week, a lot of progress can be made. By the end of a month, new habits can be put in place. By the end of a year, significant life style change can take place.
- Write down your action step and put it on your calendar. When we commit to do something, write it down and pencil it in on our calendar, it becomes easier to move from thought to action. Writing embodies the idea. Scheduling it makes the time and space when we can do it. If we have defined when we will do it, it is easier to do it.
- Acknowledge every little step you take. A recurring theme I hear from many of my clients is how little appreciation and acknowledgement they get. A great place to begin in filling the appreciation pot is by taking a moment to acknowledge ourselves when we take positive steps. This kind of appreciation does not build conceit, but builds a healthy sense of self-respect and self-love. Too often we take ourselves for granted. If we don’t take ourselves for granted, perhaps those around us won’t either.
- Just do it. It is so easy to come up with excuses or reasons NOT to take care of ourselves. We can always look at the looming deadline, the needs of others, and the effort it will take and put self-care off. It takes far less energy to just do it than to feel anxious about the obstacles and reasons that get in our way of doing it!
- Get support. No man or woman was meant to be an island. Yet in today’s world, too many of us become isolated too easily. Whether the pathological self-reliance instilled by our culture makes us feel like we are supposed to do EVERYTHING by ourselves, or we don’t take the time to keep up connections, in the end, isolation breeds stress and cortisol, and connection breeds comfort and oxytocin!
- Find a coach or mentor. No matter how smart or competent we are, we can’t know everything. Even if we know something, it feels different having someone else watch over us and steward us and help us learn, grow and succeed. The "sponsor" system of the 12-step world provides profound support as individuals move towards healing, self-care and higher goals.
In the final analysis, slowing down and taking time for self-care may be countercultural, may meet with resistance, and may even cost you your job if you work in a boundaryless, 24-7 demand-making work environment. However, extreme times often call for radical behavior, and an environment that can’t understand or support healthy behavior is probably not the best place to be for the long haul. Taking care of ourselves asks us to be the change we want to see in the world. And how many of us want to be crazy busy or watch those we love spin around us at a crazy busy pace? Self-care is a risk well worth taking. Do it for your own health, and for the health of those you love.
Linda Marks, MSM, a pioneer in body psychotherapy, has worked with individuals, couples and groups for more than 20 years. She is the founder of the Institute for Emotional-Kinesthetic Psychotherapy and the Boston Area Sexuality and Spirituality Network and author of two books and numerous published articles. You can reach her at LSMHEART@aol.com, visit http://www.healingheartpower.com or call (617) 965-7846.
1. Psychiatrist and author Ned Hallowell coined this term, which is also the title of his newest book published by Ballantine Books, 2006.
2. Marnia Robinson’s article "Love and Fear" appeared in her e-newsletter "Reuniting." You can find her work at http://www.reuniting.info.
3, 4. From "Love and Fear" by Marnia Robinson.