Self Care is NOT Overrated
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Health” as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. It is surprising, therefore, that many of us push our health to the back burner even though we hear and read about all the ways we would be benefiting our health through self-care routines. We even use the saying “prevention is better than cure” quite often. However, we say this as a cautionary measure that applies to anything that warrants an advance preparation; we least use it in the literal sense.
These days it is not unusual to hear of middle aged or even younger friends, family members and colleagues develop chronic diseases we used to associate with “old age.” Worse still is hearing that someone who “seemed very healthy” died of a sudden heart attack or a stroke. It is indeed a wake-up call for us – especially women who prioritize everyone and everything but ourselves – to pay attention to our bodies.
A study published by the Ethiopian Public Health Association back in 2012 under the title “ Emerging Public Health Problems in Ethiopia: Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases” highlights the extent of damage caused by chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) not only in terms of mortality and morbidity all over Ethiopia but also as factors threatening the development and economic progress of the country. It further elaborates on the results of a countrywide assessment of hospitals and regional health bureaus which, not surprisingly, identified hypertension and diabetes as the leading causes of outpatient visits and mortality. WHO on its part, through a handbook for its staff in South East Asia, identifies the top four NCDs worldwide—namely diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and chronic respiratory diseases. It is obvious that millions are spent in treating symptoms and accompanying complications from NCDs worldwide. So where is the use of the above mentioned saying “prevention is better than cure?” Enter: Self Care.
What is Self Care?
Rather than devoting our money, energy and time on curative care, it is high time we spent a fraction of our resources on prevention by way of self care – “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.” For the purpose of this article, we would focus on self care as it applies to promotion of health and prevention of disease.
Professionals are famous for relegating matters of self care as a “wishy washy topic” as we are building careers, pursuing higher education, fulfilling immediate and extended family responsibilities. We are living in a world where leaving the office does not mean an end to the work day due to the constant need to stay connected, by implication “on top of professional priorities.” Thus, there is little to no time—much less inclination—to check on ourselves unless of course one is unable to fulfill day to day responsibilities or much worse, actually collapse at the office. By this time, however, it is probably too late.
Not all is lost, though.
The human race is resilient. It has survived plagues, earthquakes, volcanoes and Tsunamis. So, what’s a little hiccup? The good news is self care routines can be started by almost everyone at any stage in their lives. There are a myriad of resources available offline and online to get one started on self care. It is very important to know the current status of health and well being before embarking on any journey. Understanding our current health status would ensure that we do not exacerbate current or potential health complications and prioritize our self care regimen. Typically, a primary care physician would be able to recommend all necessary check –ups depending on age, sex and family history. Assuming there are no significant health challenges, we can look at the following generic areas of self care.
There is no shortage of fad diet trends out there – from the cabbage soup diet to the military diet, from the blood type diet to the latest obsession with Keto. While proponents of all diets promise miraculous results, if one is on a “diet,” sooner or later, one will be off of this said “diet.” Rather, it would make more sense to follow a balanced diet that contains adequate proportions of each food groups. The traditional food pyramid comes to mind when discussing food groups and proportions- 10-15% of proteins, 60-80% carbohydrates and 10-30% fats. These days, we are confronted with the additional challenge of identifying sources of these food groups. Although most of these decisions are up to individual taste, there is a growing trend towards adopting locally-sourced, organically-grown, plant-based foods as the best option as opposed to heavily-processed, preservative-laden, sugar- and salt-heavy but fast/convenient food whose ingredient includes a long list of healthy sounding grains and barely pronounceable artificial colors.
To meet the nutrition needs of a healthy body, care must be taken in terms of variety, portion size as well as age, sex and level of activity of each individual.
Hydration is also part of a healthy nutrition. Opting out of sugary, carbonated drinks in favor of plain old water is a growing trend among those who are serious about healthy lifestyle. Juicing of fresh fruits and vegetables is an increasingly acceptable hydration option while tea (white, green and black as well as other variations) has been reigning supreme as an acceptable source of hydration while managing caffeine intake. The jury is still out on the health benefits of coffee.
Most people resolve to exercise more at the beginning of a calendar year. This is often accompanied by the commitment to lose some weight. In fact, gyms all over the world are crowded in the first two months of the year. Sadly, the commitment to exercise lasts only for so long. Regular physical activity does not necessarily mean one has to spend every single spare hour at the gym. It is only the discipline to stay active that is required to reap the benefits of physical exercise. Physical exercise, which is tailored to one’s age and current level of fitness, ensures that the body maintains mental and physiological fitness. It helps with mental and emotional health while reducing the risk of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases as well as strengthening bones and muscles.
Fortunately, the choices are virtually limitless when it comes to our preferred forms of physical activity. Solo or group walking/hiking, running, aerobics, Zumba, yoga and Pilates, swimming, working with a personal trainer at the gym are all options one can consider. The proliferation of gyms and community exercise groups in cities around the world is a step in the right direction as far as establishing physical exercise as part of an active, healthy lifestyle. This doesn’t mean we cannot exercise in front of the TV in the comfort of our homes.
It is important to emphasize that exercise is not a competition with others and should always be preceded by a sound medical examination to avoid sustaining injury or worsen a pre-existing condition.
Self care is not only limited to a healthy diet and exercise. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Managing our stress, therefore, becomes a very important aspect of self care. This is easier said than done for most of us as it would mean we have to take inventory of what is actually our current stress level, identify our stressors and take active steps to manage—the key word being MANAGE—stress since avoidance and/or denial is not going to help. A number of stress management techniques are suggested for the modern professional. Some examples are reading, working on cross words or exercises as Sudoku, outdoor activities, listening to music, pursuing hobbies, attending guided meditation programs and breathing exercises.
For some people, the major sources of stress in their lives are relationships – relationships with spouses, friends, bosses, colleagues, children and other family members. It is worthwhile to review these relationships and establish ground rules to ensure that these relationships are mutually supportive and healthy. Having an honest and candid discussion about stress with everyone may not be a pleasant experience, but self care is about prioritizing oneself so that we can be present for a select few—instead of being everyone’s punching bag. There are a number of sayings that aptly summarize this.
“Self-care is … not arguing with people who are committed to misunderstanding you.”
– Ayisi Iat A. Akanbi
“Self-care is how you take your power back.” – Lalah Delia
Just as important, if not more, is our relationship with ourselves. Examining our own feelings, attitudes or perspectives in a way that serves our higher purpose is a worthwhile pursuit in our self care routines.
“Lighten up on yourself. No one is perfect. Gently accept your humanness.” –Deborah Day
“No more martyring myself.” – Sharon E. Rainey
“The only person who can pull me down is myself, and I’m not going to let myself pull me down anymore.” – C. JoyBell C.
Closely related with stress is the matter of healthy sleeping. For most people, sleep is the last thing on their minds when they are stressed. However, sleep is an important aspect of self care which ties together all the effort made in nutrition, exercise and stress management. At one point in our lives, we’ve all probably had a full night’s sleep where we were no better rested than when we went to bed. Here is a good time to consider our sleep hygiene. Do we have a well thought-out sleep routine? Most people know about the importance of having only a light meal before bedtime, brushing and flossing. However, how many of us switch off our electronics before bedtime? By electronics we mean phones, TVs, tablets, laptops/PCs. This is important because the circadian system in our body, which tells our brain that it is time to go to bed will be stimulated unnecessarily if we keep on using our devices well into the evening while our body is craving for some calm and quiet.
In conclusion, self care is not something we can postpone or delegate. It is not something we will get to when we retire, either. Above all, self care is not selfish; it is not over rated at all! In fact, it is an important aspect of our lives that would enable us to achieve our goals in the most efficient manner.
While it is never too late to start a self care routine – either on our own or with the assistance of a trained professional – it is definitely not too early to start. So start it today, start it NOW, if you haven’t done so yet.
May we all live a healthy and productive life!
Ethiopian Public Health Association(EPHA)(2012) Emerging Health Problems In Ethiopia: Chronic Non-Communicable Disease. CDC:Addis Ababa
Shiferaw, Fassil, Letebo ,Mekitew, Awoke, Misganaw et al(2018)Non Communicable Diseases In Ethiopia: Disease Burden,gaps in health care delivery and strategic directions. Ethiopian Journal of Health Development : Addis Ababa
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