Put Your Oxygen on First: The Science of Self-Care

January 2023

When you think about self-care, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it sitting by the fire with a good book, enjoying a glass of wine in a bubble bath, or maybe lighting a candle and journaling at the end of the day?

While all these practices can be a part of your self-care routine, these stereotypical images of self-care have helped to make it seem like a luxury to be enjoyed when you can fit it into your busy schedule. But self-care is more than just these external practices—it’s a key element to living a long and healthy life.

And it is more than just doing things that make you happy—it is a science.

Why is self-care important?

When done correctly, self-care is all about reducing stress and avoiding burnout. It is regularly taking time for yourself to address the brain-body connection.

Studies have found that implementing self-care strategies can lower your chances of experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. Self-care can help to improve your well-being and mental health by giving you coping mechanisms to deal with the stressors of everyday life.

Self-care for better mental well-being

Most people agree that there is no wrong way to self-care. Yet, what we have come to recognize as self-care might not provide the many benefits you associate with it.

If watching TV, reading a good book, getting a foot massage, or dipping into your secret stash of chocolate brings you joy, then do it! But these versions of self-care probably aren’t going to have the meaningful impact on your mental well-being that you’re expecting.

These acts are externally focused and therefore are examples of extrinsic care. Having a piece of chocolate or getting your nails done won’t dig down to the root of any stress or mental health challenges you may be facing. It’s almost like putting a bandage on a dog bite—sure it may stop the immediate bleeding, but it isn’t going to help with any infection or healing that needs to occur.

If you want to treat the issue, to find ways to handle your stress in a positive way to avoid burnout, you need to focus your efforts internally. And this is where the science of self-care comes into play.

The science of self-care

When we talk about the science of self-care, what we’re really talking about is neuroscience. It’s all about how our bodies and our brains work together. As mentioned before, effective self-care takes into consideration the body-brain connection.

When we deal with stress, we feel it in our bodies—it is an internal issue that cannot be solved by external means. But many of the go-to self-care tropes are external means. To tap into the power of self-care, we need to focus on internal solutions for an internal problem.

Countless studies have examined the connection between stress and our bodies—from memory and brain function to immune system and cardiovascular system functions, prolonged stress can have a negative impact on almost every aspect of our bodies.

Every person responds differently to stress and this should be taken into consideration when you start to incorporate internal self-care into your life. Pay attention to the signs that appear when you feel stressed so that you can respond promptly and avoid any long-term burnout.

How to practice self-care

The number one goal of self-care is to manage stress and the best way to do that is to regulate your nervous system.  Therefore, you may come back from a vacation or a day at the spa and find yourself immediately plunged back into stress mode—because your nervous system is unregulated and therefore you are still in an active mode of stress response.

That is why you need to incorporate internal self-care practices alongside your external practices. This one-two punch will help you regulate your brain and body while giving you a boost of serotonin.

So, what practices can you do that will help you regulate your nervous system? Any strategies that tap into the brain-body connection:

No matter what activity you choose, remember that consistency is key. Yes, it is great to hit the yoga mat every couple of days or practice your mindful breathing once a week. But if you want to see long-term improvement from your efforts, you need to make your activity of choice a part of your daily routine. Start your day with a quick meditation, practice mindful breathing during your lunch hour, or add a 5–10-minute yoga flow to your before-bed routine.

The more you practice, the better your nervous system will respond to your efforts. So next time you sit down for a bit of self-care, remember the science behind the trend, and find a way to incorporate a brain-body strategy into your day—because who says you can’t have a bubble bath and meditate?!

Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.

Related articles