Seriously. Doctor's orders.
Self-care is a term for the things we do for ourselves to manage stress and to maintain or improve our health.
But we're diverse people from all walks of life, so self-care naturally means something different to each of us. In recent years, the self-care conversation has attracted everyone from fitness trainers to spiritual coaches to activists.
But what might an actual health expert have to say about self-care?
Meet Stuart. That's short for Dr. Stuart Lustig, M.D., M.P.H.
Lustig is a psychiatrist for children and adults and supports doctors all over the country. Self-care, as you might guess, comes up in his work pretty frequently, for all sorts of reasons and for both patients and health care professionals. Over the years, he's stood by one piece of advice when it comes to self-care and stress management: "Have a PLAN for yourself."
PLAN is an acronym representing the most basic components of a sound self-care strategy.
P is for a period of time.
"It should be regularly planned time that's yours alone to do what you want with it," he says. On most nights, for example, Lustig knows he can count on at least 30 minutes of relaxation once his kid's tucked in and his wife starts her own self-care rituals.
L is for a location.
Think of it as your "happy place." Have a few locations in mind that put you at ease and that are easily accessible and reliably there for you, whether it's your bedroom, your favorite café, your gym or yoga studio, or the nature trail just beyond your fence. One of Lustig's go-to places is his backyard, amid the beauty and abundance of his garden.
A is for an activity.
"When we ask people, 'What's your activity?' we'll get responses like, 'brushing my teeth,'" he says. "Sure, that's good hygiene, but it's not long enough, and we kind of have to do that. Or we hear things like, 'going on vacation.' But how often can you do that?" Instead, he says, choose activities you want to do and that you can integrate into your regular schedule. As for Lustig, he finds escape in the intricacies of classical compositions right from his piano bench.
N is for the name of someone you can count on.
"For some people, it’s their mother or their best friend. For some, it’s a therapist," Lustig says. The idea is to have that someone who will listen to what you’re going through, empathize with you, and share with you in that moment to help relieve stress.
How will you know if your self-care practices are actually working?
According to Lustig, to commit to better self-care is to acknowledge that you deserve time to yourself, to accept that it's OK to indulge a little — so long as it doesn't engender too much guilt — and to "turn off" the parts of your brain that are overworked.
If you're doing self-care well, you'll feel it. Your stress will become more manageable. You'll tackle the tasks and challenges of your day with greater ease. And you may even begin to feel better physically.
"When we’re stressed mentally, we have a lot of physical problems as a result," he says. "We have more headaches, we have more ulcers, we have more back and joint pain, and we go in for all sorts of other things."
Mental stress also triggers behaviors that can make matters worse, like eating more unhealthy foods or retreating into extended periods of inactivity. "As a result, your cholesterol goes up, your blood sugar goes up, and so on," he says.
Self-care has the potential to make the world a better place — one person, one family, one community at a time.
"When we’re in a good space, we do a better job of communicating and understanding each others' perspectives," Lustig says, channeling his own experience as a husband and father. "When it’s been a long day and we’re exhausted, we are not terribly empathic."
"When we feel we have everything we need for ourselves, we’re more generous and willing to share what we have more openly and lovingly," he adds.
He then closed with a final doctorly reminder to take good care: "Get your needs met — your physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs, cultural needs, community needs, all of it — and we’ll all be much better off.”