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Self-care: The gift that keeps on giving

Psychiatrist Jacob Towery discusses how to practice self-care and how it can benefit both individuals and the people around them.

Although self-care is encouraged by health care providers, for many of us giving care seems more important than receiving care. Could helping ourselves actually help others?

To gain clarity, we spoke with Jacob Towery, MD, psychiatrist, author and adjunct clinical instructor in Stanford's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

What exactly is self-care?

Self-care is any act or habit that promotes sanity, rejuvenation and/or joy, Towery told us. That can include taking time to do what you enjoy -- such as reading, watching a movie, spending time with loved ones or even scheduling a vacation.

In his book The Anti-Depressant Book, Towery defines the "three pillars of self-care" as:

  • Getting adequate sleep (seven to eight hours for most adults).
  • Engaging in vigorous physical activity multiple times per week.
  • Developing a daily meditation practice.

"I find these to be the most effective self-care practices for mental health," he said.

What does science say about those who practice self-care versus those who don't?

"We know that people who are sleep-deprived are at more risk for getting sick, are more irritable, are more prone to depression and find it harder to concentrate," Towery said. "On the other hand, people with adequate sleep consistently tend to be happier and have better concentration and stronger immune systems in general."

He continued: "We also know that people who get vigorous physical exercise multiple days per week tend to have healthier bodies, less anxiety and depression, tend to live longer and have fewer physical illnesses than people who are sedentary."

Regarding his third pillar, Towery referenced a  2014 meta-analysis showing that consistent meditation can reduce levels of depression, anxiety and pain.

Additionally, he emphasized the importance of human connection. "Spending quality time with others in person -- as opposed to online or through the phone -- can also be of benefit," Towery said.

For many, self-care is coupled with guilt. How can I overcome this so I actually enjoy the activity?

As a cognitive behavioral therapist, Towery spends much of his time teaching people the idea that thoughts determine feelings, and we can actively change our thoughts. In his practice, Towery helps people consider doing self-care without thinking of themselves as selfish or lazy.

"If you sleep for eight hours, you don't need to feel guilty," he said. "You can tell yourself that self-care will help you to become a more compassionate, kind and patient person, benefiting both you and the people around you."

Towery notes that this may require training -- essentially, rewiring the brain. To break the old pattern of thinking, he said, you may need to repeat a new thought over and over, in order to form a new thought process that is more conducive to health and well-being.

Are there specific groups of people who need self-care more than others?

Although "human beings as a whole need self-care," Towery identifies several groups that would strongly benefit from self-care. This includes social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists and others who professionally care for other people. People who are not professional caretakers, but who are just wired to be "other-centered," can also benefit greatly from self-care, Towery said. So can "self-described workaholics."

What are some practical strategies I can start with?

"For some people, changing multiple habits at the same time works really well," Towery said. "For many others, picking one habit at a time and really solidifying that for one to three months before moving on to something else works better."

Towery encourages people to start with a habit they are confident they can master. "Meditation can be a great starting point, since it requires the least amount of time," he said.

"Once you've got meditation firmly under your belt, you can move onto something like getting adequate sleep," he continued. "To make this a reality, you may need to make some practical changes such as setting an alarm to turn off electronics or to begin getting ready for bed. If you have meditation and sleep under your belt, you may want to step up your vigorous physical exercise. It's hard; I struggle with exercising as much as I want, so I sympathize with how challenging it can be to exercise in a busy life. But most people find that if they exercise vigorously in the morning, they feel happier, more energized, more calm and productive."

Towery assures us that any self-care is better than no self-care, even if it's just a few minutes a day. So, start where you can.

This article, in a longer form, originally appeared on BeWell Stanford.

Photo by Raychan

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