By Janice McWilliams

Reimagining Self-Care

Amelia looked like a coiled spring, ready to pop. She fidgeted with her phone as she sat on the couch in my therapy office. She had just gotten off a call with a nurse at her father’s care facility, reporting some test results that were concerning. She relayed this to me, updated me on her daughter’s panic attacks, then sagged as she moved into talking about her work. “My insane teaching load is really just fading into the background of these other things. Honestly though, I can’t catch my breath. It feels like my vacation will never get here.” Amelia is referring to the two weeks she has off, still some three months away. I shake my head, knowing that her vacation is not the solution. Amelia needs something to change now. 

Self-care has never been more important or more confusing to apply. In my work as a therapist and spiritual director, I’m alarmed as I see people stuck in cycles of overwhelm > exhaustion > burnout > recover > repeat. It seems that believers are far, far from the “rich and satisfying life” that Jesus talks about in John 10:10. If anything, it seems we are living a “grinding and hollow” life and wondering how anything can ever change. Folks look to things like vacations, spa days, weekend Netflix binges, or even retreat days as the answer, and, while these things can be great, they are better for us when they represent replenishment, not recovery! We’ve bought into the messaging that self-care is something we can only do when we are checked out of our normal routine. Those of us seeking to follow God’s calling into demanding careers will do well to reimagine self-care as an integrated part of our hour-to-hour and day-to-day lives. Some people, like Amelia, benefit from seeking professional counseling to formally address the ways their lives just aren’t working. But all of us benefit from reimagining self-care, whether we have a diagnosable anxiety issue or we just feel wound up too tight.  Self-care, at its best, is both daily and doable.

Let’s dive into a brief lesson about our bodies. 

Hormone Soup

I remember when my friend Char made soup with one tablespoon of cayenne in it when the recipe had called for only one teaspoon. Our mouths were on fire and we had to stop eating. We become something like that over-spiced soup when too much stress hormone is coursing through our bodies. Just like soup with too much cayenne pepper becomes unpalatable, when we have too much stress hormone in our bodies, we feel anxious, irritable, and emotionally fragile. Seasoned chefs will tell you that an over-spiced soup might be saved by adding brown sugar or potatoes to mellow and soak up some of that spice. Similarly with our bodies, we can change the way we feel when we add other ingredients to our hormone soup. And, while it requires intention, it doesn’t have to take very much time.

Let’s unpack this metaphor. Consider yourself to be a chef who is cooking a pot of soup in your body each day. The ingredients you have available to you are stress hormones (Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Norepinephrine) and happy hormones (Oxytocin, Dopamine, and Endorphins). We are all starting the day with soup stock each morning. At some times in your life, when things are going well and life stressors are at a minimum, that soup stock that you begin with each day is great! You’ll want some stress hormone to get some oomph in your day along with a nice mix of happy hormones. But at times in your life when you are bombarded with stressors, the soup stock is spicey when you wake up in the morning. It already has a lot of stress hormone in it. At times like this, it will require more intentional effort to make a nice tasting soup. You may need to create experiences that give yourself an injection of happy hormone throughout your day in order to feel better overall. In other words, finding your brown sugar and potatoes is critical. (For a deeper dive into the impact stress hormones have on our bodies, I recommend the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski.) 

Daily and Doable

Small interventions really do make a difference and will be your brown sugar and potatoes in any given day. During COVID when my caseload of struggling clients was bursting at the seams, I made it a habit to stretch between sessions; a practice that inserted a bit of happy hormone into my body. I also recited a midday prayer, which brought me perspective and redirected my thoughts and emotions in a way that was palpable! Doing these stretches and the midday prayer probably took a total of 6-10 minutes of my day, but made a big difference in the overall feeling of a day of counseling. They were my potatoes and brown sugar, making my soup taste better.

These are the daily and doable interventions that I’m hoping will become the new way of considering what self-care really means. Too often, people think they don’t have time for self-care because they think of it as something like a spa day or training for a marathon. When self-care has become prohibitively expensive or overwhelmingly difficult, we need to adjust our expectations.  

Our most practical application of self-care is to build small moments that represent variation in our days; moments of slowness, silliness, connection, prayer, or body breaks. All of these things bring happy hormones into our body. We need to know what to do in any given moment that will help ourselves when life is throwing us way too much stress hormone. When stress is high, I can either scroll through my newsfeed and add more stress hormone, or I can listen to an encouraging, upbeat song and add some happy hormone. I can check email and add more stress hormone or I can do 50 jumping jacks and add some happy hormone. I can stew on anxious thoughts about my aging parents, or I can have a tickle fight with my kids. This is how we make better hormone soup in our bodies. 

Jesus cares about this! I am seeing too many people struggling through life. Exciting, missional living gets lost when individuals are struggling to merely get through each day, waiting for a break to recover from their unsustainable pace. I’m tired of seeing believers stuck in cycles of overwhelm > fatigue > burnout > recovery > repeat. And the way out doesn’t have to be as difficult as people seem to think.

Better moments lead to hours that feel better.
Better hours lead to days that feel better.
Better days lead to weeks that feel better.

It starts with learning to be a skilled chef for your hormone soup. 

After reimagining self-care in my sessions with Amelia, she was noticing some changes as she had found some brown sugar and potatoes to add to her life. “Okay, the last thing I wanted to do after dinner was a dance party — there is always so much to clean up and homework, but … I have to say I’m sold. It has become such a great release for all of us! And it’s just five minutes! We’re all just looser afterwards, especially me!” 

Amelia also added a pause in her workday to drink a cup of tea in silence; no phone, no conversation. And because she loves Scripture in small doses, she downloaded an app that sends her one verse per day. All together, the  interventions impacted only 10-15 minutes per day and were imminently doable. While Amelia’s life was still very challenging, she understood self-care to be DAILY and DOABLE and she was moving towards the rich and satisfying life that I know Jesus wants for her.

What will your potatoes and brown sugar be for reimagined self-care? I have 50 ideas for you to choose from in my downloadable planning guide. Enjoy!

Photo by Lisa Fotios on StockSnap

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About the Author

Janice McWilliams, MDiv, LCPC, is the author of Restore My Soul: Reimagining Self-Care for a Sustainable Life. She is also a therapist, spiritual director, and speaker. She works for IVCF as a spiritual formation specialist and trainer.

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