When it comes to good health, there are the things we know we need to do, and the reality of actually doing them. For women, who experience depression at nearly twice the rate of men and are 40 percent more likely to report high levels of stress, according to the American Psychological Association, self-care might be one of those elusive disconnects.
A concept with striking simplicity, self-care is “allowing yourself to care for yourself,” says Wilmington-based life coach Deb Laino. “Every therapist has said the words, ‘You need to give yourself permission to…’ Self-care is at the top of that list.”
As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. And women pour. An estimated 66 percent of all caregivers are women who provide the majority of care to children, spouses, parents, in-laws, neighbors and friends. From hands-on health provider to health advocate, women wear many caregiver hats, exacerbating their risk for caregiver stress, which can include depression, anxiety, a weakened immune system, problems with memory and focus, and greater likelihood of obesity and chronic disease.
Self-care, then, is not just the latest buzzword in wellness. It’s a critical component of health.
And although it looks different in every individual, there are some prevalent, overarching themes.
Practicing good self-care often requires effective time management. Or as Traci Manza Murphy puts it, “You have to schedule it in. If you don’t, it won’t get done.”
A mother of three, community volunteer, owner of a boutique marketing firm, and co-founder of the Brandywine Buzz blog, Murphy defines self-care as “time for you.” When her children were young, that meant acknowledging, “mommy needs a time out.” As her children have grown and become more independent (her daughter is 13 and her twin sons are 10), Murphy’s self-care now involves a Wednesday morning tennis match with friends.
“It’s important to identify how you feel after an activity and the ones you look forward to,” she says. “It has to feel good in the end. If you’re looking forward to tennis with friends, then that’s self-care. If you’re dreading it, then it’s not.”
For Newark’s Ashley Thayer—an on-air guest for QVC, national health coach, blogger, fitness instructor, mother of four girls (ages 11, 10, 4 and 2) and Delaware’s only Ms. Teen USA winner—self-care is “doing anything you personally enjoy and makes you feel good.” In Thayer’s world, that means exercise and meditation. Most of her mornings begin at 5 a.m. Ideally, she gets a full hour to herself. She fits in a workout. She clears her mind. She breathes.
Then there are days when she pulls 24-hour shifts at QVC. “You roll with it,” she says. “You find a few minutes, and then, when you can, you take in larger moments of ‘me time.’”
It’s a precious investment—especially when the hours are already so limited and jam-packed. But it’s worth every second, Thayer maintains.
“I want my daughters to see me take care of myself, to know that they are worth the care,” she says. “Caring for yourself is really just loving yourself. That’s so important to learn.”
(FROM LEFT): Ashley Thayer begins most of her mornings at 5 a.m. so she can get a full hour to herself.//courtesy of ashley thayer.; Deb Laino is a Wilmington-based life coach says self care is “allowing yourself to care for yourself”.//courtesy of deb laino
Fortunately, women’s bodies are natural self-care monitors, says Teneshia Winder, a marriage and family therapist at A Center for Mental Wellness in Dover. We just need to pay attention.
Rattling off the common cues that signal the need for greater self-care, Winder lists anxiety, exhaustion, headaches, loss of appetite and tension (a manifestation of stress). “Self-care often starts by observing how you feel and making the decision to say, ‘This doesn’t feel good,’” she says. “It’s about knowing your limits and being comfortable to say you’re uncomfortable.”
For Winder, self-care is “putting yourself first,” if only for a few minutes. In addition to working as a therapist, she homeschools her children (ages 16, 14 and 11) and manages the logistics for their extracurricular activities. For her, self-care involves three, 15-minute intervals during the day. Sometimes she reads. Sometimes she rests. She always relishes the pause. “I realized how much better I felt after taking that first break, and that became my go-to,” she says. “It’s tailored to what I need.”
For Laino, self-care is about balance in the body and mind. “You need to recognize when you’re feeling depleted,” she says. One of the best ways to restore harmony, she adds, is to spend time in nature—to take in fresh air or walk barefoot through the grass. Laughter is yet another effective method. Then, of course, there’s sex.
The health benefits of good sexual health are vast, from pain relief to improved sleep. “And self-care is about knowing your body,” says Laino, a clinical sexologist. “What does it like? How does it like to be touched?”
Self-care is also about who you allow into your life, she adds. Do they treat you with respect and kindness? “Too often, people let toxic people into their lives and into their bedrooms because they feel lonely, or it’s exciting in the moment,” Laino says. “Taking an account of the influence of people you allow in your life is HUGE for self-care.”
And for those in relationships, communication is essential. “Couples who don’t talk about sex are not having good sex,” she says. “And they’re not practicing good self-care.”
Although self-care has no one-size-fits-all approach, there is one particular thing that can benefit women as they age, and especially as they experience the hormonal side effects of menopause.
“Stay as active as possible for as long as possible,” says Lynn Morgan, of Newark, who spent 33 of her 42 years as a nurse specializing in aging populations.
Menopause is often a decade-long process with no quick and easy off switch. But exercise—which helps maintain a healthy weight, reduces anxiety and depression, aids blood flow to the brain, and lowers the heart rate—can help. “It is the common denominator for health,” says Morgan.
She also urges the importance of maintaining a good relationship between patients and their primary care providers, who can suggest other strategies and therapies for managing menopause.
“As women, we’re sandwiched between caring for our children and caring for our parents,” she says. “We don’t have much time for ourselves, but we have to find the time. Self-care won’t happen on its own.”
Most women agree that a strong support system is critical for self-care.
“None of it would be possible without my husband, parents and in-laws,” says busy mom Thayer.
But Winder often works with clients who don’t know how to ask for help. “It makes them feel weak,” she says, “and it becomes a barrier to self-care.”
She encourages women to reach out to family members, friends and the broader community. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I want to go to therapy. Would you mind watching my kids while I have my session?’” Winder says. “Most importantly, don’t feel like you have to do it all on your own.”
Devin Sullivan is a third year medical student at Christiana Care Health System.//photo by jim coarse
Devin Sullivan, a third-year medical student at Christiana Care Health System, views self-care as a form of preventative medicine. At 27, she thinks about the term quite often, as do her friends, and she makes a conscious effort to sleep well, eat well and exercise at least four times a week. In true 2019 fashion, Sullivan also relies on a guided meditation app.
“It’s probably generational,” she says. “We’ve been raised to focus on ourselves—on our education and careers. The societal expectations have changed.”
Indeed, women now make up the majority of college students and graduates, marry later in life, and have children even later.
And yet, self-care isn’t a new concept. Sullivan recalls her father’s evening runs and her mother’s dedicated “me” time. “Self-care has always existed,” she says, “though maybe without the definition.”