The Science of Self Care

Feeling run-down, getting sick easily, and suffering from mood swings are a few easily-identifiable symptoms we can notice in ourselves when self-care is dwindling. We often are told that self-care practices involve eating well and exercising, and these are definitely a few important pieces of the puzzle. But there’s more to the picture as well.

Research is continuing to show that practices like prayer, meditation, and journaling have incredible effects on reducing stress and the subsequent physical maladies. Taking time for ourselves and being intentional with self care is profoundly effective. In light of our busy, fast-paced lives, we are only beginning to understand how these practices actually work. But we know that they do, and that they are of utmost importance in prolonging life and quality of life.

Many of these self-calming practices are tied closely to the body’s neurologic stress response, modulated by the interplay between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. When we are stressed at work, fighting with family, or struggling with worry or concern, the sympathetic system is activated. The blood pressure goes up, the breathing rate increases, digestive processes are shut off, and blood sugar levels spike. Likewise, the parasympathetic system is activated when we are relaxing, enjoying a leisurely walk, or enjoying the company of our loved ones — we are relaxed mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Usually, our bodies are able to endure periods of stress, provided that we balance them with enough rest and relaxation to build up resilience. Sometimes, however, when our stress patterns are too prolonged, we struggle to “turn off” that stress response, and we start to see symptoms of chronic stress: insomnia, weight gain, heart disease, and more. What we can do, though, is use external self-care practices that reflexively interrupt the sympathetic response and trigger our bodies to enter a relaxation state. One of the ways we can do this is by washing our faces in the morning.

Yes, you read that correctly. Washing your face does more than clear up oily skin.

It’s known as The Diving Reflex. When we splash water on our faces, the body thinks we’re underwater. In order to survive the submersion, a series of metabolic changes take place to reduce breathing rate, heart rate, and oxygen requirement — physiologically calming the body. Under water, this is helpful, as there’s no oxygen available anyway. In our crazy high-tide lives, this is helpful because it forces us to slow down.

Washing your face, drinking a cup of hot tea, or taking a warm shower can be a great way to de-stress after a hectic day, slow down and get ready for bed, or start off the day calmly to prepare for what’s ahead.


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