It isn't always easy to find time for yourself in the pressurised, high-speed lives so many of us lead today. But learning to prioritise ourselves for a small portion of each day is an invaluable investment in our long-term well-being. As women, we are especially guilty of putting ourselves last - downgrading our own needs and wants in favour of taking care of those of others.
When 'Rat Race Rebellion', a website geared towards helping people regain balance in their lives, asked women why they struggle to turn down favours asked of them, the number one reason was "I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, or make them mad at me" closely followed by, "They're showing faith in me and I can't let them down".
As a result, we give everyone else the VIP treatment except ourselves!
We reserve the best linen and towels for use by guests when they come to stay. We only put out our best cutlery and crockery when we have friends or business colleagues coming to dinner. When it's 'just us' we make do with tea in a chipped mug, wine out of any old glass, and dinner on a plate on our laps. What message is this sending out? We are saying – to ourselves and to the world – that we are not good enough to warrant using the 'good' glasses, or 'special' cups. Other people are more deserving of this VIP treatment than we are! It's time to stop this self-deprecating thinking and start treating yourself like a VIP! Take a little time every day to do something special just for you. Make tea for yourself in your most precious china cup. Have your evening glass of wine in your best crystal wine glass. Lay a beautiful dinner table just for you – tablecloth, candles, flowers, lovely crockery and cutlery, and a linen serviette!
A little investment in time taken to pamper yourself pays back huge dividends. So often we feel that we have to be everything to everybody - but this continued pressure to be Superwoman, coupled with a neglect of our own needs, eventually takes its toll. We become resentful, exhausted and stressed.
When we are stressed, our circulation decreases, digestion slows and our immune functions become compromised. (Read more in my article, Stressed to Kill). It is therefore vital to take care of ourselves - for physical as well as psychological reasons.
Excessive stress produces cortisol, which can cause weight gain and even heart problems. It can also cause dementia-like symptoms. Cortisol build-up can create memory loss and a lower attention span. It's particularly toxic to the memory area of the brain.
Studies have found that women tend to report higher levels of stress than men, and often feel they aren't doing enough to manage it. Many of the reasons for this stem from their general tendency to feel that if they take time out for themselves, they will be guilty of neglecting their children, husbands or jobs. The reality is, however, that if you take regular breaks, everyone will benefit from the results.
Taking a break from the demands of daily living can keep your immune system ticking and ward off some of the effects of aging. Imagine if you spent your whole life just breathing out. You couldn't do it. You have to breathe in as well. You have to put back what you give out, in order to boost your physical and emotional strength. It's not selfish to take care of yourself.
You may feel that you don't have the time or simply can't afford to take time off to have a little 'me time'. However, attending to your own needs needn't be costly and it doesn't have to take a lot of time. The benefits of a little guilt-free pampering, however, will last long after you step back into your usual routine and you – as well as those around you – will notice the difference.
Here are a few ideas aimed at inspiring you to take care of yourself every day:
Have a Bath-and-a-half!
Perhaps the simplest, most 'do-able' de-stressor that can be done inexpensively in your own home, is running a hot bubble bath. Light a few candles, turn off the phones, put on some soothing music and soak all your cares away! You will be amazed at how relaxed you feel afterwards. Having a bubble bath in the evening will also help you sleep better, which in turn helps you cope more effectively with the challenges of the following day. Just 15 or 20 minutes is all you need to reap hours of benefits.
Book Yourself Some 'Me Time'
Another inexpensive 'me time' activity – both in terms of cost and time – is to buy your favourite magazine, make yourself a lovely cup of tea or pour a glass of wine, and relax on a comfy chair or couch while you read – and I mean really read instead of hurriedly flicking through the pages! Or take yourself off to your favourite coffee shop and spend some time with a latte and a good book.
Train Your Brain
We are often so busy supporting the extra-mural commitments of our children and husbands that we don't even think about ourselves, and whether we too would like to further ourselves in some way. We spend huge amounts of time and money taking our children to and from their various sports practices and matches, music lessons and recitals, extra lessons and courses...What about your own development? How about enrolling yourself in a dance class, pottery class or for art lessons? Further your education by taking night classes or online courses. Learning a new skill that's just about you and what you want is hugely empowering, liberating and satisfying.
Take the Time to Spend Some Time
Many studies have been done on the benefits of spending time with friends and loved ones.
Human beings are social animals and we don't do well when we spend long periods of time without connecting with people we care about. Today, however, friends and family are often spread far and wide all over the world, and it's not always easy to visit.
Thankfully we can make use of such wonderful innovations as Skype, Facebook and other social networks – as well, of course, as the humble telephone! - and spending 15 uninterrupted minutes catching up with a friend will boost your mood for a long time afterwards. Research shows that spending time connecting with friends lowers stress levels and helps decrease symptoms associated with depression. Just talking to, and spending time with, friends can help people feel happier, have more patience and increase their tolerance for stress.
Spending time with friends can have physical health benefits as well. Many research studies have shown that people with more friends tend to live longer, have lower blood pressure and have an increased ability to fight off diseases.
Put on Your Trainers!
As well as a myriad of physical benefits, exercise has many psychological positives too, including:
Increased self-esteem - gaining control of your body size and weight through fitness is an amazing way to increase self-esteem. In addition, the self-discipline required and learned through regular exercise spills over into other areas of your life, and you will be better equipped to make other necessary and desirable changes.
Increased mental focus - research shows that exercise helps keep the brain sharp well into old age. It helps improve mental acuity (focus and concentration) and increases your chances of avoiding diseases like Alzheimer's.
Reduced depression - the production of endorphins (feel good hormones) is increased by exercise. Nothing improves mood and suppresses depression better than these endorphins.
Decreased stress levels - the worries and stresses of everyday living can stick with you long after your workday is over. Exercising straight after work is the perfect natural therapy to put you in a better mood. You'll sleep better too!
How Much Exercise is Needed to Produce Those Effects?
Even a brief walk at low intensity can improve mood and increase energy, and as little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can have a positive effect. For long-term benefits, you should exercise three times a week for 30 minutes per session at a moderate intensity. Programmes longer than 10 weeks work best for reducing symptoms of depression.
The good news is you don't have to buy an expensive gym membership in order to reap the many benefits exercise offers. Take your dog for a brisk walk and try to pick a route with a couple of hills. Take a walk during your lunch break. Or get up half an hour earlier on the weekend and do an exercise DVD. Get out into your garden and tackle those weeds that have been bothering you. Or plant some pretty seedlings. Wash your car – it may sound like a chore, but it's great exercise and the pleasure you feel driving around in a sparkling vehicle makes it all worthwhile. Tackle those untidy kitchen cupboards! If you put on some upbeat music, it won't seem like work and you'll feel justifiably proud of yourself afterwards.
Just say "No"
In general women are raised to please others and define their self-worth according to the way others perceive them. Many women fall into the trap of saying "yes" to every request – often at the expense of themselves and their own needs and emotional well-being. (Read more in my article, Attention on Assertiveness). This can place huge pressure on us, as we struggle to meet our personal commitments as well as the requests of others. This can lead to a feeling of being out of control of our own lives - and the concept of being able to find any time for ourselves is seen as almost laughable. And if we do somehow manage to find a few minutes to attend to our own needs, something "more important" almost always seems to crop up. If we continue this way, then over time we become stressed, anxious, worn out and eventually resentful towards those around us.
How can I Stop This Self-Destructive Behaviour?
This can be tricky at first if you're not used to asserting your own needs over the needs of others. Here are some pointers:
Plan your Me Time and explain your needs to others. Try to ensure co-operation from those around you;
Assert your needs calmly;
Start small and build on it;
Make your me time a regular event rather than a one-off;
Visualise your Me Time beforehand - it's a great motivator;
If you are struggling to take back control, invest in an assertiveness course.
Taking a course on relaxation techniques or a couple of sessions with a therapist trained in this highly beneficial treatment, will teach you vital skills to help your cope with stress, as well as revitalise your mind and body.
Visualisation is a great and revitalising way to relax – and it doesn't take a lot of time! Close your eyes and try to vividly imagine a soothing outdoor scene – such as a deserted beach with gentle waves rhythmically stroking the sand, or a beautiful mountain waterfall cascading over ancient rocks. See the colours, hear the sounds, smell the scents, and feel the sun.
Regular time spent in visualisation - even for a few moments during a break at work, for example - is a wonderful and energising way to relax.
Deep Breathing: Shallow breathing – ie. from the chest rather than the abdomen - is a hallmark of stress. It causes two things to happen: Firstly, we don't get enough oxygen circulating in our body, so we struggle to concentrate and stay alert. Secondly, the carbon dioxide is not fully breathed out and so builds up in the body, resulting in feelings and symptoms of anxiety and panic.
These two things act together in a vicious cycle that spins us into ever-deeper levels of stress. The way to break this cycle is to breathe deeply. Deep breathing is a simple but very effective method of relaxation, and it can be done almost anywhere in just a few minutes. Here's how:
Scan your body. Note where you are tense.
Take a deep breath through your nose. Filling up your lungs to the count of 5. Keep your shoulders still - let your stomach do the expanding. This shows that you are breathing into the lower part of your lungs.
Hold your breath until it feels slightly uncomfortable.
Let the air out slowly through your mouth to the count of 8. Exhale fully.
Do this twice more.
Taking another deep breath, sigh.
Scan yourself again, checking to see how much more relaxed you feel.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR):This is useful for relaxing your body when your muscles are tense. Once again, it can be done almost anywhere and takes only a few minutes, but you will feel so much better afterwards. Here's how:
Tense up a group of muscles so that they are as tightly contracted as possible, and hold them in a state of extreme tension for a few seconds;
Slowly relax the muscles to their previous state;
Consciously relax the muscles even further so that you are as relaxed as possible.
Experiment with PMR by forming a fist and clenching your hand as tight as you can for a few seconds. Then relax your hand to its original state, before consciously relaxing it again so that it is as loose as possible. You should feel deep relaxation in your hand muscles.
Einstein used to sit in his chair with his keys in his hand and relax his mind until the keys fell, hit the floor and woke him! If you can do that, you've really mastered the art of relaxation!
Find 'Me Time' in Unexpected Places
Experts recommend scheduling your 'me time' into your daily plans, so that others get used to it and so that, because it's on your "To Do" list, it actually gets done! However, opportunities can crop up on an ad hoc basis, so grab them when you can!
If you make use of public transport or a car pool to get to and from work, use this non-driving time to do some reading, writing, creative thinking or even meditating.
When you are driving, vary what you do while you drive. Try listening to audio books, motivational CDs or a CD of a language course.
If you have to wait for a meeting or doctor's appointment, or are stuck in a major traffic jam, change the wait into me time – always have a book handy or a notebook for creative writing. You could also indulge your passion for word puzzles or Sudoku, or read a favourite magazine.
Let go of the Guilt
This is perhaps the most important thing of all. Many women never put themselves on their own list of priorities because they feel guilty about taking some time for themselves. We need to let go of this guilt and accept our leisure time for what it is – a life-enhancing gift to ourselves. A little time spent each day doing what you want to do, instead of what you should do, is an invaluable investment in your life.
The benefits are immense:
Inner peace and calmness
Valuable thinking time
A greatly increased feeling of respect for ourselves
Healthier, more balanced relationships
Make time for yourself every day – starting today!