3 Signs You Need to Schedule Self-Care, Stat!

There’s a reason why airlines’ in-case-of-emergency instructions include a reminder to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Taking care of ourselves is what allows us to care for our families, our friends, and our communities. This is why the time we need to set aside for self-care activities is neither optional nor negotiable. We cannot pour from empty cups, rescue from sunken ships, or be the light when drowning in darkness. “Without self-care, our health suffers,” says Ken D. Porter, program manager at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada.

Mine did. Digestive issues, fainting spells, and chronic depression sent me to a squadron of doctors. Appointment after appointment, my blood work read fine. Doctors in different cities echoed the same sentiments. I was perfectly healthy on paper, but needed to reduce stress. Despite all my symptoms, I didn’t take their advice seriously. I was young and told myself I’d have time to relax later. Later never came. So, instead of dealing with my stress head-on, I chose avoidance. I studied, ate, drank, smoked and exercised too much and, surprise, never got better. Finally, when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition causing widespread pain and thought to be exacerbated by stress, I realized it was time for me to learn what my body had been trying to tell me for years: Self-care is not selfish, it is survival.

Unfortunately, too many of us put off looking after our own well‑being and expend all our energy doing for others. “We push past exhaustion and loss of focus and spiral into not sleeping or sleeping too much before we recognize that we’re overwhelmed,” says Porter. “When you start to feel worried about everything and have problems with memory or concentration, which can lead to bad decisions, you know stress and anxiety are starting to peak.”

That’s usually the time we decide that getting a massage or taking a long candlelit bath will fix everything. But why wait until something bad happens before you do something good for yourself? Read on to learn how to spot the warning signs ahead of time and take steps to head off burnout before it starts.

The Many Faces of Burnout

Our mental, physical, and spiritual selves are interconnected not separate. Neglect one and all aspects of our being begin to suffer. For example, I know that when I skip my daily meditations, skimp on proper sleep, or eat an unbalanced diet, there are consequences to pay. Anxiety- and depression-fueled ruminations begin to slip in and wear me down. I become worrisome, irritable, and distracted. I have trouble focusing, which makes me feel withdrawn and disengaged. The self-loathing and guilt add to the exhaustion that prevents much-needed outdoor time and endorphin-boosting exercise.

Left unchecked, that strain puts you on the road to burnout, which is a progressive manifestation of chronic stress. It’s at this point that the body and mind will give us signs that something is wrong. “It could be something as simple as pain or tension in your head or digestive issues,” says Porter. This is why we often downplay the signs we need self-care and avoid prioritizing our needs until we’re in crisis mode. We chalk our symptoms up to a hard workweek or upset over a recent argument with a family member, a breakup, job loss, or whatever other distressing event happened recently. We don’t realize pain, tension, or other bodily issues can be signaling burnout and chronic illness, and that maintaining routine self-care can help.

Author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., explains that burnout doesn’t happen overnight, “it’s much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognize.”

Fortunately, “Our bodies and minds do give us warnings, and if we know what to look for, we can recognize burnout before it's too late,” says Carter.

Here are some warning signs to watch for:

Warning Sign #1: Impaired Cognitive Abilities

Small mental slips, like forgetting to lock your door, are normal. However, when these instances occur more frequently, it’s time to take note. “Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs,” says Carter. This is our mind’s way of signaling struggle. When we begin to forget significant events and deadlines, and lose the ability to focus on the tasks at hand, we’re in serious burnout territory.

Warning Sign #2: Physical Manifestations of Stress

There are many general symptoms that could indicate excessive stress, including stomach upset, shortness of breath, and fainting. Porter says, “The way the symptoms express themselves are as unique as the individuals who experience them, but there’s a big correlation between mental and physical illnesses.” Do not ignore these signs. Understand that your body is telling you something is wrong. Consult with a doctor to rule out underlying conditions and determine whether stress may be a factor. If yes, it’s your duty to prioritize the remedy and implement regular self-care.

Warning Sign #3: Behavioral and Mood Changes

Without dedicated self-care, our lives begin to unravel. We lose interest in things we once loved. Pessimism, isolation, and detachment can be signs of burnout, says Carter. If you notice increased negative thinking or decreased interest in socializing, it’s time to assess how much “me time” you’ve been scheduling and ratchet up accordingly.

What You Can Do

Rather than write these three warning signs off if you experience them, address them, because, as Carter writes, “Burnout isn't like the flu; it doesn't go away after a few weeks unless you make some changes in your life.”

And you don’t have to wait to feel the first twinges of prolonged stress to start a regular self-care routine; in fact, experts recommend that everyone have one. Think of it like maintaining your car—if you wait until the ‘check engine’ dash light comes on, the damage may have already been done.

First, decide what self-care looks like for you. I struggled with this step for years. Always trying to imitate someone else’s version of zen, I grew more tense than tranquil when their methods failed to bring me peace. Now, I know what works for me. I don’t just desire but need to maintain my self-care through a regular yoga practice, guided meditation, taking my medication and supplements, walking outdoors, spending time with animals, and eating a specific diet. I need to answer incoming emails, texts, calls, and queries before they pile up into pains in my muscles. I need to take hot baths with salt soaks and essential oils. I need to rest and reflect. Regularly.

For you, it could be scheduling a morning walk before work, booking a monthly massage, attending a favorite fitness class like tai chi, yoga, or Zumba. Or maybe it’s going to bookstores and sipping coffee with friends, volunteering at an animal shelter, getting your beard or hair groomed, or having a weekend completely to yourself.

Still, Porter cautions, whatever your remedy, make sure it doesn’t kick off any other problems. “We want to make sure that whatever we are doing doesn’t have any negative consequences,” he says. This includes becoming compulsive about performing certain behaviors or engaging in certain activities to your own detriment. “If you are engaging in addictive behavior of any sort, that’s going to cause more problems than the issue you are trying to solve,” says Porter. “Make sure whatever you choose is actually healthy and productive for you.”

The important part is not what you do, but how consistently you do it. I’ve found that adding one self-care activity I can stick with per week over the course of several months has helped me maintain my rhythm. Switching things up, as necessary, and staying flexible are also important.

Make your list of favorite self-care activities and keep it close for times you need a reminder of how to ease any tension and stress you may be feeling (or trying to avoid feeling). Find your beat and keep playing.

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