March 4, 2022
I’ve noticed a lot of blogs and online articles about self-care. Maybe February was Self-care Awareness Month, and I missed the memo?
It’s quite possible with everything going on in the world, I’ve felt easily distracted, over-critical, and over-whelmed. I am working on limiting my own mindless “doomscrolling” because I am trying to consistently practice my own self-care. This concept still eludes me, and some of the self-care suggestions I read about seem more like self-indulgence, rather than self-care.
Cancer has this way of forcing us to face what we need, becoming our own health care advocates at times, while allowing ourselves to be taken care of by others. Individually, we have learned about various forms of self-care to cope with different sources of stress in our lives. Today, we will explore these various forms of self-care and learn about a deeper form of self-care, self-nurturing.
Self-care comes in many forms
In my own experience, meditation and mindfulness are my go-to forms of self-care to support my mental health and cope with mental and emotional stress. Allowing myself space to pause, reflect, and let thoughts pass through my awareness helps me slow down my racing thoughts, grounds me in the present moment, and connects me to my felt experience. By practicing mindfulness, I am developing an internal anchor, listening to my body, and stepping into awareness.
I’ve also learned to use another form of self-care to rewire my brain to heal past trauma from childhood experiences and my most recent experience with cancer. In these past months, I learned about a concept that I’d like to pass along: self-nurturing.
Self-nurturing is meeting the need for comfort for ourselves the way we would care for others, or the way a loving person would care for us. Self-nurturing can serve as that gentle yet responsible voice of comfort. This goes steps beyond self-care, serving as a tool for self-regulation. I came across this concept while listening to When Food Is Comfort: Nurture Yourself Mindfully, Rewire Your Brain, and End Emotional Eating by Julie Simon, MA, MBA, LMFT, 2018.
In practicing mindful eating, I realized that I have a disconnection from my body’s hunger signals that stems from early childhood. Growing up between two large, lower-income families, I went hungry quite often, and not just for food. When I did get food, I would stuff myself. I would sneak food to fill the void. I even used snacking as a reward when I completed a difficult homework problem.
I was also hungry for connection and lacked nurturing relationships. When I did get attention, I would people-please and perfect. I knew I could not ask for help and was taught “children were to be seen and not heard”. I took on burdens that no child should.
This set me up as an adult to easily ignore my body’s signals and negatively impacted my ability to self-regulate many aspects of my adult life. As a young adult, I hitchhiked and lived out of my backpack. As you can imagine I ate what I could, was not concerned about nutrition and quality ingredients, and drank a lot of my diet. After the surgery to remove the tumors from my body, I developed adhesions and a blockage in my bowels. I had a bowel resection and that is really when I began my healing journey.
I became hyper-fixated on my intestines, my weight, and my diet. I was discouraged and depressed with the feeling of being disconnected from my body and feeling out of control. For years, I felt the extent of my body was the top of my head to the base of my skull. I lived in my head and my heart, existing in a place of hurt. I needed healthy ways to connect with and care for my body.
– Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D. Psychology Today, 2008.
“As opposed to self-indulgence, self-nurturance fosters both the physical and psychological health requisite to our happiness.”
Enter self-nurturing through dance. I did not realize it when I started, but dancing became a way for me to nurture the parts of my young self and my adult self, healing old wounds brought to the surface by the trauma of cancer. I started connecting with my body, all the way to my toes. Feeling the strength in it, as I learned and played.
“What’s wired together, fires together.” Dr. Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
A great analogy for this concept is hiking trails. Imagine an open meadow with a faint trail across it. The more the trail is used, the more it becomes a well-worn path. Eventually, it turns into a distinct pathway easily noticed and used preferentially over time. (In ecological restoration, we call this a social trail.)
The same can be said for our neural pathways. The more we use a certain perspective or outlook, the more conditioned we are to continue to think that way. That’s why it is so easy for me to immediately leap to the absolute worst possible case scenario. At the same time, I struggle to organically populate my mind with compassionate thoughts toward myself. To nurture myself, I installed an app on my phone to fill my day with healthy affirmations. I engrain these words in my mind to create a pathway of healthy perspectives.
Cultivating pathways of healing
The lack of nurturing and healthy connection in my early childhood combined with the traumatic experience of cancer literally rewired my brain and negatively impacted the self-regulation system that responds to varying levels of stress. I was already conditioned to ignore my body’s needs, so I had to mindfully change these thoughts, habits, and behaviors. I had to give my body, heart, and soul what it needs – deep healing and self-nurturing.
Self-nurturing rewires neural pathways by actively re-routing thoughts, changing habits, and engaging in new behaviors. So, let’s take a look at some of the different aspects of our lives and some of the support we get through self-care and self-nurturing.
Prompt 1: On the left side of your page, write “Aspects of Life” on the top line. List different aspects of your life; these can be the roles that we listed back in January or different aspects of holistic health and well-being from our Wellness Wheel, for example: spiritual, physical, emotional, financial, interpersonal, career, environmental.
On the right side of your page, write “Self-Care” on the top line. Then, list the forms of self-care that you utilize. Reflect on these two lists. Match the forms of self-care that support different aspects of your life and well-being. What insight do you gain? Is there any cross-over? Are there any aspects that aren’t supported by self-care?
Prompt 2: Look at your lists again; within the self-care list, what is essential and why? What aspect of your life does this support? What does self-nurturing look like to you? Describe how it feels to nurture yourself and who benefits from this deeper level of our healing work.