Celebrating International Self-Care Day [+ free meditation!]
Today we’re celebrating International Self-Care Day! This date was established in 2011 by the Global Self-Care Federation (GSCF), with the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the month leading up to it as Self-Care Month in 2020. Do you know why they picked July 24th? Because self-care is important 24 hours a day, the 7 days of the week – that is, 24/7! This initiative aims to encourage folks to embrace a self-care action. It can be something that supports you at the individual or the community level. To help you engage in mental health self-care today and always, I want to offer you a short meditation that focuses on connecting with a sense of awe and gratitude. You can find the download link to it at the end of this article, available in English and Spanish.
Self-care is a key component in our health: it can help us strengthen our sense of competence, agency, and confidence. Let’s take a look at what it means!
What is Self-Care?
WHO created a primer regarding self-care, in which it defines the concept as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” Additionally, the GSCF outlines self-care as “the practice of individuals looking after their own health using the knowledge and information available to them. It is a decision-making process that empowers individuals to look after their own health efficiently and conveniently, in collaboration with health and social care professionals as needed.”
Although it has become a popular buzzword, self-care is not a new trend, and it’s not limited to luxurious practices you’re supposed to indulge in once in a while, or only when you “earn it”. We can see from the definitions above that a central aspect of self-care is the attitudes, abilities, and actions we take towards our own well-being, which of course includes both the physical as well as the mental dimensions.
Self-care is such an important piece in promoting health. For me, it’s one side of the coin; it’s the ways in which we engage our agency to promote our own well-being. Of course, the other side of the coin is the environmental supports for self-care. In other words, are we allowed to take care of ourselves?
To answer this question, we need to look at multiple factors. Some aspects include the impact of social determinants of health, and how they affect our capacity to access wellness; as well as how the systems in which we move may maintain traumatizing dynamics or policies; and the supports we receive that help us prioritize our health. We can’t self-care out of systemic problems! However, these considerations don’t take away from the power of self-care. What they mean is that, as healthcare providers, we need to keep them in mind to “ensure that self-care expands equity and healthcare access” (WHO).
Meditation as self-care
As I mentioned at the start, my offering for you today is a short meditation on awe and gratitude. But, why do I think of meditation as self-care?
Meditation is a self-regulation practice that has been around for millennia, with roots in spiritual and religious traditions. There are many different ways to meditate, but their purposes in general are to train your attention, to become aware of the present moment, to let thoughts and distractions come and go without focusing on them or judging them, and to achieve a state of mental clarity and emotional stability.
This is why, no matter the technique, they also tend to have some elements in common:
- a location with few or no distractions
- a comfortable posture
- an instruction to help you focus on something (your breathing, counting down, words, sensations, etc.)
- an open attitude
Meditation has been researched increasingly in the past decades to prove or disprove the effects that the practice can have on our health. Here are some of the reported benefits that have been studied:
- Decreasing and managing mental health issues: Self-regulation techniques can help de-escalate a heightened sense of anxiety, fear, or stress, and help manage obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Regular practice of meditation has been reported to help reduce the occurrence of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as better outcomes for their symptoms (1). A study from 2014 showed that the effect size of meditation, while moderate, was the same as antidepressants (2). This of course doesn’t mean antidepressants are unnecessary in every case, but it makes meditation a valuable complementary tool.
- Preserving the brain as it ages: A study from 2015 found that people who had been meditating for an average of 20 years reported less loss of grey matter volume than people who didn’t meditate (2). The results from an earlier study, in 2012, suggested that long-term meditators also had more folds in the outer layer of the brain, which may increase the ability to process information (1). Other studies have suggested that exercising focus regularly through meditation can help increase memory and mental clarity, which might slow, stall, or reverse changes related to normal aging, such as memory loss and dementia (1).
- Aiding sleep: Meditation can make it easier to fall asleep and improve sleep quality (3). A study also found that meditation-based programs have shown positive results in reducing the severity of chronic insomnia (1).
- Managing chronic pain conditions: There are mixed results about whether meditation can reduce pain or not, but some studies suggest that certain areas of the brain are activated during meditation in response to pain. Research from 2016 suggests that combining mindfulness-based stress reduction with usual care, such as pain medications, can be effective for reducing pain and improving functional limitation. Meditation might also improve symptoms of chronic stress-related conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, and stress-induced inflammation. Research is scarce, but suggests that mindfulness training might improve patients’ pain, perceived stress (which reduces flare-ups), and quality of life (1).
- Recovering from addiction: Because meditation helps develop mental discipline and affects the self-control regions of the brain, it can help people avoid bad habits as well as recover from addiction. Research has mostly focused on smoking; studies comparing standard treatments with mindfulness-based programs found a higher rate of reduction in cigarette use in people who learned mindfulness. It’s suggested that meditation helps people ride out the feeling of craving until it passes, which decouples it from the act of fulfilling it. This is promising in treating other types of addictions (1) (2).
- Working on self-growth: Different types of mindfulness meditation can help you understand yourself better, foster self-acceptance, and increase your compassion toward yourself and others (3).
There are two important takeaways from the above. First, that the consistent practice of meditation has a long-lasting effect in the brain: studies have shown that it can affect the activity in the amygdala (the part involved in processing emotions, among other functions), and that these changes are still detected even when the person isn’t meditating.
Second, meditation should be used as a complement, not as a replacement for conventional treatments. Although there’s been more research on mindfulness and alternative treatments in recent years, studies are still scarce, have small sample sizes, or problematic designs (4). This means the evidence isn’t always believable or conclusive. Even in the cases where it is, it’s important to keep in mind that the effects are moderate ━ but that makes them on par with conventional treatments.
In light with the above, while meditation is generally considered to be safe, there is the possibility that it could trigger or worsen symptoms in people with existing mental health conditions. If you’re unsure about this, it might be a good idea to start practicing meditation with an instructor, and make them aware of your condition.
I hope it’s clearer why we can consider meditation as self-care! And now, why did I choose to focus on awe and gratitude?
The power of Awe and Gratitude
Have you ever felt a sense of calm and well-being in the presence of something that is awe-inspiring? Or maybe when you look at something ordinary from a fresh, curious perspective? Well, that’s the power of awe and gratitude! Experiencing these so-called healthy ‘prosocial’ emotions can actually have positive effects on your overall health. This is because feeling awe and gratitude is tied to focusing on something or someone external from us with open curiosity, which allows us to take a break from the noise of our ego, our needs, and the worries of daily life (5).
Like meditation, research on the benefits of awe and gratitude is still relatively new. In addition to this, since the experience of feelings in studies is self-reported, findings are not conclusive. Still, it’s worth looking into what some of these positive effects can be. After all… there’s nothing to lose by feeling gratitude or awe!
- Keeping inflammation at bay: Cytokines are pro-inflammatory proteins that kickstart the immune system when it needs to fight infection, disease and trauma. In high levels, though, they’re associated with type-2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases, and depression. In a study from 2015, researchers found that positive emotions (and in particular, awe) were linked with low levels of cytokines, a marker of good health. It’s important to note that the study wasn’t able to determine whether positive emotions help decrease inflammation or whether having lower cytokines makes people more likely to feel positive emotions (6).
- Boosting other “positive” emotions: Exercising a sense of awe and gratitude can work as a boost to more healthy prosocial emotions, like compassion, generosity, humility, joy, and connectedness, among others. This was found by a study published in 2020 that sought to identify low-cost practices to improve brain health. Participants who were asked to try to experience awe during a short weekly walk for eight weeks reported an increasing sense of wonder and appreciation for the world around them compared to those who were not. It was also reported that the first group experienced significant boosts of healthy prosocial emotions in their daily lives (7). Awe can also change our self-perception, making us feel small in relation to the world, which can contribute to feelings of humility (8).
- Strengthening physiological well-being: Feeling gratitude has been associated with a more positive health behaviour. Studies have found that it can help manage and cope with terminal conditions. It can also aid in recovering from medical procedures and alleviate pain and stress. Research has shown that indicating gratitude predicted significantly lower risk of mental health disorders (clinical depression, GAD, phobia, addiction, bulimia nervosa). Less chances of developing high blood pressure has also been linked to gratitude (9).
- Making you more satisfied with your life: Since opening ourselves to awe and gratitude leads to experiencing other positive emotions, it makes sense that your mood will improve, your daily stress levels will go down, and you will find greater satisfaction in your life (subjective well-being). In relation to that, it can also help decrease materialism, as you will find more joy in experiences over material goods (8).
- Bringing you closer to people: Gratitude in particular can have a positive effect in relationships, which is associated with their perceived quality. It can promote conflict resolution, encourage reciprocal helpfulness, and it’s related to how willing we are to forgive others, which means that it can make our relationships stronger and more satisfying. A study from 2016 also found that participants considered everyday acts of kindness and showing gratitude for them as the most important factors in romantic relationships (9). As for awe, studies have found that it may make us kinder and more generous towards others, and help us feel more connected to our communities and to humanity as a whole (8).
Practicing Awe and Gratitude
So, how can we practice experiencing awe and gratitude? We can find awe in very simple activities: going out for a walk in nature, visiting a museum or exhibition, listening to inspiring music. If going out isn’t possible for you, you can also watch awe-inspiring shows or videos, look at prints or photographs, or read evocative stories from the comfort of home. What will make you feel in awe of those things will depend on your personal preferences. You’ll experience awe when you feel a sense of physical or psychological vastness, of being small in the world, making you shift your perspective on how you understand the world ━ even finding it difficult to understand it (10).
Those moments will also likely help you feel a newfound appreciation in the thing you’re experiencing. To exercise gratitude, you could write down those feelings, or get into the daily practice of listing things you’re grateful for in your daily life.
And now, as promised, you will find below the download link to your free meditation! If you’ve never consciously experienced awe and gratitude but you’d like to try it out after reading the above, this 10-minute meditation is a great way to start. I hope you enjoy, and I’d love to hear your comments if you want to reach out on social media!
I grew up speaking Spanish. English is my second language. When I communicate in English, I make mistakes. I've chosen to let the writing on my blog reflect the kind of mistakes I make when speaking, so that you have an idea of what it might feel like to talk to me. I trust the message is still clear but, if it's not, please don't hesitate to ask me for clarification.
The information provided on my blog is a mix of my personal thoughts, professional approach, and articles related to mental health. The purpose of sharing all of this is to communicate the models at the core of my practice, as well as to provide education. I hope this will help to minimize some of the power imbalances related to my profession. The articles on this blog should not be considered as professional advice for any one person or group of people. If you have any questions about the appropriateness of this content for you, please contact a qualified mental health professional.