By: Samantha Silva, Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine student
I wake up suddenly, my face on my desk and drool dripping down my chin. I sit up, looking around carefully, not knowing for a moment where I am, what day it is, or—honestly—who I am. How long have I been asleep? My clock tells me it is 2 a.m. Ever so slowly, it all comes back to me: Oh, yeah. I’m in grad school.
Nights like these have become a part of my new normal since beginning graduate school almost two years ago. It is ironic, isn’t it? As we pursue the knowledge that will enable us to become the best practitioners and caregivers that we can possibly be, our own self-care tends to take a backseat. This is unacceptable! I have learned throughout this time to make self-care a non-negotiable aspect of my life—it is essential not only to my academic success, but to my overall health and well-being.
I am, of course, still a work in progress, but these are some concepts that have helped me along this journey:
- Fuel Your Body
Eating well is the ultimate form of self-care, in my opinion, and I cannot emphasize enough the importance of maintaining a healthy diet while in school. The stress and lack of sleep that often ensue are sure to impact the immune system and proper nutrition can help to improve many of these effects. Because I do not have the time to prepare meals every day, meal prep has become a vital part of my weekends. I make sure to pack nutrient-dense meals with ample protein, healthy fats and gluten-free carbohydrates as well as many colorful vegetables to ensure adequate phytonutrient intake. Stocking up on snacks such as fruits, nuts and nut butters, dairy-free yogurt and other fermented foods helps support my gut. Food is fuel, food is information and food is medicine—choose accordingly!
- Move Every Day
In all honesty, my exercise schedule has suffered the greatest since beginning graduate school. I tend to have an all-or-nothing perspective on exercise: if I am not able to get in a high-intensity workout for at least an hour, then it’s not worth it. What?! This is incredibly self-defeating and simply not true. You do not have to spend half of the day at the gym to reap the benefits of exercise. Take a study break and complete a quick circuit of body weight movements like squats, push-ups and jumping jacks. Put on some music and just dance for 30 minutes. Take a walk around your neighborhood. Any amount of movement is better than sitting all day long, so find something that you enjoy doing and work it into the nooks and crannies of your busy schedule. Taking breaks and getting the blood pumping will improve your focus and clarity as well!
I had never implemented any kind of meditation or deep breathing into my daily routine until I was essentially forced to find a way to manage my stress. As I am prone to anxiety and panic attacks when I become overwhelmed, deep breathing and mindfulness have been lifesavers when it comes to getting my body out of a constant fight-or-flight response. Deep breathing creates the ability to reduce heart rate and both systolic and diastolic blood pressure by shifting the autonomic system to a parasympathetic response, thus decreasing the effect of stress on the brain and body (Sunil Naik, Gaur, & Pal, 2018). Breathing exercises may take as little as a few minutes per day, but they have profound effects on your health!
- Make Yourself a Priority
Whenever possible, block out time in your schedule for self-care. I’ve found that if I make a specific appointment, I am much more likely to make that activity a priority. You may wish to spend this time receiving a massage or acupuncture or spending time in an infrared sauna or float tank; however, simply taking a walk, spending time with your pet, chatting with a friend or journaling are all free and can be incredibly therapeutic as well. Ask your body what it needs and listen to its response. Whatever it is, write it down in your planner or put it in your phone and stick to it.
- Ask for Help
Last, but certainly not least: I urge you to ask for help when you need it. You are one person and while you may put it on yourself to manage every single thing in the universe, you simply cannot do it alone. Asking for help is never a sign of weakness! Surround yourself with people who support you and your goals and who will encourage you when you are struggling. Just in case no one has told you lately: You are doing a FANTASTIC job. Keep going. You can do this. Eat well. Breathe. Move your body every day. Take care of you and the rest will fall into place.
Sunil Naik, G., Gaur, G.S., & Pal, G.K. (2018). Effect of modified slow breathing exercise on perceived stress and basal cardiovascular parameters. International Journal of Yoga, 11(1), 53-58. Retrieved from: https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.uws.idm.oclc.org/pmc/articles/PMC5769199/