If your idea of self-care is eating paleo and running ultra marathons, I've got news for you - you're missing out.
Self-care goes way beyond the way you feed or train your body: It's about health at multiple levels. At its core it requires attention to regulating your nervous system - to regularly giving your brain and endocrine system (your body's network of hormone-producing glands) the chance to calm down and return to normal levels.
Soldiers from Alpha Battery, 2nd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), fire high-explosive artillery rounds from their M119A2 Howitzer during Operation Fulton Harvest near Samarrah, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo)
This type of self-regulation is important for your physical and mental performance whether you're an elite athlete or an everyday person of any age.
Pain isn't always weakness leaving the body
As a veteran, you know that the military does a great job attaching metrics to physical fitness. Service members are required to pay attention to their physicality, and intensity is emphasized. These are good things in many ways. After all, you can't see improvement without testing your body's limits.
However, the military often falls short on the topic of balanced wellness. Many veterans leave their time in service physically broken, with muscular imbalances, and hold fast to the belief that if training is hurting, it's helping. We might even think that only malingerers, failures, and dirtbags take time to care for themselves.
U.S. Marines with India Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, participate in a formation run prior to a physical-training competition in Djibouti. The 15th MEU deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jamean Berry)
I'm not here to suggest that you give up your high intensity training. But I am here to say that the whole point of intensity should be about using it to increase your performance in a smart and productive way.
Whether your goal is muscle growth or cardiovascular improvement, attaining your specific training objectives will be easier when you lower your blood cortisol levels (the stress hormones your body produces).
You can do this by practicing self care and something called "mindful movement."
But isn't mindful movement for hippies?
Mindful movement is as useful for grunts as it is for POGs as it is for civilians. Here's what career infantry officer Maj. Gen. Thomas Jones, USMC (Ret.), has to say about it:
"For many years as an infantry officer, I worked feverishly to build resiliency in combat Marines. However, and unfortunately, it wasn't until I was a civilian that I learned that I was missing the central, necessary ingredient...to crafting resiliency: a thorough understanding of the physiology of stress within the body...I learned that mindfulness enabled me to personally address stressors with positive outcomes."
Mindfulness is a form of self-care, and what it really means is that you're paying close attention to your breath and body so you can discover how to care for yourself. For example, if you notice that you have really tight hips, you should work to correct the problem instead of ignoring it. This type of awareness is a very calming thing - we can use breath as a vehicle to connect our (sometimes very) disconnected mental and physical selves, and it can let us know how we need to adjust our training or lives to perform more effectively.
U.S. Army Lt. Charles Morgan, with the 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, throws a M67 fragmentation grenade during skills training at Kunduz province, Afghanistan, July 3, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Avila)
When we're busy and stressed, paying attention to the needs of the physical body is one of the first things to go. However, we can benefit tremendously from figuring out when we're not in a rested state and then working to provide our bodies and minds with opportunities to relax.
Why are mindfulness and self-care so good for me?
When we effectively manage stressed out bodies and minds, our levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) are lowered. Lowering cortisol is helpful because it improves our brain's ability to function and our body's ability to perform.
Alternately, high levels of cortisol encourage your body to seek out and crave simple carbs and store them as fat. Too much cortisol also impairs upper-level cognition in our brains - making it harder to think clearly, experience empathy, and communicate effectively. It can also degrade our physical performance.
Finding ways to lower our stress - even if only for a few moments - has the opposite effect and is incredibly beneficial to us.
A soldier from Task Force Iron Warrior waits to land to offer guidance for the medical evacuation training being conducted by soldiers of Hatchet Troop, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment. While deployed soldiers are focusing not only on maintaining security but also on training to improve skills with partners. (U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Charles Morgan)
So what does a drop in stress hormones feel like? Think about the last time you enjoyed an activity or training - when you took a deep breath in and you just felt that "Ahhh!" feeling - even if you were working hard and running up and down trails. You may find it while running, skiing, doing yoga, getting a deep tissue massage, or even lifting weights. Some people call it a "click," or a "shift."
That moment will look different for everyone, but when you find it, take note.
If I want to practice self-care - where should I start?
The first and most important step to practicing self-care is to commit to managing your time so you can structure a plan for success.
Next look at how what you're doing on a daily basis makes you feel. Tune into that and take notes for a few days. Do you feel depleted at the end of a day? Energized? Hopeless? Keyed up?
Once you have a read on how you're doing, begin to expand your skills. If you only know one or two tools to make yourself feel better, the good news is that you have lots of room to grow. Continue to do what you already know you like and benefit from, then learn and add in a couple of new options to your wellness program and nutritional choices.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Mark A. Santos, a food service specialist with Headquarters Company, Regimental Combat Team 6, adds seasoning to the hamburger patties for the evening meal outside the new Dining Facility (DFAC) on Camp Delaram II, Nimroz province, Afghanistan June 16, 2012. The DFAC was converted from a former water treatment facility as part of the ongoing process to consolidate and demilitarize the camp. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)
Pay attention to how you're treating your body with food. Consider taking fast food and soda out of the options column for yourself. If you don't want to take them out, then look to add items that taste amazing and are healthy. Instead of restricting, add in.
If you feel overwhelmed as you think about all the training and wellness options out there, consider plugging into an organization or non-profit that can teach you helpful skills. As a veteran, if you can imagine a self-care or mindful movement option, a non-profit probably exists that supplies it.
Self Care Resources
Outdoor Odyssey - Funded weeklong retreats for wounded, ill and injured active-duty and veteran warriors, designed to craft a definitive plan for the future with the support of a team. Designed and operated by those who have been there!
Outward Bound - OIF/OEF veterans can enjoy all-expenses paid week-long trips rock climbing, dog sledding, sailing, and more, as they learn the value of compassionate leadership.
Ride for Recovery
Team RWB Athletic Camps - Learn how to rock climb, practice yoga, or run trails.
Sierra Club Military Outdoors - Power ski, ice climb, whitewater raft and more alongside fellow veterans in some of America's most stunning backcountry.
Just Roll With It Wellness Retreat - This free three-day retreat teaches self-care and mindfulness practices, gives you the opportunity to connect with other veterans interested in physical and mental health, and includes a travel stipend.
Semper Sarah Health Coaching - Need an individual environment to learn self-care? Tap into the skills of a former Marine-turned-health pro.
About the Author
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a U.S. Marine veteran and wellness coach who writes about resilience building, creating strong communities, and the science of spirituality. You can find her new book, "Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior's Battle for Balance", here.