It is true that we live in a fast-paced, constantly changing environment. It is true that we are busier, more stressed, and less connected than before. The good news is that we’re aware of it—and we’re taking steps to improve our brain health through practicing self-care.
A massage. A scented bath. A hike out in nature. A decluttering spree. A cup of tea and a good book. All of these are ways we decompress and take a break from the ordinary (and extraordinary) stressors in our lives. Self-care is important and very effective—we can feel the results immediately. But because it’s focused on short-term healing, it may not improve our long-term brain health like we’d hope. That is why it’s also important—or perhaps even more important—to practice self-compassion.
The neuroscience of self-care
Self-care and the self-love that focuses on stepping away from reality give us relief—it’s established by neuroscience. Showing ourselves care triggers the dopamine system, which we can think of as the brain’s reward system. The problem is that the reward is only temporary. The dopamine, that feel-good hormone, fades; then it’s back to the real world and its imperfections, not to mention our own. That’s why, despite how much fun a vacation was, within a week we feel like it never happened at all.
Self-care is good, but it is not sustainable as a way of destressing and preserving the brain’s good health. And overreliance on self-care as a means of escape can have a darker side, as seen when people self-medicate with food, alcohol, or unhealthy activities.
Why not try self-compassion?
Self-compassion can fill in the gaps and allow us to combat stress long-term, change our worldview, and approach problems in a healthy, collaborative way.
Self-compassion isn’t about doing something for ourselves; it’s about understanding ourselves and understanding the universal human experience. If we remind ourselves that no human is perfect, including us, we can learn to have empathy for ourselves. By showing care, concern, and tolerance for our imperfections and failings, we can remove the stress of trying to do everything perfectly.
The more we accept ourselves—it’s okay if we’re not perfect—the better we can deal with the fear, guilt, shame, and regret that form a large part of our stress. The more we give ourselves grace, the less likely we are to overdo things because we accept that we have limitations.
Extending empathy to ourselves triggers the production of oxytocin, a bonding hormone that allows us to feel secure in a relationship—even if that relationship is with ourselves. We’ll also learn to treat ourselves gently, without triggering cortisol and adrenaline production in response to our own self-judgment.
We are all imperfect human beings who are trying our best, and although sometimes we will fail or have regrets, this is a shared human experience. By learning to accept and forgive ourselves and to be less judgmental when we do, we can be more at peace within and at peace with those around us.