How many times have you heard a version of the following precaution when preparing for takeoff on a commercial flight?
“In the event that cabin pressure should change, oxygen masks will deploy from the overhead panel….Secure your mask before assisting others.”
This statement can be practically applied in daily life, where seemingly predictable routines can be suddenly interrupted by turbulence or a change in course. Those unpredictable moments can test your capacity to maintain balance, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. That’s why it’s important to build Small ACTs of self-care into your regular routine, enabling you to optimize your health from the inside out while strengthening your abilities to help yourself navigate challenges, and be there for others.
Think of self-care as your oxygen mask for everyday life and unpredictable moments alike. It includes basic activities (that are sometimes taken for granted) such as eating a balanced diet, attending to medical concerns, getting adequate sleep and exercising regularly. Self-care also includes activities and strategies that can promote emotional well-being and build coping skills. Your individual needs are likely different than those of your shipmates, family or friends and it may take some open-mindedness to determine which self-care practices work best for you. Here are a few Small ACTs of self-care you can try:
- Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each week, take a few moments to reflect and write down three to five things that you are grateful for. Focus more on quality rather than quantity, elaborating on how a person, event or thing has made a difference in your life. The University of California Berkeley’s “Greater Good Project” has a myriad of resources to help you reap the benefits of giving thanks—which include better sleep, improved relationships and reduced symptoms of physical and psychological illness—here.
- Set boundaries. Before you reach the point of feeling overloaded with mission demands, family responsibilities and social commitments, consider what you may be able to take off of your plate. Be honest with yourself about what you can reasonably tackle and what’s most important. If you are able to say no to doing a last-minute favor or task in order to give yourself time to focus on immediate priorities, give yourself permission to do so without feeling guilt or regret. You can always help by identifying and directly expressing confidence in another person who has the capability and bandwidth to support the request.
- Check in with yourself. Try setting a daily reminder to take a “mindfulness break,” helping you focus on the present by non-judgmentally tuning into your breath, body and thoughts. To get started, sit in an upright position with your eyes closed or open, and bring your attention to each inhale and exhale. Whenever the mind wanders, acknowledge your thoughts and then bring your focus back to your breath. If it helps to have a timer, set it for two minutes for your first try and see if you can work your way up from there. You can also download the T2 Mindfulness Coach to guide you through meditations and track your progress. Mindfulness practices can help you reset and relax, boost your attention span, improve memory function and promote feelings of well-being . For additional information on the benefits of mindfulness, check out this article from the Real Warriors Campaign.
- Push pause before you fast forward. After a rough day, your initial inclination may be to vent to the first person who will listen (or sound-off on your social media platform of choice). But while venting in the moment may feel good temporarily, it can reinforce negative thoughts and reactions to stress—especially if the person you’re venting to piles on a story of his or her own. Instead, take a moment to pause, rewind and process your emotions, making an effort to avoid jumping to conclusions and overgeneralizations. Think about what tools and skills you have to navigate the challenge you’re facing and how you may be able to grow from the situation. Then reach out to a trusted shipmate, friend, mentor or family member whom you know to be a good listener and positive thinker. He or she may be able to help you see your challenge from a different perspective, offer hope and help you choose a healthy way to overcome it. Aim to keep in touch with that person regularly to foster connection so that you’re not waiting until “it hits the fan” to talk about your stress. Speak with a professional resource like a Deployed Resilience Counselor, Fleet & Family Support Center counselor, Peer-to-Peer counselor, chaplain or medical provider for added support, before and especially if your stress worsens.
Similar to securing your oxygen mask first, practicing self-care isn’t an act of selfishness. Taking care of yourself emotionally and finding strategies to lessen the negative effects of stress can not only improve both your personal and professional relationships, but can boost your abilities to be there for others and make a positive contribution to your team. Every Sailor, Every Day starts with YOU.
 Money, N., MD, MPH, ABIHM, Moore, M., PhD, Bates, M., PhD, & Brown, D., PhD. (2011, June). Mind-Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System (Rep.). Retrieved August 28, 2016