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The Vital Importance of Self-Care for Sensitive and Neurodivergent Individuals

I talk a lot about self care.

It's what I do as a Yoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist, but its mainly because I have learnt the importance of self-care for myself through the practical experience of life!

What is Self-Care Anyway?

Essentially, Self-Care is the practice of taking intentional steps towards maintaining or improving your health, well-being and happiness. It encompasses a wide range of actions, activities and habits that help you to manage stress, and enhance your whole health so that you can live a full life. It is important that your self-care 'diet' include things that look after your whole health - physical, mental, emotional & spiritual. Ultimately, self-care is about fully understanding yourself on all these levels, knowing what you need and taking measures (ideally proactively), so that you are equipped to engage with life's ups and downs with resilience. At the very heart of self-care is love. Self-care, might also be seen as simply an act of love and care for yourself and the life you have been gifted.

However you view self-care, it cannot be denied that looking after yourself is more important than ever, and perhaps more difficult too. With stress at such a high in the current climate, your self-care needs to be much more than a long bubble bath and a lie-in (although it of course can include these). While ideas of self-care commonly include the basics (exercise, healthy food, rest, drinking water, etc), in today's age it also may include things like going to therapy, practices to soothe a wired nervous system, setting up boundaries with a family, and saying no more. Self-care can be hard! It is not easy to commit to yourself when there are so many demands made on us daily, but by doing so we can keep well, be of greater service to those we love and maybe just enjoy the ride of life a bit more.

Every single person requires self-care. Yet if you are extra sensitive and neurodivergent, it is important to understand why it is particularly important for you and how it might look.

Self-Care, But Not as We Know it

The key thing that has been staring me in the face over the last few years is that if you are sensitive and/or neurodivergent, you will need a different approach and outlook on how you look after yourself. You are wired differently, so it makes sense that you will need different.

Often when working with clients on a one-to-one basis, who happen to be sensitive or neurodivergent, they can be struggling to understand why the self-care they have been doing is not working. In some cases, clients have been doing a lot of the things you are 'supposed to do', but are still feeling anxious, overwhelmed and stressed. How can this be? When I think about what we are 'supposed to do' in terms of self care, I wonder how much of these ideas about what constitutes self-care, actually comes from a neurotypical perspective. How much of how we look after ourselves is driven by what we think we ought to be doing (which is influenced by the 'normal' view of what humans require), rather than being rooted in what we actually need? The effect of what society tells us we should need may be even more pronounced for sensitive, neurodivergent folk, who often need different.

This is when we start to get into the role that judgement plays in how we look after ourselves when we are sensitive and neurodivergent. What does society say if we need more sleep than most? What is the societal judgement if we need to potentially work less than the majority? What is the view if we need to spend a lot more time participating in activities that soothe our nervous systems, including less social time? What if we aren't in fact wired to multi-task and doing so depletes us more than typical?

When we stop to consider what we actually need, we may well be presented with a gaping hole between our true needs and what we are actually doing for ourselves. I definitely have been guilty of 'ticking the boxes' of self-care, only to find they haven't really given me what I needed at the time.

Caring for Your Nervous System

When we think of self-care, we do not often think about our nervous system. Yet, today more then ever this needs to be a key priority on the self-care list. This is true for everybody, but if your nervous system is wired to be more sensitive to your environment, take in more information and process it deeply, then I would say it ought to be number one on the list.

Let's go on a short nervous system detour...

Your nervous system is comprised of your brain, spinal cord and all the nerves that run through your body. It is a highway of electrical and chemical impulses that allows your body to do all that it does. From keeping you breathing and digesting food, to deciding to put some music on and have a dance, it is the place where messages are sent and received so that actions can be performed.

Your nervous system is also the part of you that is responsible for responding to stressful situations, whether they are real events in the here and now, or whether they are past or future concerns that play out in your mind. When you are extra sensitive to your environment and think deeply about things, you can be prone to overworking this system, so that feelings of anxiety and overwhelm are more likely. I believe this is being emphasised even more right now due to the strange and tumultuous times we are living in. From sickening world events, changes to life since the pandemic, the financial crisis and the constant barrage of information, it is enough for anyone to feel stressed and anxious, but even more so if you are sensitive and neurodivergent.

This is one of the reasons I have gravitated to Yoga and similar practices over the years. I didn't know it at the time, but when I returned to Yoga in my early 20s I had found a perfect nervous system solution! It was just the balm my frazzled self needed. From movement that stretched tight muscles and reminded me that I had a body and was not just a floating head, to breath work that helped to release my diaphragm, breathe better and switch on my parasympathetic nervous system (the part that helps you to rest, relax & restore) - I was hooked!

If you are feeling anxious, wired, stressed & overwhelmed, and you know your nervous system needs some care. Here are some key things to keep in mind to help your nervous system feel happy:

  • Movement - Movement helps to keep joints supple, releases tension in tight muscles, boosts happy hormones, helps build strength & resilience, allows stress hormones to move through our systems and gets us out of our heads and into our body. There are lots of different kinds of movement, with different effects but in my experience, slow and mindful movement with varying strength levels is what tends to help sensitive, neurodivergent folk the most. This is not exclusive, and not to say other forms of movement are not worthwhile, but just to highlight what is most impactful for the nervous system.

  • The Breath - Working with the breath gives us a direct link to our nervous system. We can use the breath to decrease the effects of stress hormones on the body and return to a more relaxed state. When we become more mindful of our breath, we are more able to notice when things are becoming too much for us and tend to what we need, before things bubble over.

  • The Voice - Similar to how the breath works, chanting, singing and making vocal sounds has a direct impact on the nervous system through the vagus nerve, which is responsible for switching on our rest, relax & restore mode. Plus it can feel really good to belt out your favourite tune!

  • Rest - No nervous system can restore itself without rest. When we sleep and rest, our nervous system is busy deciding what information is worth keeping and which is not. If we do not have adequate time for this, we are likely to feel overwhelmed with all the 'stuff' still in our system. If you consider that sensitive, neurodivergent folk are taking in more information than is typical, we can see how this element is crucial for us neurospicy folk.

  • Mindfulness - Sometimes, our nervous system gets all fired up because we are living way in the future, churning over lots of thoughts, worries and plans. Mindfulness helps us to come back to the here and now, noticing what we are currently experiencing. This in itself calm be very soothing. Yet mindfulness also has the power for us to build resilience by learning how to 'be with' difficult feelings and situations, in a kind and non judgemental way. This can be a great tool if you are prone to overthinking.

Of course, the nervous system also needs adequate nutrition, hydration and stimulation too in order to be at its best, but the points above are more likely to be forgotten about and can have such a positive impact when we bring them in to our daily routines.

When it all Gets Too Much

When our nervous system is not happy, when it has been chronically stressed for too long and on high alert for a prolonged period - this is when we are at risk from burning out. Burn out, is essentially when we have ran out of fuel and ran on reserves for too long, so long that our body says no. We lack energy, our mood is flat, we might not even be able to get out of bed. We also may have no motivation at all, making looking after yourself even harder.

When you are extra sensitive the risk of burn out is much greater, as our system is more prone to overwhelm in all forms - sensory, information, emotional. When we do end up in burn out, we can further add to our struggle by beating ourselves up about it too. Stories such as, 'I should be able to cope', 'Everyone else seems to be so on top of things' and 'It must be me, I must be flawed' can roll around our mind, as we judge ourselves against standards that do not work for us. The truth of the matter is that most of us are probably not fully coping, some of us might just be hiding it better.

It is worth highlighting here that in neurodivergent folk there is a higher prevalence of chronic illness, mental ill-health and suicidal ideation. In these conditions, stress and the health of the nervous system are major contributing factors. Practices and therapeutic tools that act directly to reduce feelings of stress and soothe an overworked nervous system can also help relieve symptoms and/or help a person manage their condition. So it is vitally important that all of us, but especially those of us who are sensitive & neurodivergent include practices that look after our nervous systems, so that we can avoid burning out, or exacerbating other health issues.

Of course as it began in my case, it is often when we are at rock bottom that we turn to things such as Yoga, meditation and other forms of alternative therapeutic practices to support our health. But what if looking after our nervous system as part of a regular self-care practice, was as normal as taking a long bath on a Sunday afternoon? If we took time to proactively nourish our nervous system, what could our experience of life be like? When we start thinking about upping our self-care in this way, it can feel indulgent or luxurious to take time for ourselves. We might even feel that it needs to be justified, or earned through working ourselves into the ground. Maybe even getting close to burning out before we relent.

Am I Worth it?

When we start to realise we need more time for ourselves, we can push up against the resistance that held us back from self-care in the first place. Thoughts about whether you are worth it, while not necessarily conscious, can prevent us from investing the time in ourselves that we need.

Another aspect of this is how we are viewed by others. Societal standards tell us that we ought to be self-sacrificing, work hard, that other's needs are the most important priority and that we should all aspire to the definition of 'normal'. This 'normal', currently seems to consist of anything from being just the right amount of slim, able-bodied, working the 9-5 with just the right amount of 'work-life balance' and living in a well-presented house, to watching the currently most popular TV shows and being interested enough in the weather that you ought to chat about it with your neighbours and acquaintances at any given opportunity...

There are, I am sure many ways to define the current 'normal', but however you define it, norms can really mess with how you feel about yourself when you fall outside what is currently deemed most acceptable. Being sensitive & neurodivergent is one such example of breaking with the norm. Sensitivity is still seen as a flaw or less than by many, and there are still misconceptions and stigma around different kinds of neurodivergence. Growing up around this attitude can cause a deeply rooted, false belief that at some level you are wrong and not worthy of your own love and care. This may then lead to over-giving, people-pleasing, editing yourself, making your own needs small and non-existent self-care.

The thing is, our sensitive, neurodivergent people are an untapped resource for the whole world. We are the deep thinking, problem solving, empathic and kind people that have unique perspectives, can slice our attention to the important details and have a profound sense of moral justice. What fantastic qualities! These attributes are needed right now and have always been needed. When we look after ourselves in the ways we actually need, we can feel better and become empowered to share our gifts more fully and wholeheartedly. So for these reasons, and simply because you are alive reading this article - yes, you are definitely worth the effort of looking after yourself in the ways that you need!

Small Acts Go a Long Way

If you are aspiring to take better care of yourself, but feel overwhelmed by the prospect of lengthy Yoga sessions, why not start with something really small? Self-care that actually gives you what you need, doesn't necessarily need to take hours out of your week (although it can!). Here are some small, but significant things you could do to take care of yourself today that are not too intimidating:

  • Wake up 10 minutes before everyone else in the house, make a hot drink of your choice and simply sit for 5 minutes in the quiet before anyone else is up. You could even watch the sunrise, if you get the timings right.

  • Take a lunchtime stroll for 10 minutes and make a point of walking slowly, so that you can notice what you see, hear, smell, sense and taste.

  • The next time you get out of the shower, rub some nicely scented moisturising cream into your skin, while cultivating the same feeling of care and kindness as if you were doing the same for a loved one. You could even whisper words of thanks to each body part as you tend to it.

  • In between each item on your to do list, stand up, place one hand on your belly, the other on your chest and take 3 slow, deep breaths and notice how you are feeling.

There are many small acts we can do to cultivate an attitude of care towards ourselves, these are just some examples. Over time, we can feel the benefits of these small things and so we might be more inclined to take a little more action, like booking that Yoga class, or taking a full day off for relaxation.

The Work of Self-Care

While self-care does not have to break the bank, or require mountains of time, I would be lying if I said it was completely easy-peasy and required no effort whatsoever. It does need some energy towards creating the right attitude. This attitude needs to be one that incorporates awareness, acceptance and intention. This is what makes it work and become sustainable.

The element of awareness is about being aware of who you are, what you need, how those needs change over time and being aware of what tools and practices may be helpful. Having an attitude of acceptance is about surrendering what you thing you 'should' need or be doing and instead embracing who you are and what you need, remembering that this will change with time and circumstance. Intention is about planning to take care of yourself and understanding deeply why it is important for you to have this aim.

Supporting Your Self-Care

As I said, right at the very beginning, I talk a lot about self-care! But this is because I am so passionate about helping people to accept, love and care for themselves in the way they deserve, so that they can shine as their most authentic selves. I want this for you, and I think you might too.

I know there are so many things that can get in the way, or limit how much we can look after ourselves which is why I have created 'Divergent Soul Space'. This is an online place where you will be guided and supported to access self-care tools and therapeutic Yoga in a way that suits you, with both pre-recorded videos and live events. There are many benefits to joining this community, so why not take a look by clicking here.

For now, I thank you deeply for reading this article. I never take for granted the gift of your time and attention. If it has inspired you in anyway, please like, leave a comment and feel free to share with someone who may benefit.

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