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Ask Izzy: Maintaining a balanced body budget

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Photo by Valeria Ushakova / Pexels
Photo by Valeria Ushakova / Pexels

Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Submit your question today by emailing [email protected] with the subject "Ask Izzy."

Dear Izzy,

I am a 35-year-old single woman with a high-stress job. I love my job and the life I have created for myself, but lately, I've been neglecting self-care and feeling drained, and it is starting to impact my performance at work. What are some simple daily practices I can adopt to boost my overall well-being, without putting too much pressure on myself?

— Self-Care Seeker

Dear Seeker,

Okay, independent, self-aware queen! You are already doing the right thing by acknowledging that you haven't been taking care of yourself enough to keep up with your fast-paced, high-stress lifestyle.

If you love your job and want to keep doing what you have been doing but also feel better, more aligned, and less drained, let me introduce you to a concept called your "body budget."

I recently read a book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, and in it, author Lisa Feldman Barrett introduces the concept as a way to regulate your energy and emotions. Essentially, it is your body/mind/brain's capacity to cope with all of the experiences life throws at you. According to Barrett, maintaining a balanced body budget is crucial for your overall sense of well-being.

Maintaining a healthy body budget is actually quite simple, as it includes commonsense practices like eating well, exercising daily, and taking time to rest and relax.

Another term for body budget is allostasis, the process by which the body responds to stressors in order to regain homeostasis, that is, the process that runs the systems of our bodies to keep us alive and thriving in a relatively stable state of equilibrium. The reason I bring this up is because some people think the brain's only job is to think. But the truth is that it has a far greater job: knowing when to expend and receive energy and resources.

Viewing the brain in this way helps us better appreciate the two-way relationship between our mind and body so we can take a more holistic approach to understanding and improving our physical and mental well-being. Pretty much all the time, our brains are anticipating our bodies' needs and deciding where to spend resources. When it senses an adjustment is needed, it uses our memories and past experiences to automatically predict how it can fix the gap between where our energy levels are and where they should be. A lifestyle blog, Restoring Balance, gives a few helpful examples of this:
• Cortisol is proactively released into our bloodstream when we wake up, giving us a quick shot of energy to get ourselves out of bed.
• Our heart rate increases if we're about to do exercise, in expectation that we'll soon need more oxygen flowing around the body.
• Our digestive functions engage before we're likely to be eating, ready to start processing food as soon as it arrives in the stomach.

How body budgeting works is that for every action that uses a resource, we need to pay the body back with an action that tops up our supply. Things like movement and learning take the most energy, while eating and sleeping give us the most back.

While there might have been a time when you could manage your body budget and hustle as hard as you have been going without any consequences, it doesn't seem like that is working for you anymore. When you neglect self-care, you are in turn letting your body budget become imbalanced.

Barrett suggests a bunch of activities that can be added to your self-care routine in order to make sure your needs are being met, such as yoga, reading, spending time outside, and meditation. Another powerful body-budget booster is gratitude, because it increases happiness and overall well-being.

If you are worried about incorporating more self-care into your life without feeling overwhelmed, I urge you to start simply. When you feel tired, rest. When you are hungry, eat. Same goes for drinking enough water and nourishing your body with nutrient-rich foods. As humans, we are incredibly intuitive when it comes to knowing what our bodies need, but unfortunately because of society, we are sometimes taught to ignore what our gut is telling us, in place of things like hustle and diet culture.

One of my favorite sayings is that you can't fill from an empty cup. Meaning, if you want to succeed at work, have a thriving social life, and build healthy relationships, you have to make sure your cup is full by maintaining your body budget. Right now, you are overspending your body budget. If you take the time to refill your own cup, I can promise that it will benefit you greatly in the long run.