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On Self-Care and Science

If you are a scientist, like me, you probably like facts. We check COVID-19 numbers multiple times per day. We explain log-scale trajectories to our relatives. We read up on the details of serological assays.

And sometimes we lose track of priorities, we forget to take care of ourselves.

Most of us have long lists of self-care routines. Active things, like running and yoga. Mindful practices, like meditation and gratitude journaling. Seemingly basic habits, like hugging our kids or calling a friend. Silly things, like dancing it out around the kitchen isle.

In this post I will give a little background on some lesser known self-care practices that keep me afloat. I will even provide the scientific facts behind them, promised.

Here's the list:

I have been practicing all of these techniques over the last few years, some of them daily. I learned them from professionals – most notably from my therapist and from my yoga teachers.

As usual, the source of this post is available openly, please correct any mistakes.

Stairstep Breathing

If you have never done a breathing exercise before, this is the one to get started. Maybe it's even the only one you will ever need, it is that good. I learned it from my sister-in-law, who is a clinical psychologist.

Start in a relaxed position. There's no need for a cross-legged yoga posture, just use a chair. Or lay down on your back, the exercise is also very helpful to wind down at night.

For a couple of cycles, observe your breath without influencing it in any way. After your next exhalation:

  1. Fill your lungs by inhaling through your nose in a step-wise fashion
  2. Once your lungs are really full – pause...
  3. Breathe out through your nose in one very long and steady stream
  4. Mindfully observe how your body feels
  5. Rinse & repeat!

It may be helpful to use the metaphor of climbing a mountain:

  1. Climb up in about 5-10 big, steep steps
  2. At the top: pause, look around & enjoy the view
  3. Take the gentle cable-car back down

My daughter Filipa made a drawing for you:

Stairstep Breathing

So what's the science behind all of this esoteric yoga quack, you might ask? Let me give you just a tiny bit of neurobiology background.

In humans, any response to fear is modulated by a brain structure called the amygdala. Very simply put, this is what the amygdala kicks off in a threatening situation:

  • stress hormone levels increase
  • breathing becomes shallow and rapid
  • blood pressure and heart rate go up
  • complex decision-making disappears

The amygdala (actually, it's the amygdalae – we have two of them) are part of the limbic system. This is a group of brain structures which, evolutionarily, are rather old.

The important thing in the context of our breathing exercise is this: The amygdalae not only trigger a variety of responses, they also monitor bodily functions. As you probably know, we cannot willfully lower our stress hormone levels or influence our blood pressure. However, we can alter our breathing. If we manage to fully fill our lungs and slow our breathing – in stark contrast to the shallow and rapid breathing triggered by the amygdala – we signal the limbic system that everything is under control. It's like telling the amygdala to "just chill". It will trust the sensory input based on your lungs, and will in turn wind down all other stress responses, e.g. it will lower blood pressure and cortisol/adrenaline levels.

If you manage to mindfully observe your body's reactions during and after the breathing exercise, you may even be able to notice how your whole body feels a lot calmer after just a few cycles.


How many times have you told yourself to calm down lately? That you shouldn't be scared about COVID-19 because you live in a very safe country? That fear won't get you anywhere? That you shouldn't complain, because you have food on the table? That your worries are not helpful, and that you should keep quiet? That you should stop whining and just get on that yoga mat?

But: How do you treat a good friend or your children when they trust you with their sorrows?

You probably hear them out patiently. You give them your full attention, without judging their feelings. You acknowledge their suffering and give them a hug. You are just there for them, compassionately.

The thing is, you can do just that with yourself. With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we'd give to a good friend or our children.

Kristin Neff has many helpful exercises and a ton of excellent research around this topic. Most notably, having empathy for ourselves also creates more empathy for others. Empathy, love, and self-compassion are the last things we should ration right now!

Recommended reading: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff

Recommended listening: Unlocking Us by Brené Brown

Cold Showers

At the end of your warm shower, turn the water very cold and stay underneath for 30 seconds.

Super simple, yet very good for your nervous system. Here's why: The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in our body. It plays a powerful part in bringing our minds and bodies back to calm after encountering a perceived threat (in today's time, new COVID-19 numbers can be very threatening).

Exposing your body to cold conditions, such as taking a cold shower, stimulates the vagus nerve. While your body adjusts to the cold, sympathetic activity ("fight-or-flight") declines, while parasympathetic activity ("rest and digest") increases.

Recommended reading: Nurturing Resilience by Kathy L. Kain and Stephen J. Terrell

Completing The Stress Cycle

While our ancestors were running from saber-toothed tigers, today's stressors are very different: work problems, health concerns, money issues – the list goes on and on. We do our best to fix the problems and deal with the stressors, but our bodies stay stuck in the stress response.

The reason is that, evolutionarily, our bodies rely on the full circle of a stress response: Our ancestors ran from the tiger. After successful escape, they hugged their loved ones, shouted in triumph, or fell on the floor crying.

Our stressors have changed, but our body's needs to deal with the stress are still the same: we need to complete the stress cycle. According to Emily & Amelia Nagoski, these are ways to do it:

  • Physical activity
  • Creativity
  • Crying
  • Laughing
  • Physical affection
  • Deep breathing

Recommended reading: Burnout by Emily & Amelia Nagoski

Turning Around Thoughts

As scientists, we stick to the facts. Our thinking is razor sharp, and we know what is true. Often, this is very important and helpful, and it is exactly what makes us good scientists. Simultaneously, our black & white thinking is very limiting. It turns us into narrow-minded, stubborn brats who can get lost in simplistic stories. Life is a complex beast, most problems can be tackled from different angles, and many things can be true at the same time.

The Work by Byron Katie is a very good practice to question your own thinking. It is a form of self inquiry which can be learned easily. While "The Work" involves several steps, the practice of turning around thoughts is the easiest part to get started. Let me give you a quick idea:

Based on your current believes, isolate your thoughts in a simple statement. For example, your thinking may go something like this:

«Rahel is a self-proclaimed scientist who should not spread bullshit like this.»

Now, turn your thoughts around. There are many possible turnarounds:

«Rahel is not a self-proclaimed scientist.»

«Rahel should spread bullshit like this.»

«Rahel should not spread knowledge like this.»

«I should not spread bullshit like this.»

«I myself am a self-proclaimed scientist.»

Ask yourself if any of these opposites is as true or truer than the original thought? Note that the purpose of this inquiry is not to prove you wrong – you have every reason and right to stick to your original thoughts. However, the turnarounds might each hold a tiny bit of truth and provide a new perspective. They may give you a little nudge to be more open-minded and make space for other opinions. Personally, this form of self inquiry often points me to some blind spots which I otherwise tend to avoid because of shame or fear.

Recommended reading: Loving What Is by Byron Katie

The Power Of Now

Our thinking, no matter how scientific, is never really in the now. We dwell in the past, or we make up stories for the future. Spinning up narratives is what our brain knows best. The mind feels like it is working in our best interest, but it is actually just inventing problems.

Here's a great exercise I sometimes practice in bed, when I have trouble falling asleep. I got to know it through Sarah Wilson (who is actually quoting Eckhart Tolle):

«Ask yourself what 'problem' you have right now, not next year, tomorrow, or five minutes from now. What is wrong with this moment. Try this with a problem. Feel into the problem now, not in 60 seconds, not in 2 seconds. Now! Is the problem still there? Nope. It's gone, right? Worries don't exist in the now. Worries about the future or the past don't exist either – they're just narratives we create in the present.»

This exercise is a form of mindfulness meditation. There's scientific evidence that it results in a gain of insulae connection strength. The insulae are brain structures believed to be involved in consciousness. They play a role in diverse functions, such as compassion & empathy, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience. The more activation in the insulae, the calmer we are.

Recommended reading: First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

Professional Help

You made it this far, wow, thanks for reading. Please bear in mind that reading is the easy part. Scientists like you and me are very good at reading and rationalizing. But: These practices are called practices for a reason – they need practice. Just like we need to listen to epidemiologist when it comes to COVID-19, we should rely on professionals when it comes to mental health. Yoga teachers can guide you and provide more details on breathing techniques. Psychotherapists know a lot about the relationships between behavior, thoughts, and emotions. They can help you break cycles that cause suffering in everyday life. Please reach out for help if you are struggling.

Take care, y'all!