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When we talk about practicing self love and taking care of ourselves mentally, emotionally and physically, we often focus on activities like taking baths or getting a massage, which can feel more like a fad than an actual call to action.
Radical self love is prioritizing your health—and since February is American Heart Month it feels appropriate to focus on our heart health. Do we love our hearts as much as we post about the need to love ourselves? Taking care of our hearts beyond a surface level is key as heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the USA. The good news is heart disease is preventable 80% of the time.
Stress and anxiety hurt heart health
Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression which occur more in women are contributing factors to heart disease and the past year has exacerbated this with no end in sight for many women who are juggling the constant strain of work and family responsibilities and pressure.
“An important aspect of women’s cardiovascular health is the presence of psychological, psychosocial, and emotional stress,” says Dr Sheila Sahni MD, Interventional Cardiologist and the Director of the Women’s Heart Program at Sahni Heart Center. Research shows that anxiety, depression, work-related exhaustion, and home stress are significantly associated with heart attacks in women. That’s why it’s important for cardiologists to assess a woman’s current emotional health in cardiac workups, says Shani.
This is especially critical for Black women, who are disproportionately impacted by heart disease, in part because of racial inequities and systemic oppression. Dr Rachel M Bond, MD, Women’s Heart Health Specialist and Co-Chair Women and Children’s Committee, Association of Black Cardiologists shares that “Women of color, especially Black women disproportionately are experiencing rising rates of death from heart disease at younger ages (35-54 years old).”
“Social determinants of health, including societal racism is at the core and the chronic and ongoing stress of this—along with just being a Black woman in America—is taking a toll on the health of this vulnerable population,” says Bond.
Mindfulness, mental wellness, and yoga have been scientifically proven by the American Heart Association to reduce rates of cardiovascular disease. So we asked our experts to share the four ways to practice self love that will help lower stress, increase self love and compassion—and protect your heart for years to come.
1. Practice for Self Compassion
Sahni recommends a self love practice about compassion to help focus on daily stress and anxiety reduction. Self compassion—directing compassion towards yourself even when you’re struggling or having negative thoughts about yourself—can enhance well-being and reduce burnout. Speaking to yourself with kindness and understanding instead of self criticism and self judgment have a direct relationship on wellbeing, according to recent studies on self compassion.
If you have been meaning to reconnect with a friend but keep getting distracted by work, instead of telling yourself that you are a lousy pal, recognize how busy your life has been lately and cut yourself some slack. Give yourself permission to call them at the weekend, when you have more time.
2. Express gratitude
Gratitude is another way to return kindness to one’s life. Regularly recognizing and appreciating life’s simple pleasures—whether through journaling, meditation, or even prayer—is easy to overlook when you’re feeling stressed. But simply cultivating a sense of thankfulness for what you have in your life no matter how small or simple is important, says Sahni.
Begin a simple gratitude practice as soon as you rise each morning. Think about one thing in your life however large or small that you are grateful for and keep this as your anchor throughout your day reminding yourself of this. You can also end the day with this practice to encourage more restful sleep.
3. Cut out negative talk
Speaking to ourselves with kindness is an important way to practice self love. If you tend to find yourself unable to let go of the constant internal negative narrative start to focus on replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones. If you make a mistake, which inevitably you will as we are human and imperfect, don’t engage in self flagellation. Instead, focus on retraining your mind to be kind and compassionate to yourself in that moment and speak to yourself like you would to a friend. If that is not possible, try to negate the negative thought by visualizing a pair of scissors cutting it away as it arises.
4. Practice for mindfulness
Simply breathing is a powerful form of practicing self love. Take a moment to bring your left hand to your heart and your right hand on your abdomen. Take a deep inhale through the nose feeling the belly contracting on the inhale and deep exhale through the mouth releasing on the exhale. Do this three times a day for a mind and body check in to help reset, relax and refocus the mind back to connecting with your breath in the physical body. This helps activate the vagus nerve which in turn lowers the heart rate, decreases your blood pressure and releases elevated levels of cortisol in your blood that can lead to hypertension, high blood pressure and lower immune function.