Health Benefits of Me Time
“Me time is recovery time, it’s recoup time, it’s regeneration time,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “When you continually do something—even if it’s something you enjoy doing—if you keep doing it and pushing yourself without ever taking a step back, that’s like training for a marathon and running 100 miles a day. You can’t do that. Your body can’t handle it,” she says.
So how, exactly, does me time positively affect physical and mental health? Overall, it relieves stress, which can:
Boost the immune system. Based on research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease), when we are stressed out, we’re more likely to get sick because our immune system doesn’t function as well, according to Dr. Lombardo.
Help prevent and relieve chronic pain. Constant stress is also likely to cause aches and pains, Dr. Lombardo says. When she first started her private practice in psychology (she also has a background in physical therapy), Dr. Lombardo worked exclusively with those who had chronic pain known as medically unexplained pain. “The majority of those people had something in common, which was they took care of a whole lot of other people and did not have a lot of me time. They didn’t allow their bodies to rest and recoup, and they pushed it to the limit until their bodies finally said, if you’re not going to listen to me, I’m going to make you listen to me, and they developed chronic problems,” she says.
Lead to better overall health. Moms who don’t take any time for themselves tend to forgo exercise and may skip doctors visits. “Physically you don’t have cardiovascular health and all that goes with it, you don’t go to the doctor and do preventative health care, you don’t go to the doctor and catch things in early stages that maybe can be dealt with as opposed to waiting,” Dr. Saltz says.
Prevent negative thinking. “When we are at heightened levels of stress without coming down, it affects our ability to think and we tend to use cognitive distortion. We tend to think in more negative ways,” Dr. Lombardo says. “We personalize that our kid doesn’t pick up their shoes and get more upset about it than we need to.”
Cause more positive emotions and prevent unhealthy habits. “I think for moms the biggest issue becomes depression or anxiety related to feeling that they have not done anything to meet their own emotional needs,” Dr. Saltz says. When we experience negative emotions, Dr. Lombardo says, we tend to turn to alcohol, retail therapy, and what she likes to call Ben & Jerry’s therapy to squelch those feelings.
Lead to a better night’s sleep. Constant stress can lead to trouble sleeping, which affects mental and physical health, Dr. Lombardo says. “I don’t know about you, but when I don’t get enough sleep, I can’t think straight and I’m frankly not a very nice person, and that can affect our mental health,” she says.
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Your Me Time Benefits Everyone in Your Life
Burning out affects more than just physical and mental health; it affects relationship health, too.
“When we have that time to ourselves, we can be close to our true self, and that true self is the person who has less stress, is compassionate and loving,” Dr. Lombardo says. “When you are your true self, you are a lot more fun to be with, you are a lot more forgiving.”
Mia Redrick, The Mom Strategist™ and author of Time for Mom-Me: 5 Essential Strategies for a Mother’s Self-Care and Time for Mom-Me: 365 Daily Strategies for a Mother’s Self-Care, adds that when you spend time “dating yourself” (something her mother made her promise to do every week as a mom), you become clear about what’s good for you—what you really want and need in life—and truly knowing yourself adds value to yourself. “I think that one of the greatest assets is being a parent that has added value to herself and therefore you can add value to that parent-child relationship. Imagine that because you are connected to who you are, your kids now know the things that make you happy and fulfilled,” Redrick says.
Another thing to consider is children constantly observe their parents. “If you think about how you want your children to be when they become parents, my guess is we all want our kids to be healthy, well-rounded parents. …So it’s really modeling positive behavior for them to be able to see that Mom gets time for herself,” Dr. Lombardo says. “And that’s a good thing.”
Plus, not taking me time is unhealthy for the parent-child relationship “in terms of being so enmeshed with your child and promoting the idea that your child can’t be okay without you,” according to Dr. Saltz. “You want a child to be able to separate and feel that they can be independent and they’re okay.”
As for how me time benefits relationships between partners? For moms who don’t have me time, “their primary relationship may start to decline, their sexual relationship may start to decline. Particularly, moms can become so focused on children that spouses can feel like, hey, there’s nothing going on between us—anything from strain to feeling disconnected and feeling like, [she’s] not in love with me anymore, or even feeling like, [I’m] not in love with [her] anymore. So time must be taken to maintain a healthy primary relationship,” Dr. Saltz says.
Dr. Lombardo shares a story about one of her clients. He and his wife were having issues, and they had young children. For their anniversary, he got a hotel room for one night and had her stay there alone. “Honestly it’s the best thing he could have done for their marriage,” Dr. Lombardo says. “To realize that he understood she just needed some time to herself, and he was not only okay with it, he made sure it happened. I’m not saying it saved their marriage, but it did a lot.”
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“Finding” Time for Me Time
“Before we even talk about finding time, we have to talk about giving yourself permission,” Dr. Lombardo says. “Because here’s the thing: We all have the same amount of time, we all know that. So if something is so important to you, you’re going to do it. No one says, I haven’t brushed my teeth all month because I just couldn’t find the time. So the first thing is to realize why it’s important to you personally, but also to your kids.”
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Once you’ve given yourself permission to take me time—and we’re only talking 15-20 minutes a day—a good next step is to figure out the best time, Dr. Saltz says. Is it when your partner is home to care for your young child, or if you want to do something with your spouse, can a grandparent or babysitter care for your child?
For Redrick, finding that time comes from implementing three techniques:
Mirroring: When you’re doing something for yourself, have your kids do that same thing for themselves. For instance, tell your kids, Mommy is going to read a book to herself for two minutes, and you’re going to read a book to yourself for two minutes. “I did this with my kids when they were very young. As they got older, the time grew, but as a result of that, I could always read for myself, by myself every single day,” Redrick says.
Blending: When Redrick does something for her kids, she looks for an opportunity to do something for herself during that time. “I do something for myself every day because it’s tied to me doing something for my kids. For example if I push them on the swing, I do a squat for myself. If I sign them up for an activity, I can write my book while they’re in their class or practice. I always look for opportunities to do things for me and advance me while I’m doing things for them and advancing them.”
DIPP: Delegate household chores or tasks to family members to create more time for yourself, even something as simple as “having the kids do the dishes so you can read a book,” Redrick says.
Incorporate others in your space. “Maybe, if you’ve got young children, you have a mother’s helper—a 13- to 15-year-old that comes over to your house so that you can make some calls if you’re trying to start a business while she reads to your kids for an hour, or something like that. Maybe its grandparents who ritualistically commit to coming over to get the kids so you can take a bath alone without the kids knocking on the door,” she says.
Plan time for yourself. It’s impossible to make time for you if you don’t plan it. You don’t get the support you need if you don’t plan it.
Purge your calendar and get rid of activities that no longer add value to your life. “I think so many moms are really good at addition and not great at subtraction. We just add and add and add. And then you try to figure out why you’re feeling overwhelmed, why there’s no room for me time—it’s because we’re connected to so many things,” Redrick says.
Suggestions for Me Time
Now that you know why taking me time is important and how you can find the time, the next step is to figure out what you want to do during your alone time.
“Once you identify [what you want to do], figure out how can you do it. So if someone says to me, oh, I just want to go to the beach and get away for five days. Okay, maybe you can’t do that, but maybe you can do part of that. So if you live near a beach, you can go for a walk down there. If it’s just sitting in the warmth, maybe it’s taking 20 minutes [to sit] in a hot tub or getting in the warm bath. So just looking at what do you want to do and looking at ways to do it,” Dr. Lombardo says.
If you’re stumped and need an idea to kick-start your me time, try:
Indulging in self-care. Take a nap, meditate, or do guided visualization “where you can kind of go on a mental vacation,” Dr. Lombardo says (you can find free guided visualization videos on YouTube). Or splurge a little and get a massage or a mani/pedi.
Doing something small and inexpensive. “A lot of people think me time has to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be,” Redrick says. “I initially would just go to a coffee shop and enjoy a cup of coffee and read a book to myself, or I would go to the bookstore and spend some time alone, or I would go to a park with a picnic blanket and snack that I like and I could spend some time just to hear myself think.”
Reading a book or magazine. “I had one client who was talking about how she had a stack of magazines that built up over three years. She had three kids and she had the magazines, but hadn’t read any of them,” Dr. Lombardo says. “And just the thought of sitting down with her feet up without anyone asking her for anything for 10 minutes was all she wanted, and that’s so easy to do.”
Signing up for a class or activity. Just because you say you’ll take me time, it doesn’t mean you’ll always commit to yourself and actually take it—something inevitably will come up. “If you find you’re one of those people and you have all the support in the world, then what you do is you commit in advance with an activity,” Redrick says, “So I would book a concert series six weeks out, and I knew I would go because I paid in advance, or a cooking class, or a yoga class, or Zumba. Commit with your dollars to a class that has a date and that will get you out of the house.”
Engaging your creative side. Whether it’s music, journaling, painting, knitting, writing, or drawing, your creative talents can be utilized during me time. Dr. Lombardo has a client who, when they were talking about musical instruments, said she used to play the guitar and wished she had never stopped. When Dr. Lombardo asked why she didn’t play now, “she looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘I don’t have any time!’ And I said, ‘What if you took 15 minutes once a week to play the guitar. What would that be like for you?’ And she just became dreamy, just that thought to her was so wonderful,” Dr. Lombardo says.
Going to the gym or for a walk. “I think exercise is a biggie because it really helps with mood, it helps with mental health and physical health. So that’s an important thing to try to be doing,” Dr. Saltz says. “But if you don’t find exercise to be pleasurable, then it is important to have times when you’re picking something that you do enjoy.”
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Overcoming the Mom Guilt
While the idea of taking me time is well and good, what about that ever-lingering feeling of mom guilt and the fear of being on the receiving end of mom shaming?
“When people are concerned about being judged by other people, what they really are is judging themselves. Because if you aren’t judging yourself, if you are one hundred-percent fine with it, then another mother could say some comment or remark like, oh, it must be nice to be able to do that, and it doesn’t hurt,” Dr. Lombardo says.
Moms feel guilty about spending time alone because they have a perfectionistic expectation of themselves and they shouldn’t need me time, according to Dr. Lombardo. “In psychology we talk about should-ing all over yourself. I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t do that. That’s ridiculous, and it’s so harmful psychologically, it’s so harmful physically, it’s so harmful socially,” she adds. “We are such an all-or-nothing society—you’re either selfish or selfless, but there’s a lot in between. So realizing that it’s not being selfish, it’s practicing good self-care. You can’t consistently be a great mom if you’re so overwhelmed you’re not taking time for yourself. We have needs like rest, we have needs like having fun…and we really need to take care of those needs. You can take care of yourself and that doesn’t make you selfish. It makes you human.”
On the other hand, “if you’re so overwhelmed with guilt that you can’t take 15 minutes to go take a bath or to read a book, I would be concerned that either you have separation anxiety from your child, or your child is having something going on that makes it feel like you can’t leave. Maybe they have an issue that needs attending to or you have an issue going on that needs attending to,” Dr. Saltz says. “It should be okay to take 15 minutes to do something relaxing or engaging that doesn’t include your child.”
And if that mom guilt does start to creep in when you’re doing something for yourself, just remember: “We’re human. Everyone needs time for themselves, it’s just part of they way we’re made up,” Dr. Lombardo says. “Remind yourself, I’m being a really good mom by taking this time for myself because I can be much more engaged with my children. I can be more present.”
This is the first in a two-part series about the importance of downtime. Read the next article, about me time for kids.