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Autoimmune Self-Care Mantra: You Can’t Do It All (So Stop Worrying About It)

Shannon Harvey

To do list in a car on driving wheel - busy day concept

In the time it has taken me to craft this sentence I have had to change a nappy, put a tired baby to bed, comfort a crying toddler, send a text about my mother’s upcoming birthday, unsubscribe from an email list that keeps interrupting my train of thought, answer a work-call about an urgent grant application, and resist the urge eat half a block of chocolate. All this, and today is technically a “me day” when I’m supposed to be able to get things done.

I’m a mother, wife, friend, daughter, sister and colleague, and I have an autoimmune disease. If you’re on this site, I know that you know what that means.

It means I’m constantly trying to find a balance between my health priorities and everything else. Between the grocery-shopping, the house-cleaning and the meal-making, the meetings and the emails, the errands and the events to attend, there are always things left undone. In fact, Katie (from @AutoimmuneMom) and I have been exchanging emails back and forth about writing this blog post about “How I Do It All” since 2015.

Let me introduce myself

The Connection: mind your body.I’m a heath journalist who writes extensively about finding the connection between our mind, body, and health. I’ve travelled around the world interviewing leading health scientists and I’ve made a film and written a book about it.

Given that it’s my job to investigate how to be healthy, you might think that I’ve come across a single magical key to finding balance, harmony, health, and longevity. And I’d love to tell you that after a blissful nine hour sleep each and every night, I rise with the morning chorus of birds to perform an hour of yoga, followed by an hour of meditation.

I’d love to tell you that all my food is made from scratch, that my relationships are always in sublime harmony, that my emotions are invariably in balance, and that my stress levels are infallibly low.

But, that wouldn’t be true.

So to answer the question of “How do I do it all?” let me explain my approach to health by telling you about one of my favorite scientific discoveries.

In what is one of the most extensive studies of longevity ever conducted, a team of researchers at the University of California, Riverside have studied a group of 1,500 men and women for their whole lives. Through the Depression, war, marriages, parenthood, and the full catastrophe of life, researchers have been following them to see who lived long, who died young, why some were healthy, and why others became ill. Their findings have been published in over 150 influential and often-cited scientific articles and book chapters.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the cheerful, positive thinkers who who lived long, hearty lives. Nor was it the marathon runners, or organic broccoli eaters. The healthiest people in The Longevity Project were united by one very distinct personality pattern though. They were diligent, thorough, hardworking, reliable, responsible, committed, and persevering. In a word, they were conscientious.

I totally get that telling your friends that your new health mantra is “commitment and consistency” is not going to make them think you’ve uncovered a profound path to radiant health and enlightenment, but the scientific evidence to support this approach is astonishingly robust. All in all, people who are conscientious stay healthier, thrive, and live longer.

When you think about why this may be, it’s fairly obvious. Conscientious people engage in a variety of important healthier behaviors. They smoke less, eat better, take their medicine, and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, or drive without a seatbelt. Conscientious people are likely to choose healthier environments and relationships, as well as have more successful careers, better educations, and higher incomes, all of which are known to be relevant to health, wellbeing, and a longer life.

A whole health life

The Whole Health Life book coverFor me this means taking a whole-health, whole-life approach to managing my illness. This includes taking my medicine (when I need to), eating my vegetables, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. It also means reviewing my beliefs and expectations, tending to my stress levels and my emotional wellbeing, as well as nurturing my relationships.

But in this crazy, busy world, there is a limit on my time, money and energy. Unless all I ever had to do all day long is focus on my health, then there’s absolutely no way I can possibly meet all the recommendations made by all the experts, all of the time. So, to rephrase the original question about how to do it all, I think that the key is to think about what I can do overall.

Nowadays, rather than trying to fit everything in, every single day, I look at my health behaviours over a span of time. One takeaway TV dinner a week isn’t a problem. One every day is. Working hard to meet a short-term deadline isn’t a concern, but months of stress from deadline after deadline is. One late night won’t do much harm, but years of sleep deprivation needs attention.

What we can learn from the long-lived men and women in the The Longevity Project is that when it comes to our health, we need to be discerning, dedicated, diligent, committed, and consistent. We need to be conscientious and if we are, then we have the power to shape our overall, fundamental patterns of living to lead a long, healthy life. By taking this approach, there is an ease that comes into our moment-to-moment health decisions, and we can stop worrying about doing everything perfectly, every single day.

About the Author
Shannon Harvey is a health journalist who is on a mission to synthesize the work of leading scientists into a compelling account of how to be well in the modern world. Determined to find a solution to her autoimmune disease, Shannon found the answers she needed in cutting-edge mind-body medicine. Shannon is the director of the internationally acclaimed documentary, The Connection which is about the link between our mind, body, and health. Her new book The Whole Health Life is about how she used the latest scientific research in her own health recovery. Shannon produces a popular blog and podcast, whilst balancing her health and being the mother of two adventurous boys.

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