The Science Behind Self-Care

Self Care and Resilience: Put the Oxygen Mask on Yourself First

By Lisa Bobyak & Nancy Maxfield­ Wilson

What is self­-care, and why does it matter? Although most of us ‘know’ we should regularly maintain our emotional, intellectual, and physical health, we often feel selfish about taking care of ourselves instead of others. Frequently, given limited time and energy, we put ourselves last.

Many of us continue with poor wellness habits and/or uncontrolled stress, until we get a wake­up call in the form of a serious illness, mental health or relationship crisis, or other emergency. It has been estimated that up to 75% of healthcare costs in the U.S. could be eliminated if we made better lifestyle choices; approximately half of visits to doctors are for stress-­related complaints (1). (Not all stress is bad; stress can actually be productive when controlled and reframed (2).

So let’s do a little exercise together: Picture a jar filled to the top with large rocks. Is the jar full? (It surely appears to be.) Now, add some pebbles to the jar. And, again, we’ll ask you; Is the jar full? (Surely, no more rocks or pebbles will be able to fit into the jar.)

Picture pouring sand into the jar, until it fills to the rim. Is the jar full now? (It definitely looks like nothing else can fit into it.) Finally, take a pitcher of water and slowly fill the jar. Now, is the jar full? (You’d be right if you answered “yes”.)

What does this illustrate? For many of us, it represents how we think of our days. We daily fill our jars to the brim, and beyond.

This idea of pushing harder, longer, doing more, is greatly rewarded in our culture. We talk about how busy we are like it’s a badge of honor. Proudly, we explain how many activities our children are involved in, and how hard it is for us to get to their games and performances.

But..stick with us... If the jar were filled with the little things first, like the sand or the water, those big rocks would have nowhere to fit.

In fact, if the biggest rocks aren’t placed into the jar first, they will be left out completely.

Similarly, in our hurry to get it all in, we can sometimes find that we forgot an important “rock”, something that speaks to our priorities and reason for being in life.

So maybe that image of the jar with the large rocks in it first represents something simple: your priorities, or non­-negotiables.

What are the big rocks of your life, that you need to find room for in your day first?

Having clear priorities, tied to your life purpose, has been shown to have positive short and long term health benefits, including reduced dementia risk (3).

For a healthy balance and resilient spirit, we propose one of the big rocks, one of your key priorities for the day, needs to be self-­care.

Without taking care of yourself first, you aren’t able to be your best on the job, or for your family. To set yourself up for success, choose 2-­3 priorities for your day, including some form of self-­care, and watch your energy, happiness and productivity increase.

When we work from our passions and are happy, we are not only more productive, but we are healthier, as stress molecule levels (such as cortisol and adrenaline) drop and ‘happy’ molecules (serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) levels rise (4).

Spending more time in our ‘happy place’ is linked to lower rates of coronary artery disease, for example (5).

So increasing time spent doing things that make us happy is a critical part of self-­care.

So, how do we gain greater awareness of what makes us most happy, and what stresses us?

While our feelings may be obvious at times, most of us need some help. We can use our built ­in mind­/body sensing system to create greater awareness of our physical, intellectual and emotional status.

For example, stress, anxiety, or nervousness may manifest in sweaty palms, upset stomach or ‘butterflies’, elevated heart rate, etc. These symptoms indicate we are descending into the more primitive brain state used for fight or flight, and our quality of thinking is poor, if happening at all.

These symptoms can vary between individuals, but once we link our personal physical manifestations to our emotions and quality of thought, we have a powerful new detection system we use of improving self awareness and wellness.

We can further, with coaching, learn strategies for rerouting this poor quality of thinking back to more advanced “executive” function which produces much better decision making and self-­regulation.

Conversely, when we are in the “zone” (when time stands still and everything flows effortlessly) we may feel our body as energized but calm, with relaxed muscles, deeper breathing, and a centered mind.

At Max Performance, we develop this advanced resilience skill to recreate these ‘peak moments’ at will to inspire greater performance, whether it be mental or physical.

 Another part of aligning with our priorities has to do with being aware of our rituals, and creating new ones that support our future growth.

Daily rituals simplify and create an ease in decision making; in fact rituals and habits are an evolutionary method of conserving brain energy, leaving that energy for more important tasks. When we have a ritual (like brushing our teeth, making the coffee) our brains don’t need to think of every step in the process.

Some of us struggle with making self­-care a priority and a ritual, perhaps because it feels a bit self­-centered.

We challenge that belief. If we don’t take care of ourselves first, we will never operate at our best. When the plane goes down, we’ve all been told to put our own oxygen mask on first, and then assist those who need our help.

If we didn’t care for ourselves first, we wouldn’t be around to help others.

Not practicing self-­care of the mind, body and spirit is no less dire than not putting your mask on.

Research shows the benefits of addressing mind, body, and spirit (our connection to things larger than ourselves) to happiness and longevity.

Mind, body and spirit all need to be nourished and refueled for us to function at our best. There are some very simple questions you can ask yourself to begin this journey.

What activities, acts and rituals energize and bring me joy?

What physical activities are enjoyable to me?

What if you looked at your day and designed a couple modifications that would incorporate a ritual or physical activity into your day?

Radical change can be difficult to sustain, but by designing easy, minor modifications to current behaviors and routines, and looking for progress, not perfection, we create stepwise, sustainable change on our resilience journey.

What if you could, in the moment, check in on your self care for the day and create a couple of small steps to make it happen?

Try visualizing yourself as a perfectly healthy, resilient being confidently honoring the gift of your mind, body, and spirit by taking care of it.

What one small ritual can you add to your day that would move you toward greater wellness?

Suppose you actually told your supporters this is what you were doing and why, so they can help you make it happen.

What needs to happen for you to make self-­care one of your “big rocks”?

Please don’t wait for a crisis to get started. If you need a helping hand and a guide, Max Performance offers workshops, webinars, and group and private coaching to help.

Visit us at to learn more.

We propose that understanding and attending to your self-­care is actually the path to greater impact, productivity, and legacy in both personal and professional realms, and moreover, that it’s a foundation of effective leadership.

You will be more resilient to stress, conflict, sickness, and other challenges in the workplace and the world. This allows greater focus, performance, and productivity for the short and the long haul.

Self-­care is never a selfish act ­ it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have,

the gift I was put on earth to offer others.

Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires,

we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” 

Parker Palmer

What is Max Performance? Max Performance develops resilient leaders using a unique, integrated, science‐based approach. A foundation of mind/body/spirit wellness builds performance, improved focus, and energy. Resilience is our ability to convert adversity into opportunity; thriving vs. surviving.

The great news is that resilience is a set of skills that can be developed, no matter where you start from, and that stress management is part of this skillset. While there is much out there about mental resilience, at Max Performance we know intellectual, emotional, and physical resilience are all tightly linked.

We need to understand and work with, not against, our neurobiology and biochemistry for short term performance and long term wellness. The Max Performance team includes leadership and executive coaches, life coaches, personal trainers, fitness and yoga instructors to support our whole‐system approach.

We are passionate about sharing the innate resources of our body as a tool for improved self awareness, stress management, and self mastery. We provide individual and group coaching, workshops, peer advisory, and Resilience Club events to create a community of practice and network of resources.

Lisa Bobyak, BS Ed, CTI trained Co‐Active Coach, Living Fully Balanced LLC ,helps people create clarity of purpose, increase their energy and focus, and develop resilience and deep fulfillment in their lives. She does this through speaking, training and coaching. Because she’s overcome unexpected challenges herself, and thrived in spite of them, Lisa is compelled to help others do the same. She’s created a supportive yet action oriented community, developed online courses, crafted The 8 Keys to Living Fully Balanced™, and paired these with Co‐Active strategies. The Living Fully Balanced approach is simple, yet the results are profound. Her clients balance their lives, handle challenges with courage and grace, and create sustainable habits that bring them increased energy and focus, joy and fulfillment.

Nancy Maxfield Wilson, MS, MA, Max Performance LLC Nancy is founder and president of Max Performance, LLC. She focuses on creating personal change with leaders to build resilience, capacity, and focus for performance‐organizational change from the bottom up, one leader at a time. Nancy has a uniquely blended background in neuroscience and human diagnostics, as well as organizational leadership and change management. A long term competitive athlete with a passion for mind‐body performance, she helps others access their innate capacity for wellness. She worked for 20 years as a scientist, leader and organizational change consultant in the medical device and biotech industries before becoming convinced that personal change, one leader at a time, is the most effective way to build a high performing leadership culture.


1. Our Health At Risk: American Psychological Association. March 2012, Vol 43, No. 3

2.­ K. McGonagal. How to Make Stress Your Friend.

3. Effect of a Purpose in Life on Risk of Incident Alzheimer’s Disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment in Community­Dwelling Older Persons. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gove/pmc/articles.

4. Stress Effects on the Body. American Psychological Association.­body.aspx 5. The Biology of Emotion. Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health.2011.­stress­heart­disease/

All rights reserved. MyMaxPerformance LLC & Living Fully Balanced LLC 2016