Jeanne Achterberg, Ph.D. is a noted author and educator recognized for her pioneering research into guided visualization to heal the body. She has been an executive faculty member of Saybrook Institute and has served as senior editor of "Alternative Therapies In Health and Medicine" since 1994. The many books she has authored include, Lightning at the Gate: A Visionary Journey of Healing, Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine, and co-author of Rituals of Healing: Using Imagery for Health and Wellness.

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Dr. Zhivago, in Boris Pasternak's great book, said "We are made ill by saying the opposite of what we feel, groveling before what we dislike, and rejoicing at what brings us nothing but misfortune."

While this may seem to be a gloomy statement on human nature, I have found most people nod affirmatively when they hear or read it. Being pulled from inner needs and personal truths by a demanding environment may be one of the root causes of disease or disharmony.

Research has shown that many conditions are either preceded or made worse when personal concerns go unnoticed or unattended. Even the most conservative physician will agree that you are more likely to get sick when you are "run down," which is just another way of saying that work, relationships, or other worries may overwhelm your attention to self-care.

Being truthful about who you are, how you feel, and what you need are the first steps in leading a more wholesome or healthy life. Taking care of yourself is a choice that you can make daily, even hourly.

One way to remember who you are and what you need is to create a personal healing ritual or ceremony that you can do daily. This means developing a structure for your self-care activities, a self-generated ritual - one you design and can do along every day. Here are a few guidelines to consider from the book, Rituals of Healing: Using Imagery for Health and Wellness (New York, NY: Bantam, 1994).

  1. Set you intention. Your general intention has already been described: you are taking time to pay attention to your needs. But you may also have more specific intentions, such as listening to your body. Headaches, back problems, even colds and flu give early warning signals, and if you can detect them, you can sometimes steer them off by getting more sleep, avoiding stressful situations, watching your diet and fluid intake, and generally being kind to your body. Your intention may simply be to take a break from nagging, obsessive thoughts or the intensity of your day. After setting your intention - and it may vary from day to day - remember to hold it throughout your personal healing time.
  2. Time. Decide on a time of day when you can take at least 20 minutes to take care of yourself. It is no surprise that finding time is the stumbling block for most people. The best time, of course, is when you are overly stressed and busy and not functioning at your best - precisely when you feel the least permission to excuse yourself to take time out. Try to find a time that is yours and yours along, perhaps early in the morning or in the evening before you become too tired.
  3. Place. Find an area, no matter how small, where no other activities take place - a corner of a room, a special chair, a window seat, even a small rug or blanket on the floor. Put some comforting objects in this area. Many people use candles, incense or music to focus their attention.
  4. Activity. Plan an activity that engages you and relaxes your mind and body. This can be prayer if you have a religious or spiritual orientation, listening to music, focusing your gaze on a candle, paying attention to the breath, or doing a mental check of the state of your body and your life.
  5. Hire a healing team. If you need assistance planning your personal healing rituals, seek out members of your healing team. Here is where you can exercise your personal choice. Biofeedback therapists, hypnotherapists, specialists in guided imagery, meditation teachers, and spiritual counselors are just a few options. There are also many self-help books and tapes on mind/body therapies.

This material is adapted form the article "First Word; What is Self-Care?" by Jeanne Achterberg, Ph.D. published in "CHOICES in Health and Medicine" March 2002 Volume 2 No. 2.