Radical Self-Care: The Secret to Success and Health You Can’t Buy in a Bottle

This post is for you. A busy, exhausted mom. An overworked nurse, doctor, healer, teacher, lawyer, home health aid, lawyer, architect, sales woman. An entrepreneur who just can't keep all the balls in the air. Or, like me, a recovering perfectionist, possibly trying to do all of the above – family, career, and thinking about what you need to do more, be more, create more – all at once.

In my book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, I share what is perhaps an overused, but nonetheless apropos, metaphor that would benefit most women I know these days, and that anyone who's been on an airplane has heard: In case of emergency, secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. This is pretty straightforward advice. But if you're a mom, you might already be thinking, “there's no way I'd put my mask on before I secure my kids.' But you see the inherent problem – passed out mom can't put the mask on anyone.

So many of the women who come to see me are already living in a state of emergency. Some even call it that. Some say things like, ‘I'm at the end of my rope, I'm running on empty, I'm living on fumes, I'm exhausted, I can't do it all anymore.' But they keep on keeping on, pushing past the end of their limits. They are taking care of everything and everyone else, but not themselves. I'm not just talking about everyday humans, either. I see world champion athletes, actresses, New York Times best-selling authors in states of utter burnout. Just this week one such person told me, “I'm paying for my success with an autoimmune disease.”

And boom. There you have it.

Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that anyone caused their own burnout or autoimmune disease, their anxiety or their fatigue. We live in a culture that is mugging us: Your money or your life is sort of the stick up. We're sold on needing to have more, do more, be more, and we're living in a time of collective and individual insecurity that creates very real instability and drives primal fear. If you've studied Abraham Maslow, you're familiar with how not having basic needs met can drive our behaviors. So we push to do more, save more, accomplish more in an endless quest for more security. We treat ourselves as if we are Jesus' proverbial loaf of bread – we can keep breaking pieces off and feeding others, and the whole loaf will always be there. Not so much.

Not replenishing our energy and the resources that give us our energy actually leads the body to believe it is in a state of emergency – what I call SOS – Survival Overdrive Syndrome. With this can come a host of symptoms that I describe here – things like Hashimoto's, fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and so, so much more.

What measure of success is worth our health? And does success – any kind of success – whether that be raising happy healthy children as a terrific mom, winning a gold medal in the Olympics, having the biggest health coaching or doula practice, or the biggest online following – whatever success looks like to you – require health sacrifice? Self-sacrifice, perhaps, yes, at times. Becoming a medical doctor, writing books, Olympic training – these things take time and mean saying no to other things – sometimes things that in the moment seem more fun.

But we should never have to pay the price of our health. Mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual.

What is “radical self-care?”

The word radical means root – and when I use the term here, I am talking about returning to our roots. As children we delighted in (or fully rejected) the tastes of our food, the feel of the wind in our hair as we went up and down on a swing, the spray of cold water on our skin from a sprinkler in the summer; we knew when we were hungry even if we articulated it with whining, and we knew how to play. We were in our bodies, in the moment, in our experience – we felt life viscerally, fully, and we wanted life to feel good.

So many women I see as patients can't remember what their last meal tasted like – they were too busy scarfing it down over a keyboard or dashboard, often eating fast because they waited too long to eat and are over hungry, often eating mindlessly, often not eating foods they think are the best for them because they were too busy to prepare anything to eat. They can't remember the last time they laughed – really laughed- or had fun. They feel guilty for taking any time for pleasure – even simple pleasures like a enjoying bath or a good book- or heaven forbid, both.

Radical self-care is the practice built on the fundamental beliefs that you belong on this planet, that you are a precious resource, that you have a right to health and peace of mind, and that the whole world is better for you having it.

What is Success?

Before I get too much further into radical self care, I want to explore an important question that this all hinges on – and that is, what is success. Look, I'm a highly creative, highly productive woman with some intense drives to leave a legacy, and also leave my family with a healthy financial legacy. I grew up low income. I'm no stranger to not having. And I don't like it. So for me, success does include productivity, earning, and achievement. But the problem isn't having big goals in the world – it's when those goals take precedent over the basic things that create human health: good food, sleep, rest, time to laugh, play, and enjoy loved ones. Time in nature. And time to do nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Or it's when you feel you have to have big goals – because that's what the world says is success – and you really want to have a peaceful, simple life. When success is quiet, slow living. When smaller is better. No parades for you needed.

A recent survey found that what we really crave for a healthy life is happiness, personal freedom, healthy family life, physical health, and mental health. 

The problem is that while most of us say that these important qualities and habits are our priorities, we're too often not living that reality. Instead we're living a lot of our lives, as my Grandma Ida would say, ‘like a chicken without a head.”

So how can you can that? Embrace radical self-care as a core principle for life – up there with brushing and flossing your teeth and making your bed.

So how do you embrace radical self-care as a practice? Here are a few ways to get you started.

Radical self-care requires body-awareness.

Too many of us ignore our bodies. We put off peeing until we can't wait a second longer, eating until we're in a state of low blood sugar, sleeping until we're dead tired. We actually forget to feel how we feel. And we pay the price when we ignore little messages because eventually those can turn into louder messages, and eventually symptoms and conditions. We wait until we're in a state of emergency or outright breakdown to take care of ourselves. But learning to listen to our body's language long before we reach burnout is key.

Listen to your Body Intelligence         

  • Set a timer for 3 minutes.
  • Sit upright in a chair or lay on a comfortable surface.
  • Close your eyes and breathe regularly at first, then more slowly and deeply for 8 breaths.
  • Now deepen your breath. Let your breath wander throughout your body to anywhere that feels tight, blocked, or “stuck.” Use your breath to imagine massaging out that tension or releasing the blockage. Is there anything in your life that you associate with the tension you’re holding? Let the answer rise to the surface and just listen.
  • Now ask your body if there’s anything you need to know. Listen for the answer.

In order to pay more attention to how you want to feel – and how you do feel – you have to make it a habit to hit the pause button.

Radical self-care includes permission to pause.

At some point we ingested the belief that being an adult woman means complete self-sacrifice, not setting health boundaries on our well-being, and not taking care of our fundamental needs – even for sleep, quality food, and relaxation. But this not sustainable. Let's look at our planet as the giant metaphor for what happens when we use up resources without a mind to sustainability. A climate catastrophe. As women, we are an extension of the planet we live on. We too, require sustainably replenishing our inner resources.

Getting good at giving yourself permission to pause is the secret sauce to overcoming overwhelm, for living life with your gas tank FULL, not constantly hovering at or below EMPTY. High performance athletes, top musicians, and successful entrepreneurs all know this secret: making time for repairing, recharging, and rejuvenating yourself is key for success in anything. Including health success.

So why do most of us find it so hard to make time for ourselves? We are riddled with guilt and anxiety when it comes to stopping and replenishing. It’s true, the demands of external life – just what it takes for most of us to make a living and keep up with our responsibilities – can feel relentless and put a lot of pressure on us. But there’s more.

Give yourself permission to pause by committing to at least 15 minutes every day, a longer stretch of 1-4 hours each week, and 1 full day a month of non-negotiable down time and personal self care. 

My Permission to Pause Top 10 List

  1. Take a walk with nowhere to go (short or long depending on the day), alone or with a pal, but walk in silence. Gardening is great too, weather permitting.
  2. Write in your journal – You can do it in a special place at home or get away to the local coffee shop. Focus on things for which I am grateful, appreciate in myself, or dream about.
  3. Take a hot bath (add a glass of wine and a book for extra luxury!) or a long shower – make it feel like you're at a spa…
  4. Exercise (or at least do 10 sun salutations, some squats, lunges, and push-ups if time is short).
  5. Get a massage or go to a spa.
  6. Have a cup of tea and read a book – especially non-fiction or inspirational – for an hour without interrupting myself to do anything else.
  7. Listen to music – and dance wildly. 
  8. Watch a favorite movie without ever once opening up the computer or looking at your phone to check email or other social media.
  9. Set a daily time for no electronics, social media, or work; consider meditationvisualization, making art, taking a nap, or laying in the grass and staring up at the sky – find creatures in the clouds.
  10. Prepare a special, wonderful meal each week and eat slowly, deliberately, with perfect attention to just the experience of the meal.

In case you're wondering, it is not selfish.

The great feminist Audre Lorde, said,  “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This is a complex statement that has roots in her experience not just as a woman, but as a black woman, and carried tremendous political import that I won't unpack here, and which I don't want to minimize by applying to all women.

Yet at the same time, while women of different backgrounds face unique challenges, some much more so than others, we all share the fact of being women in a culture that defines women with the ability to multi-task. Yet studies on multitasking show that this is not actually possible for the human brain to sustain successfully. Yes, we can all chew gum, think, and walk at the same time.

But we cannot manage it all, and do it all at the same time, do it well, and do so without cost to self. In some sense, self-care, in a culture that demands all of women, is radical. Because it means that we are saying no to health-sacrifice at the altar of what our culture tries to demand. It requires being non-conformist to insidious cultural expectations that women be all things to all people at all times. It's saying I have a right, as Maya Angelou put it, “…not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” Somewhere along the line we got the idea that self-care is self-indulgent.

Radical self-care makes us more effective, not less.

Running on empty doesn’t serve us – or those we care for. It makes us less effective in our work, less productive, and less happy. Running on empty leads us to feel conflicted, victimized, angry, exhausted, irritable, or some combination thereof. We’ve all had that whiney feeling of “There’s no time for me!” And as women, we often chalk this up to a selfish thought, and push on. And EVERY SINGLE STUDY on self-care and ‘taking time off' shows that this enhances our productivity, our creativity, our success, and reduces burnout, mistakes, and creative blocks. A recent study showed that highly successful people are more likely to eat a healthy breakfast, spend time on meal prep, limit TV and internet time before bed, take vitamins, and make time to floss their teeth. And again, sometimes it's just doing nothing. Plain old nothing. Just resting, enjoying life as if you're in a hammock, dreaming.

It starts with yes to yourself (and getting good at saying no).

I have an expression in my life now: If it's not a hell yes, it's a no. Feel free to use that. Granted, I'm 52 and have crafted a career that now allows me to pick and choose. But in truth, I wish I'd realized a long time ago that I had permission to set healthier boundaries and pare down to the few things that had the most traction for me, not doing so much all at once. Thankfully, my overall healthy habits kept me from a chronic health problem – but I struggled with more overwhelm and anxiety, trying to meet too many demands – than I had to.

As women, most of us have been trained to be “good girls” and people-pleasers practically since we were born. So saying “no” can feel really tough. That is until you realize how good it feels to have boundaries and stick to them. And how good you feel when you’re not overloaded with a mile-long impossible to-do list that’s keeping you from eating, sleeping, or feeling like you’re even breathing. Saying no to what you don’t want is saying yes to yourself.

Start paying attention to how you feel before taking anything on – you’ll make more honest decisions, you’ll start to feel empowered about saying no, and you’ll be less overwhelmed when you have less on your plate. If you’re not good at saying no on the spot, learn to say, “I’d like to think about that. I’ll get back to you in a week.” Then do a pros and cons list and listen to your Body Speak. If you feel tense in your gut about something, say no. Another option is to say no with options, for example, “Thank you for offering me this opportunity; it’s not right for me at this time, but I think I know someone who might really love to help you with that.” Then ask the person you have in mind and make the connection.Opportunity, contrary to the old saying, knocks many times; so don’t worry about missing out. You won't be missing out on your life, health, or happiness – that I can promise you.

Finally, it's about being kind to yourself.

We're often so unkind to ourselves in ways we'd never be to our child or a best friend. We mean girl ourselves all the ding-dang day: You're too fat, You're too old, You should have _____________ by now, You'll never _________. The noise we hear is the clatter of our culture, the (misogynist) views of women that have been foisted on us, and also those voices of the authority figures in our lives who were anything from less than enlightened in their parenting or teaching or coaching skills, to outright abusive.

Part of the path of living a life of radical self-care is to recognize these automatic negative thoughts when they arise, and to realize that they are as toxic to us as any of the unhealthy fats we try to avoid in our diets. And then we learn to replace those thoughts with love for our perfectly imperfect but still gorgeous and amazing human selves. The selves that want freedom, inner peace, healthy bodies, healthy relationships, healthy lives.

Live a Radical Self-Care Life

Living a life based on radical self-care allows us to stay nourished while expanding the gifts we bring to the world. We have more empathy, more patience, more space and energy to serve, create, rise. Remembering takes practice. It also takes skills. Whether you're just wanting to live a better life now and prevent SOS-related health problems, or you've crossed into the zone of autoimmune disease, chronic exhaustion (or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome!), are trying to sleep better, get pregnant, beat PCOS, lose 20 (or 30,40,50 or more) pounds – at whatever moment you're in, there are tools for you to take next steps.

The biggest one I have to offer you is my book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, now available in hardback and paperback. It's not just for women with adrenal and thyroid diagnoses – it's also for women who want to prevent them! It will remind you how to sleep, will teach you how to eat well at home, and will give you a host of achievable tools for self-care, and so much more. And it comes with a really special gift called Fear to Freedom, my 4-hour course on stepping out of some of the deeper patterns many women have that keep us living in overdrive, including perfectionism, fear-of-missing-out, and being in a helper role without making time for self care. Additionally, you get a bonus on top of those, my 28-Day Replenish Journal – a month-long guide to radical self-care. Get a copy of Chapter One for free or to purchase your copy of the book and receive your bonuses, head straight here.

With love,


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Read or leave comments 21 Comment

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I would love to be able to read this, but the text is running off the right side and cutting off the words.

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    Megan Liebmann

    Hi Renae, Thanks for letting us know! The problem should be all fixed now :) Megan- Dr. Aviva Romm Nutritionist

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What a wonderful article. Practical and powerful. As a society we will become less selfish by taking more time for ourselves individually. Thank you for sharing.

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Stephanie Lynn Tanner

Yes! I would love more guest posts (for one). Secondly, self-care is something I think we all struggle with, but lately for me it's been so fiercely blocked. I'm eight weeks postpartum and while I had a pretty stellar babymoon, I'm falling back into my old patterns. For me, the biggest hangup is turning out to be the courage to confront the belief that I'm not worth the time. It's way beyond just feeling guilty or selfish. It's more like trusting that the time will be there, getting in the rut of "what's the point anyway", and feeling like it's just so much "easier" to drink two cups of coffee in the morning for energy and hop on social media for a sense of connection. As a health professional that works with women, I **know** better. Turns out, it's an embodied practice that doesn't care how much you know!

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Earl Tallman

Aviva, I enjoyed this post being dx with Hashimoto's, everyday is a battle in its self. Having been a do'er, and a giver all my life I had to learn to put the brakes on in my life. No longer could I eat on the run or work the hours I did. Sadly I had to give up my creativity in my work as a general contractor. I love to make peoples dreams reality. My disease progressed to the point that self care is a big issue. I had to learn a new way of life. Now disabled by the Va, I got sick while serving in the Navy construction, I fought it for 30 years before realizing the damage I was doing to myself, I'm a guy, we are good at ignoring our bodies and providing for our families. Now I have self taught myself about a balaned gluten free diet and taking time to care for myself by walking and meditation. With this in mind, and a balanced thyroid, I have found some happiness. I still hope for the day I can do some of the things I enjoyed once, but a balanced body take a lead over all. With out a body you have no life. Thank you for taking the time to post your letters, you genuinely care about people. Thank you again! Earl Tallman

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    Megan Liebmann

    Hi Earl, This is Megan from Dr. Aviva’s team. If you have not already, please check out Aviva’s new free Thyroid Insights Ebook — you can download it from her website — it’s got all of the lab level ranges in there that you need! Hopefully you can find some good supportive info that will be helpful for you.It is always Aviva's mission to bring as much information to her patients and followers as possible. She adores all of you and truly is on a mission to give the power back to the people!! Megan- Dr. Aviva Romm Nutritionist

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Megan Brumovsky

As a friend of Sheena's I feel more than somewhat connected to this article. In some ways she may even be speaking directly to me: one who runs myself ragged, forgetting to slow down for my own health & well-being. N-O can be such a big word at times! Great reminders & encouraging advice. Well written & fully worthy of a guest post.

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L. A. Silberman

Love the idea of a vitality brainstorm. Have been practicing something like this for the past 2 years. Except the term used is "Prosperity;" and the categories are fiscal, physical, social, emotional and mental. And have also been known to use dog walk as meditation chanting about building the different types of prosperity in turn. Lovely to see others use a similar practice.

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Jenna Klink

I enjoyed the guest blog! The word radical with self care is what caught my attention :) Thank you!

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Something that's so important and yet all too often overlooked and forgotten amongst the hustle and bustle of daily life. If everyone was reminded (or given permission) to do this, often, the world would be a far better and much more peaceful place.

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betty tuininga

Wonderful article! Yes it is so hard to say no, but I have started to realize that I am more important than some of the volunteer efforts that I am giving up my time and health for! My children are grown and I was the dedicated soccer mom, band mom, and cub scouts, etc. After my kiddos went to college, i as single earner, went back to college myself, but had little time for the enjoyable things in life. Now I am studying herbalism, have my degree in Art and in Art history. and really need to take that time for those passions. When I made up my mind that I was going to focus on me...I didn't look back. I had a serious accident 7 years ago which made me realize that life is very precarious...so I plan to enjoy what I have ahead me, without guilt!

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    Megan Liebmann

    Hi Betty, This is Megan from Dr. Aviva's team, that you for sharing your story! It's incredibly inspiring and I am celebrating you from afar! Megan-Dr. Aviva Romm Nutritionist

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Thanks a lot got the valuable information. Good job......well done. Keep it up. God bless.

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This was awesome. Because we sure do listen to you Aviva. We really learn from you. I love this post.

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Mara Penfil

Thank you for posting this! I really love the idea of self-care as an act of radicalism and political warfare. In our Western culture, we are constantly bombarded with sub-conscious penetrating messages that tell us how to eat, think, feel, learn, look and interact. If who we are as a being differs from these messages, we are told by forces outside of ourselves (media, psychiatrists, etc.) that something is wrong with us, and that some other force outside of ourselves (such as prescription drugs, material goods, a rack of accomplishments, etc.) is needed to bring us back to the "baseline". In a culture like this it then becomes radical to realize that not only are all the answers already inside of ourselves, but that we each have full control over our physical, emotional and spiritual health. It becomes political warfare because by taking the control back into our own hands, we are declaring ourselves independent from a system which relies on us to feed it through labor and consumption. I am always humbled to hear people's personal experiences with discovering radical self-care. I really appreciated how Sheena said that she needs to redefine her relationship with food, especially sugar. I haven't even attempted to redefine my relationship with sugar yet, though it is something I have been thinking about for the past year. I want to stop eating refined sugar but my mind is so stubborn to the idea even before any real attempt has been made. I would love to learn more about redefining our relationships with food and also about how different people approach radical self-care. Thanks Sheena and Aviva =) y'all rock!

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    Sheena Witter

    What a great comment, Mara! Thank you for your feedback and encouragement! I could have written your comments about the mind being stubborn. It took me a full year before I got up the courage to give it a real effort. I've been sugar-free (except whole fruit) for 28 days so far and I am LOVING it! It sure wasn't easy (boy do you become emotionally, psychologically and physically dependent on sugar!) But it is "Radical self-care" and not "Easy Self-care" :) Most of my previous attempts didn't work because there is also so much added sugar to most processed foods (even the "healthy" ones) that you never make a clean break. You really need to do that in order to get over the craving and create the space to see the negative effects sugar has been having on you. I ended up doing a "whole 30" program that allowed me to create the space and boundaries I needed for exploring my eating habits, it was definitely the right choice for me. It took having to make a choice every time out of the picture. I just wasn't allowed to have it on the program and that was that. I just think about how much mental anguish I have put myself through for the past 20 years with the constant, multiple times a day, internal dialogue of : "I shouldn't eat this, I know it is bad for me" ..."But I really want to" ..."But I shouldn't" ...Then inevitably eating it, and feeling guilty about it. Please feel free to reach out via my website if you want to dive deeper, I'm happy to share my journey :) Here's to your radical self-care! Cheers, Sheena

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Sheena Witter

I am LOVING the comments! Thanks to everyone who is reading and sharing their experiences, tips, and radical self-care plans! When you spend so much time giving to others, it is a challenge to really recognize, embrace and honour the fact you have to take care of yourself first. Sharing and having these conversations is a great step. THANK YOU!!! Sheena Witter - Guest author

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This is just so spot-on! It's funny, I wrote and just launched an ebook pretty much about this very topic, though it's using creativity as a form of self-care, geared specifically toward mom. I talk about the mom guilt and encourage them to let it go, and discuss how taking care of yourself actually makes you a more present parent. Thanks for the article, I will definitely be sharing this with my readers!

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    Megan Liebmann

    Hi Bev, This is Megan from Dr. Aviva's team. I just wanted to chime in and say thank you for your comment and that the work you are doing is AWESOME! <3 Megan- Dr. Aviva Romm Nutritionist

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Lisa Nixon

Wow what a compelling and thought provoking article. As a professional in the field of addiction I can say that self care can be the most difficult concept to grasp and the most essential. "Like the oft-used comparison of getting your breathing apparatus on before helping others in an airplane, before you can care for and inspire creativity in others, you need to make sure you are meeting your needs first". Thank you for this refresher in the art of loving myself. My routine consists of aromatherapy, journaling, nightly gratitude lists, connecting with nature, yoga practice, meditation and making/playing music.

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Franceen Carneiro

I just bought your book and almost done reading it. I Love it! I wish I would have had it long time ago. I have just hit "burnout" the past 4 months. I had warning signs, but didn't understand the impact what was happening. I have adrenal fatigue. I couldn't even get out of bed sometimes. I have gained weight in the middle and never had before. The past 25 years I have learned to eat healthy and exercise regularly, but have lived a stressful life not realizing or being taught the importance of rest and peace! That's why The LORD made the Sabbath and called it holy. I am just getting it now in my mid 40s. After I was forced to slow down by my body burnout. Thank you for your book and your heart! I have so much more to say but another time. I wish we were closer. But I would love to learn and then help other women. It is becoming an epidemic for women. Thank you again! And GOD BLESS you!