Tough Times Call for Simple Self Care - Here's Why

·7-min read
Photo credit: Roos Koole - Getty Images
Photo credit: Roos Koole - Getty Images

Well, what do you know? The second pandemic year looks to be closing with a festive period dominated by anxiety about a new Covid variant, fears about spreading it to loved ones and a sense of fed up-ness weighty enough to extinguish Buddy the elf's Christmas spirit.

It is...unideal. It is also an opportune time to get proactive about supporting your mental health. You know, using the time made free by cancelled shindigs with family and friends to lean into your self-care.

Did you just do an involuntary eye roll at the term? If so, you're not alone. Peruse the circa 56,633,284 #selfcare Instagram posts and you’ll find a profusion of candles, cocktails and kittens; vegan chocolate smoothies and acai bowls; a bath bomb, a blanket, a Buddha (in a post that neglects to mention any specific Buddhist teachings).

But beyond the picture-perfect version of this movement, popularised by influencers, self-care is a bonafide tool for mental health prevention.

And, the best thing is, despite how things might appear on Instagram and beyond, self-care doesn't need to be pretty or aspirational in order to be impactful.

In fact, basic and seemingly mundane self-care practices can be even more useful - and certainly more accessible for more people - than the glossy, photogenic kind.

Let us explain.

What is Self Care and Why Do I Need it?

‘Self-care was originally a medical term that doctors used to refer to activities they recommended to patients to complement their physical or mental health treatment,’ says Professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a New York-based health and wellness historian.

‘Then in the 1960s, the civil rights movement came to see self-care as a rejection of a medical system that didn’t support them. Women who felt let down by the traditional processes of medicine also saw self-care as a way to reclaim control.’

In the years that followed, wellness evolved from a niche concept to a global industry, and self-care has followed, becoming increasingly more marketable – and glossy – in the process.

The increasingly angsty times we're living in goes some way to explaining why self-care has become such a modern healthy living buzz word.

‘When you feel threatened, it’s natural to seek self-comfort,’ explains Dr Hamira Riaz, a London-based clinical psychologist.

‘We’re raised to prioritise others’ needs over our own. But focusing on the things that you can control is important. It helps create an all-important sense of security.’

So selfcare is more than 'me-time'? ‘Yes. Self-care is more than a rebrand of looking after ourselves, more than carving out time for yourself or adding new habits to your routine,’ adds Dr Riaz.

‘It’s about becoming more skilled at discerning between the situations and relationships that serve you and those that don’t, so you can make better choices about who and what to invest your time in.’

When her clients present with problems like ‘struggling to feel genuinely happy’, Dr Riaz finds that self-care – a lack thereof – tends to lie at the heart of the issue, and the solution.

'Self Care Saved my Life when I was Suicidal'

Jayne Hardy, 36, author of The Self Care Project (£12.99, Orion) and founder of support organisation The Blurt Foundation, understands first-hand that self-care can be a powerful tool for mental health.

She was diagnosed with depression at 22, and by the age of 30 was contemplating suicide.

‘My teeth were rotting becauseI didn’t value myself enough to brush them,’ she recalls. ‘Eventually one fell out, but I couldn’t see a future for myself so it didn’t even matter.’

Recovery was hard-won, and self-care was an integral part of the process. Journalling reconnected Jayne with her love of writing and blogging about beauty gave her a purpose.

‘Once I had a platform, I felt like I had to keep it up. So I applied moisturiser to my itchy, flaky lower legs; I dragged a hairbrush through my matted mane; I started attending to my basic needs,’ she says.

Gradually, these small, seemingly inconsequential acts helped Jayne get out of her head. ‘It’s not an overstatement to say that self-care saved me.’

Why Self Care Needs a Less Shiny Rebrand

Given the profound impact that self-care had on her life, Jayne fears the current spike in interest is diluting its true message and value.

‘I worry that the appetite for self-care will be lost as quickly as it’s grown if we fail to get the message out about what it actually means,' she tells WH.

'If you see other people doing things – burning candles, lining up crystals – and just copy them, then you’re not practising your own form of self-care, you’re just following a trend.’

As well as mitigating the message, Dr Riaz believes the Instagram approach is giving the wrong impression of self-care– presenting it as a potentially narcissistic act as opposed to what it is at its core: mental health maintenance.

‘It’s such an important distinction to make,’ she says. 'Many of my clients establish healthy self-care practices only to sabotage them by convincing themselves that it’s unjustifiable self-indulgence.’

This attitude is being propagated byan increasingly vocal army of self-care naysayers.

‘The backlash is real,’ adds Jayne. ‘People suffering with mental illnesses are telling me they’re swearing off self-care because they’ve read a scathing blog post about how narcissistic it is.’

The Neuroscience of Why Self Care Works

To really nail self care - according to Dr Alicia Clark, a psychologist specialising in anxiety - you need to go back to basics. And unless you’re routinely getting your eight hours, she suggests starting with sleep.

‘The parts of your brain that deal with decision-making and self-control plummet when you’re fatigued. As do two areas called the insula and prefrontal cortex, which enable you to choose between what you want and what you need,’ she explains.

Two things that are pretty fundamental to practicing self-care.

Lack of sufficient shut-eye also makes dopamine-spiking activities (consuming alcohol, sugary foods, refreshing your social media feed like a dead-eyed zombie) harder to resist.

As Dr Clark puts it: ‘Trying to make good calls when you haven’t allowed yourself to rest is like trying to prepare for a presentation in your living room the morning after you’ve thrown a house party.’

'My Instagram Art Aims to Make Self Care Acessible to all'

The woman we have to thank for coining the 'boring self-care' phrase is mental health occupational therapist Hannah Daisy.

‘I kept reading comments online from people complaining about being told to “go and do something nice for you” when they were so depressed that their house was an uncontrollable mess,’ she says.

‘I noticed a disconnect between the practical way we talked about self-care in the NHS and the way it looked on social media,' she explains.

'I wanted to create something to bridge that gap and make self-care more accessible to people battling mental illness.’

Enter #boringselfcare. Scroll through Hannah’s feed – @makedaisychains – and you’ll find touching, and frequently funny, illustrations, the likes of ‘changed my bed sheets’, ‘booked a doctor’s appointment’, ‘did the dishes, and 'took my medication as prescribed'.

Self-care helped Hannah deal with polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis – and manage her anxiety.

‘Thinking about these small acts in terms of boring self-care helped me pace myself and be more realistic about how I managed my – sometimes limited – reserves of energy. It also helped me stop beating myself up.’

It’s an inclusive, quiet pushback against the picture-perfect version of the movement. Not everyone can afford or access a meditation retreat or a photogenic rolltop bath. And it makes good on her intention to show how practical and actionable self-care can be.

Boring Self Care: How To Make it Work for You

‘Accept that prepping healthy food can feel laborious; and that leaving work on time can be difficult – but do it to feelgood later,’ says Dr Clark.

‘That is the true message of self-care. It’s not about buying expensive candles and posting pictures of them on social media,' she adds. (Though, it must be said, if this works for you then absolutely crack on.)

'It’s about finding that sweet spot between being disciplined and being kind to yourself. Commit to that larger goal by having empathy for future you.’

Now think: what would future you do?

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