If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ve heard the flight attendant recite the safety instructions. In the event of an emergency that deploys the oxygen masks, they advise you should secure your own mask before helping others.
This routine and perhaps forgettable bit of instruction actually has some relevant applications during these unprecedented times. With so much stress and negative information coming at us from multiple directions, it’s tempting to overlook our own needs in order to be of service to others. But the truth is, we need to take care of ourselves first. If we take care of ourselves mentally and physically, we’ll be better able to serve our families, friends, neighbors and colleagues (hence, we secure our own masks before helping others).
Which brings us to the idea of self-care. Self-care has become a buzz word that can evoke a range of responses ranging from nodding heads to shoulder shrugs to eye rolls. Between medical practitioners, therapists and well-meaning friends, we’re often instructed to take care of ourselves, but it’s not always clear what the term really means or why it’s important.
At its most basic, self-care can be defined as “care for your body, mind and spirit.” Self-care is essential during times of prolonged stress – and nearly everyone is experiencing some degree of stress amid these uncertain times. As we manage the loss of jobs, opportunities and cherished routines and rituals, it’s more important than ever to take care of ourselves. Many of us freely dole out compassion and support to others, but we rarely offer those same resources to ourselves.
“As a clinician I often refer to self care as a huge part of what’s missing in the life of someone who’s busy and stressed,” says therapist Maria Baratta. “Incorporating self care every day helps to serve as an armor to protect the energy that we need in order to survive and thrive. Self care goes a long way in managing stress and living your best life.”
Although the term may sound indulgent to some, self-care actually has radical, political roots. As Slate reported, in the 60s and 70s amid the women’s and civil rights’ movements, “self-care became a political act. Women and people of color viewed controlling their health as a corrective to the failures of a white, patriarchal medical system to properly tend to their needs.”
And indeed, research shows that self-care practices can help a person manage stress, boost physical health, increase feelings of well-being and even become a better caregiver for other family members. “Self care is knowing yourself and knowing that at different times and different seasons and parts of your life, you will need support differently,” says wellness expert and reiki master Kelsey Patel.
Although self-care will look a little different for everyone based on individual needs and circumstances, there are some general guidelines we can all follow to take better care of ourselves.
Sleep is essential for our physical and mental well-being. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to numerous health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and poor mental health. Most of us know that sleep is important, perhaps evidenced by our collective interest in sleep apps: downloads of sleep apps increased 20% from 2018 to 2019.
Making sure you’re getting enough sleep is one of the most basic ways we can take care of ourselves. If you’re having trouble sleeping, experts recommend going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day as well as establishing a relaxing pre-bed routine that might include reading or journaling.
While our social connections can be invaluable during times of high stress, alone time is also key. According to Forbes, “Studies show the ability to tolerate alone time has been linked to increased happiness, better life satisfaction, and improved stress management. People who enjoy alone time experience less depression.” Solitude has also been shown to ignite creativity and increase productivity.
Exercise is always important, but it’s perhaps even more essential now when so many of us are working from home and missing out on the calories burned via daily commutes and weekly gym visits.
Adding exercise to daily routines, even in small doses, can help both our physical and mental health. Try walking outside for 10 to 30 minutes a day or going for a light jog. Yoga is another form of exercise that can be convenient to fit into a daily schedule. One can practice indoors or outdoors in increments of just five minutes up to an hour or longer.
Some people are using skincare as a form of self-care. There’s a ritual aspect to skincare that can be soothing and comforting, especially during a time when so many of our daily routines have been disrupted.
New trends in skincare introduce even more ways to be kind to yourself and your skin. Stylight Insights reports that CBD-infused products are becoming increasingly popular “due to the incredible anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of cannabinoids.” Clean beauty (products that are organic or chemical-free) is another trend on the rise. “The skincare industry is becoming more responsive to the fact consumers want to know which ingredients they are putting on their body”, says beauty industry expert Kristen McNeill. Being cognizant of what you put in your body, as well as what you put on your body, is a simple but effective way to care for yourself.
Relationships & Social Connections
“We usually think about self-care as alone time, but relationships play a huge part in our mental wellbeing,” says Lora DiFranco, founder of Free Period Press and creator of the workbook The Self Care Master Plan. Amid the current global pandemic, it can be difficult to get the amount of social interaction we may want or be used to, but it’s still possible to maintain strong social connections with others.
Although a phone or video chat might be somewhat less satisfying than an in-person visit, it’s a good way to stay social while following social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders. Dr. Helen Delichatsios, of the Massachusetts General Hospital Healthy Lifestyle Program, suggests virtual dinner parties or connecting with friends over shared interests. For parents, she suggests inviting a relative “to teach an online lesson once a week on the same topic or a rotating topic. Allow that special bonding time between your child and their relative to unburden your time.”
Lastly, with so many unprecedented events happening in our lives and our world, it can be helpful to go one step beyond self-care and practice self compassion (that is, not only taking care of our physical and emotional needs, but actively being kind to ourselves). “People are often harsh to themselves in a way they would never be towards friends or loved ones,” says psychologist Dr. Michael Stein. “Simply committing to being kinder towards oneself can go a long way.”