It has in­fil­trated the well­ness ver­nac­u­lar, but be­yond the hash­tags, do you know what it ac­tu­ally means – and how to do it?

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - words ROISÍN DERVISH-O’KANE

What it ac­tu­ally means

You can’t pour from an empty cup,’ reads one. ‘Imag­ine if we recharged our­selves as of­ten as we did our phones,’ sug­gests an­other. We chal­lenge you to scroll through a so­cial feed with­out hap­pen­ing upon such a state­ment, im­mor­talised in swirly script against a blush-pink back­drop. And don’t for­get the hash­tag. We’re talk­ing, of course, about self-care: the term that’s over­taken hygge and mind­ful­ness to be­come the well­ness word of 2018. Pe­ruse the circa 4.5 mil­lion #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. Tes­ta­ment to the tenac­ity of this trend, the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try has re­sponded in kind, with ti­tles such as The Self-care Rev­o­lu­tion, The Self-care Project and Recharge: A Year Of Self-care To Fo­cus On You re­leased in the past six months. But be­yond the pic­ture-per­fect ver­sion of this move­ment, pop­u­larised by in­flu­encers (who else?), is this just ‘me time’ by an­other name? ‘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. When did we get so self-care-ob­sessed?


Some dig­i­tal de­tec­tive work of­fers in­sight. The ‘self-care’ search term reach­ing a five-year high the week af­ter the elec­tion of a cer­tain US leader sug­gests that it might marry with times of stress or trauma. ‘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 it’s not an­other brand of ‘me time’ then, that which your mum prayed for when you were in nap­pies. Just. Five. Min­utes’. Peace. ‘Self-care is more than a re­brand of look­ing af­ter our­selves for 2018, 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.


So, it seems that self-care is a le­git­i­mate tac­tic for men­tal health main­te­nance – in­deed, the char­ity Mind cer­tainly thinks so. ‘Self-care tech­niques and gen­eral lifestyle changes can help man­age the symp­toms of many men­tal health prob­lems,’ reads a state­ment on the char­ity’s web­site. ‘They may also help pre­vent some prob­lems from de­vel­op­ing or get­ting worse.’ It’s some­thing Jayne Hardy, 36, au­thor of The Self Care Project (£12.99, Orion) and founder of sup­port or­gan­i­sa­tion The Blurt Foun­da­tion, un­der­stands first-hand. She was di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion at 22, and by the age of 30 was con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide. ‘My teeth were rot­ting be­cause I 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.’ 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. 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 nar­cis­sis­tic act as op­posed to men­tal health main­te­nance. ‘It’s such an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion to make,’ she says. ‘I think the Bri­tish stiff up­per lip can make us feel guilty about pri­ori­tis­ing our­selves. 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 by an 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.’ In this sense, dis­miss­ing self-care as shal­low could be hurt­ing the peo­ple who need it most.


Now we know what self-care isn’t. But what is it – that is, what does it look like? Ac­cord­ing to Dr Ali­cia Clark, a psy­chol­o­gist spe­cial­is­ing in anx­i­ety, you need to go back to ba­sics. 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. Fun­da­men­tal self-care stuff. Lack of suf­fi­cient shut-eye also makes dopamine-spik­ing ac­tiv­i­ties (mak­ing a dough­nut mag­i­cally dis­ap­pear; com­plet­ing the next level of Candy Crush) 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.’

Break it down and self-care ap­pears mun­dane. Or, as men­tal health oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist Han­nah Daisy calls it, bor­ing. ‘About a year ago, 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. 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’ and ‘did the dishes’. 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. ‘Ac­cept that prep­ping healthy food can feel la­bo­ri­ous; and that leav­ing work on time can be dif­fi­cult – but do it to feel good 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. 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.’ At the risk of para­phras­ing an Insta-meme, it could be the most im­por­tant com­mit­ment you’ll ever make.

Me time by an­other name?

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