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