Self-care has been a popular buzzword for years. But its definition and how we practice it have evolved in recent years. What does it mean to us now?
When an aircraft hits turbulence and those oxygen masks come tumbling down, you're supposed to place the mask over your own mouth and nose before turning to help others. There's a good reason for that: Without oxygen, you'll quickly lose consciousness and won't be of any use to anyone. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, the same principle applies when it comes to ourselves in our day-to-day lives. Too many of us wear a superhero cape and rarely if ever, take it off. A 2018 Cleveland Clinic survey of women with kids under age 18 found that fewer than half regularly practiced self-care or activities we do on purpose to nourish our physical, mental, and emotional health. Fewer than a third eat right and exercise and less than 20 percent ever chill with friends (women without children have a problem hanging up that cape, too, with only about half reporting that they regularly make it a priority to get some R&R).
But self-care in this day and age is more important than ever. We may not even realize it, but we all have anxiety simmering underneath the surface that diminishes all of our internal resources. Women are so used to multitasking and always have so many balls in the air, it's easy for us to turn our energy toward supporting others without focusing on ourselves. But if we don't take time just for us, we'll become depleted. Part of this may be because women instinctively shy away from the word "self-care," viewing it as a luxury that they simply can't afford (it seems too frivolous to soak in a warm bubble bath, for example, while your partner stews about losing their job and your kids are behind in their Zoom school). But the self-care movement actually started in the 1950s in an effort to help people who were institutionalized learn how to tend to such basic necessities as grooming and shaving. Then in the 1970s, the term was appropriated by the Black Panther Movement as a way to encourage Black Americans to take care of themselves by, for example, getting screened for the genetic disorder sickle cell anemia. In the 1980s, Black female activist Audre Lorde wrote, "caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare."
Gradually, it evolved from the civil rights movement to the women's movement, as women began to realize that between home and work and children they were juggling so much and if they didn't take care of themselves, they couldn't take care of other people. It really became about women setting boundaries-- how to say no so that they could fit in time to get enough to get on with their lives. If you're struggling with how to establish a self-care routine, start with the basics. Set a hard and fast rule to stick to bedtime that allows you to get at least seven hours of shut-eye. Vow to make sure you have five-plus servings of fruits and veggies a day. Get outside to go for a walk in the fresh air for a minimum of 20 minutes every day. Make sure you connect with at least one close friend or family member a few times a week, even if all you can manage is a 10-minute chat via Facetime. If you can do those four things on a routine basis, you've got a solid foundation going already for self-care. You'll be in a place where you're better able to be reflective and figure out which activities are giving you joy and allowing you to be in the moment, instead of ruminating about the past or the future.
While self-care is crucial for everyone, it's particularly key if you're finding that you're displaying clear signs of anxiety or depression, like snapping at your kids over little things or not finding joy in activities you normally love to do, like curling up with a good book or watching Netflix with your partner. In these highly charged times, you really need the ability to be able to take a deep breath and say, "I can do this." One way to nurture yourself in these stressful moments is to engage in a few positive-thinking exercises. Take a moment to silently express gratitude for all that is positive in your life-- snuggling with your pooch, or the sun shining during your morning run. Focus on what you have control over rather than on more abstract things that you can't.
If you are too overwhelmed to do all of this (and let's face it, that's probably most of us), you can utilize an app which could help track your mood and set your goals. Whatever you choose, it is important that you take at least 15 minutes to do it each day. Schedule it just like you would schedule your child's pediatrician appointment. That way, it's on your calendar and automatically becomes another part of your day. It's also important to take a moment to analyze the obstacles that may be getting in the way of a solid self-care routine. You have to ask yourself the hard questions and come up with solutions. Maybe it's ordering groceries online twice a week so you don't have to waste a couple of hours in the grocery store. Or asking your kids to pitch in and do some of the chores. Or insisting your spouse do his share of the errands and housework. There's still this belief among women that if they're asking for help, they've failed. But we need to realize that energy is a finite resource that needs to be replenished from time to time. It's just like filling your car with gas-- we cannot allow our bodies to get to the point that they're running on empty.
Taking time for ourselves is daunting. But the more we do it, the more we prepare ourselves to be our best selves in our lives.