Is it possible to self-care your way through a pandemic?

Everything is a lot right now.

And not in the casual way we used to say things were ‘a lot’ – right now things are really spiraling, on a scale none of us have ever experienced before.

The emotional and psychological impact of the last six months can’t be overstated. Financial pressures, instability, isolation, illness, grief and loss have affected us all to varying degrees.

We are hurtling towards a mental health crisis, and we are already starting to feel the effects of this accumulated stress on a day-to-day basis.

The rallying cry from professionals, mental health advocates and social media influencers is this; self-care, self-care, self-care.

Since the boom of the concept of self-care, there has been a growing belief that there is no situation that you can’t face mask your way out of.

Light an aromatherapy candle, slip into a steaming bubble bath, drink water, follow your skincare regime, get eight hours of sleep. And you will feel better.

But do these principles of self-care still work during a global pandemic? Can these tiny, individual gestures of personal soothing really do much to tackle this unprecedented level of emotional upheaval?

Rosie, 29, experienced a close family loss right in the middle of lockdown. She says that since then, her normal strategies of self-care just haven’t been working.

‘I’m literally having a bath every day at this point. I’m genuinely concerned about my hot water bill,’ Rosie tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Normally, having a bath and reading my book is my way to get some “me-time”, it helps me unwind, helps me sleep better. But at the moment it just doesn’t work.

‘I’m grieving, but on top of that I’m worried about my job, I’m missing my friends, I’m missing my family who live miles away. I haven’t even seen my mum since we were all at the funeral.

‘I’ve never experienced a level of stress like this, and I genuinely feel like it has changed me as a person.

‘Exercising was also a really important self-care strategy for me before all of this. I love running, and would go maybe three mornings every week. I would come back feeling invigorated, so much calmer and ready for the day.

‘Now, those endorphins aren’t as powerful. I’m stressed and sad again almost immediately after my run. It is making me lose motivation for doing it at all.’

But this could be a natural reaction to experiencing loss and living through grief. It is often hardest to maintain self-care exactly when we need it the most.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott says the best thing to do if you feel as though your self-care strategies aren’t as effective as they used to be, is to persevere.

‘When we are depressed or anxious, we can tell ourselves nothing works,’ Noel tells Metro.co.uk. ‘It’s part of the condition for us to believe this.

‘But in fact, what we need to do more than ever is do things which in the past have helped us. By giving them up we can worsen the condition.

‘It’s about ensuring we don’t go further into the pathology, to prevent a worsening of our mental health struggles. In therapy we call it behavioural activation.’

Noel says it might be a case of changing the way we approach self-care, and being more organised and methodical to ensure we stick with it.

‘Diarise and prioritise these activities,’ he suggests. ‘Do them because they are in your diary like all your other commitments.

‘Maintain your routines of self-care as part of your programme to ensure you do not get worse, so it’s about prevention. Also think about increasing them.

‘Additionally add well known mental welfare activities: good sleep hygiene, exercise, good eating habits, reduce stimulants especially reduce alcohol, talk to your friends, add new activities that others tell you are fun, visit nature more.’ 

Why self-care might not be working right now

The problem with the concept of self-care is that when as it grew in popularity and became a trendy, marketable hashtag, everything about it was monetised.

So now, it’s hard to tell which self-care strategies are actually beneficial, and which ones are just an attempt to sell you something.

Self-care has also morphed into a platitude that is in danger of becoming meaningless due to over-use. When people dismiss real mental health concerns with over-simplified self-care advice, it can undermine the real benefits that come with being kind to yourself.

But maybe the answer isn’t abandoning self-care altogether, maybe we just need to reevaluate what self-care actually means to each one of us. Because it is an entirely individual concept.

‘Typical acts of self-care may not feel like enough right now,’ says life coach Faith Hill.

‘The mind believes only a drastic solution will fix such a mess. How could a hot bath or a walk in the forest possibly make anything better?

‘Yet, all acts of self-care, big or small, are worthwhile. Each one increases the release of dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain which not only helps you to feel good, it also helps you to think and plan. Each one also enables your mind to focus on something enjoyable, something other than the pandemic.’

Therapist Sally Baker offers an evolutionary explanation as to why self-care might be failing you at the moment:

‘Just as this situation is largely beyond our control, our emotional response to what we’re living through is beyond our conscious control too,’ says Sally. ‘Our ancient brain, also known as the reptilian brain, is the part of our brain that responds to any threats it perceives to our well-being.

‘Now, our “unprecedented times” means the Covid-19 inputs going into our brains are all new and not experienced before. So, when our brains are confronted with the unique repercussions of the virus, few of us can find any familiarity with this situation.

‘There are no patterns to be recognised to trigger a familiar response. This leaves us suffering from increased anxiety and even trauma when we can’t quickly find a solution to our current situation.

‘With anxiety comes increased levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that then course through our body. It is exhausting to be constantly stressed. A key factor of stress is that often one’s breathing becomes more shallow and people can find it almost impossible to relax and unwind.’

So if your bath isn’t helping you unwind, or you can’t find the piece of mind to lose yourself in a book, don’t worry you’re not alone.

It might be that we are collectively evolving to a new human stressor in real-time, so even your most expensive candle might not quite do the trick.

How to create an effective self-care regime

All of this doesn’t mean that self-care can’t help you. Looking after yourself is always valid and incredibly important, and that is true now, more than ever.

What it does mean though, is that you may need to be more considered and careful about the self-care you choose to engage with.

You might have to do some work to find which strategies are the most helpful for you. Whether that’s exercising, improving your sleep routine or your diet, taking time out to watch movies, or making time for your hobbies and creative pursuits.

Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive or Instagrammable, it’s about finding small ways to get through each day, and an awareness of your own mental and emotional state.

Having a clear plan can be a great first step.

‘If your usual self-care go-tos don’t seem to have their usual effect, I advise creating a daily routine to suit your lifestyle, which is an act of self-care in itself,’ says Faith.

‘A balanced routine provides stability and peace of mind. It lowers stress, worry and anxiety by creating consistency and therefore reducing the appearance of uncertainty.

‘Routine builds a sense of security and allows you to feel more in control. If the word routine fills you with feelings of being trapped or boring, try switching it for the word rhythm. Routine is the rhythm of your day.

‘With so much happening outside of your control, it is imperative to find solace in the things you can control.’

Self-care tips for the pandemic

Mindfulness

Taking time out to notice the things you are grateful for can help through difficult times. Writing down the things you are grateful for at the end of the day can help you to focus on positives.

Invest in your interests

Take time out for your day to do the things you enjoy. If you have a creative flare, make time to do something creative or if you like being outdoors make time to take yourself on a walk or run.

Keeping a healthy routine

Sticking to a healthy daily routine is a good way you can look after yourself. This could be morning stretches, making time to have a lunch break, or blocking out some time in your day for yourself.

Now more than ever a routine can help create a sense of normality during times of change.

Spend time outdoors

Being outdoors can have a calming effect and improve your sense of well-being. Consider how you can spend a little time each day outside, this could be greenery in your garden or a walk in the park or by a river.

As winter begins and the days become shorter it is important to get out into the sunlight when you can as this can help boost your mood.

Find what works for you

Ultimately self-care is all about protecting your mental health, this means a relaxation technique that works best for you. As well as the techniques mentioned above self-care could also be; reading a book, breathing exercise or taking a long bath.

What if your usual self-care strategies aren’t making you feel better?

You may feel as though you have been practicing the same self-care techniques almost every day over the past few months to help cope with the different levels of change.

Now is the time to try something new, try taking up a new hobby or learning a new skill such as a musical instrument or learning a new language. This can help to boost your mood and increase levels of productivity as you have something new to focus on.

Talking to someone you trust can also help when you feel as though your usual self-care strategies aren’t helping. Sharing your feeling and experiences with another can help put a perspective on how you are feeling – you won’t be alone in this.

Pablo Vandenabeele, mental health clinic director, Bupa UK Insurance

Need support? Contact the Samaritans

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

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