Even under the best conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything but pleasant or easy. Whether you're a parent struggling with a child's at-home schooling, a worker who has been furloughed, or a senior who has been isolated for months, the coronavirus has made it evident that we need to take care of ourselves on many fronts.
Self-care, say mental health experts, should be considered an essential, along with face masks and hand sanitizer. But the term self-care has been bandied about, often incorrectly, to mean self-improvement.
So what is self-care?
"It's about prioritizing your needs and your behaviors to protect your well-being," says Vanessa Padilla, M.D., a psychiatrist with the University of Miami Health System. "It's a sensation of well-being. The word that comes to mind in Spanish is bienestar." Which, loosely translated, means welfare, contentment, security, and comfort.
Self-care requires emotional and physical awareness, especially when the world around us feels like it's spinning out of control. Yet, for many, self-care is elusive, a state of being reserved for others. Dr. Padilla says she too often hears people saying they can't do for themselves what they appear to do automatically for others.
"I have to tell them that if they want to care for their family and friends, they have to take care of themselves first," she explains. "If you get sick, you can't do much for others."
That's the reason airlines' issue-specific pre-flight safety instructions: A passenger should always pull the oxygen mask over her nose and mouth first, before offering to help a seatmate.
Yet, people cheat themselves of the kind of care they need — and deserve. A pre-pandemic Harris Poll revealed widely held misconceptions about self-care, confirming Dr. Padilla's observations. Of those surveyed, 44 percent believed you need lots of time for self-care. About 35 percent said self-care was only possible for those with enough money.
Not so. Self-care doesn't have to be an enormous intimidating project, but "more something that you incorporate into your daily life until it becomes routine," Dr. Padilla says.
She suggests a starting point: "You have to know yourself first, who you are, what you like to do, what gives you peace. It's not a one-size-fits-all recipe that everyone can follow."
Other ways to put yourself first:
We all know what we should be doing: eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough Z's, but Dr. Padilla believes those Z's should top the list. "As a psychiatrist, I always put good sleep hygiene first. You need good sleep hygiene to be able to do the rest." To improve nighttime habits, she recommends limiting caffeine, eating smaller meals, keeping a set sleep schedule, and avoiding screens and work tasks before bed. If insomnia is chronic, contact a physician.
Certain practices, such as mindfulness, stress management, tai chi, and yoga, even mediation apps, may come to mind, but caring for your emotions embodies so much more. "It's about being honest with yourself, about being true to your emotions," says Dr. Padilla.
Give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, and don't hide or avoid negative emotions. And while there's nothing wrong with indulging in a pity party, prolonging it can turn into a form of sabotage, she says. It helps to set a deadline for the feeling-sorry-for-myself period. "Ask yourself: what can I do to feel better?" she says. "Then engage in that behavior."
Planning for the future can be exciting in some cases, but dwelling on the uncertainty can create anxiety and make you feel helpless, too. "Accept that there are a lot of things that we can't control. You have to be present in the now."
In addition, she suggests we learn to roll with the punches, acknowledging that not every day is going to be our best day. "Good enough is okay on those days," she adds. "What you don't want to do is make a bad day a worse day." In other words, don't indulge in unhealthy habits.
The pandemic has reminded us that we are social beings at heart, so it's crucial to nurture interaction with friends and family, whether through Zoom or physical distancing. "When you're feeling lonely or down, being with a friend, talking to a friend, can give you a boost." But too much of a good thing can be draining, especially if the focus is always on something or someone else. It's okay to excuse yourself from social engagements, virtual or otherwise. Everyone needs me time.
Dr. Padilla also warns against too much social media use, cautioning that curated posts about wonderful trips, physical looks, and savory meals are not real life. Know when to step away.
Job demands can be relentless, especially now that work-life has migrated to our homes. So it's more important than ever to set up boundaries and keep communication lines open with your employer. You don't have to do everything and be accessible at all hours. Keep a calendar. Stick to a quit time when possible. Don't peek at work emails after dinner.
And "you have to learn to say no. If you have too much on your plate, it's going to be tough everywhere else, no matter what. Delegate tasks and work as a team with your colleagues."
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.
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