In the past year-and-a-half, everyone, everywhere has had to face some kind of mental, emotional or physical challenge due to Covid-19. Whether personal illness, being apart from family, the loss of loved ones, unemployment, financial strain, overworking, confinement … no matter how big or small, we’ve have had to cope with significant changes to our lifestyles and it has been a struggle for many. Government lockdowns, which were previously deemed as unthinkable, have almost become a norm. It carries a serious mental toll as the distinction between work and home are blurred and people grapple with longer working hours, uncertainty in the workplace and constant demands of home life. Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) President Dr. Andrew Mohanraj said the organisation has seen a “more than a two-fold increase” in people seeking help related to stress since the emergence of COVID-19.
In particular, some groups may have bore the brunt of the pandemic more than others. For example, the overwhelming commitments of home and work have caused many women caregivers to take on additional stress. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.5 million women in the US have left the job market since the beginning of the pandemic—compared to 1.8 million men—as they take on more responsibilities of homeschooling and everyday parenting. A UN report goes further to say that fewer women than men will regain work during the Covid-19 recovery because they are over-represented in sectors most badly hit by the pandemic such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing.
In a survey conducted by The Centre in Malaysia on people’s sense of wellbeing, younger generations aged from 18 to 34 are evidently more affected than older generations too. More than half of respondents reporting worse mental well-being in 2021 compared to 2020, and 40% of respondents in the 18-24 age group reported severe and extremely severe levels of depression compared to a much lower 9% among respondents aged 55 and above.
In 2019, the World Health Organisation announced a “Self-Care Month”, beginning on 24 June and ending a month later on 24 July, culminating in International Self-Care Day. Even before the pandemic began, there was a clear need to highlight the importance of an individual’s role in their personal health and wellbeing. The purpose of this key initiative is to encourage people to adopt a more proactive approach towards protecting and improving their health, and in doing so reducing the reliance on public healthcare systems. Ultimately, this would help many who have limited access to medical resources and would shift the view of health care from being diagnostic to preventative. Now in the midst of the pandemic, this is even more relevant and critical than before.
As the lockdowns are prolonged and the pandemic continues to disrupt our lives, chronic stress or burnout is becoming a bigger risk. What can we do as individuals to protect our health and wellbeing? This is where self-care can play a part.
What is Self-Care?
As the name suggests, self-care involves looking after yourself without relying on the support of others. We may be quick to assume that this sounds selfish or indulgent. This definition may seem especially incompatible in an Asian context where the family’s needs are often placed before one’s own. The notion of self-care may trigger disdain or even guilt, especially when “being busy” is often considered to be a status symbol or the mark of success. Tim Krieder wrote in the New York Times, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
However, it is important to have a broader view of the implications of self-care. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only when we are able to take care of our basic personal and psychological needs, are we able to reach “self actualisation” and fulfil our potential in the long run. Taking care of ourselves has a positive trickle down effect. When all our needs are met, we are better able to focus our energies and efforts on others, to give ourselves and contribute to something bigger in a more meaningful way. On the other hand, if we do not pay attention to what our minds or bodies are telling us, suffering from chronic fatigue, burnout or mental exhaustion can cause long term damage to our lives and to those around us. When you are not operating in your prime state, you are not giving your best to your family, friends or your work. Indeed, self-care is not just about you.
It is useful to think of it as something that can help you to reach your optimum state of being. Self-care is doing something that gives you energy and gives you joy. It recharges you and adds to your strength over time. It keeps you grounded and present. It should be built into your daily life to act as a prevention against any potential detriments to your health.
Methods of Self-Care
Self-care can come in almost any shape or form, and you should pursue what is best for you. Take the time to figure out what is impactful and what is not. Your self-care activities can vary and change depending on your area of deficiency too. Self-care can be broken down into several main categories: physical, psychological, emotional, social, professional, environmental, spiritual, and financial. Usually, you may notice that you are facing a deficiency in one (or more) of these areas. Once you’ve identified that, it will be easier to focus on nourishing yourself in this specific area and regain balance in your life.
Self-care can mean doing a form of exercise, pursuing your personal hobbies or learning a new skill. It can be something simple like listening to music, reading a book or what I did a lot of last year was taking a long bath. I had developed a bad habit of reading the news every morning and night and this was causing me anxiety. I found that being in a bathtub helped me to calm my mind before I went to bed. It also doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Spending quality time with your family, reconnecting with old friends (even on Zoom) or virtual game nights can also enhance your emotional connections, which can be valuable in times of social isolation.
There are also non-tangible ways that you can take care of yourself. For example, learning to set boundaries and saying no can potentially improve your well-being in a professional setting. Not holding onto guilt when taking care of yourself is also a positive step. It may take effort to adopt these mindset changes so don’t be afraid to seek help or support. I often find myself falling into the guilt trap, but through coaching I learnt that some of my internal fears and emotions are actually based on my own assumptions rather than reality. Being upfront and communicating directly with my partner about taking the time for myself made a big difference and you may be surprised at how understanding others are.
Pitfalls or what to watch out for
As difficult as this may be, try not to compare yourself to others. Everyone is normally dealing with their own stresses and circumstances and whatever you see in social media can be misleading. Photos and posts are snapshots, and not the most accurate or overall depiction of someone’s life so it is pointless to use that as a benchmark for yourself. During the lockdown period, I saw many posts on my Instagram account of friends discovering new talents as master chefs, Olympic athletes or computer programmers. At that time, frankly I was focused on making sure I was still able to do my job effectively as it had previously relied on in-person events and interactions. Thinking about the skills I was not developing made me feel inadequate and depressed, but rather than trying to do what everyone else was doing I had to really focus on doing what made me feel recharged.
I discovered that immersing myself in books, a habit that I had always loved since young but that had become less regular in adult life, made me care less on what was going on in other people’s lives every day. In 2020, I ended up completing 42 books. This may not have been life-changing to some but it felt like a mini accomplishment to me. I had thoroughly enjoyed each book, I felt like I was productive with my time and I didn’t do it for anyone else but me. It allowed my mind to relax and not dwell on work stress. It offered a welcome distraction to the restrictions of the new norm, which was important to me at the time.
Try to develop acts of self-care that can be sustainable rather than focus on short term fixes. For example, many top business leaders like Ray Dalio or Jeff Weiner practice regular mediation which they feel help them to be better leaders by improving their cognitive abilities and emotional state. In contrast, something like retail therapy can definitely be an easy way to improve your mood. However the happiness that it brings tends to be temporary and short lived. How would this benefit your overall wellbeing in the long term? If you feel that buying a new pair of shoes or a new handbag can bring you joy, then certainly go for it but try to assess your health and energy level afterwards to determine if this is the indeed the best option.
Although mental health has been brought to the forefront of our attention because of the pandemic, many still do not feel completely comfortable to talk about their struggles openly. In fact, people may not be aware that mental health conditions are serious medical diagnoses. Malaysia is one of three countries in ASEAN that still criminalise suicide and attempted suicide, the other two being Brunei and Myanmar.
A similar fear of judgment or sense of denial can cause one to reject self-care as well. Some may view it as a sign of weakness, which they do not want to acknowledge or display to the world. However, we have to remember that self-care is more a habit and way of life than a solution to a problem. It is beneficial for everyone as it serves as a reminder to stop and check in with yourself, and not be dragged along by the hectic and relentless pace of today’s world. It is too easy to be sucked into social media, to be distracted by all the news & entertainment at our fingertips and to let these elements control our moods. Self-care is a way to regain control through a simple pause, reflecting and doing an activity that can strengthen your body or mind.
Ultimately, we should all find our own ways to include self-care in our lives. You need to focus on yourself before you can take care others, just like what a flight attendant tells you to do in case of an emergency. Always put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.