‘Self-care’ is more than bubble baths

by Marina Politis

Looking after yourself can include mundane tasks such as hoovering your bedroom regularly – not exclusively glamorous holidays abroad and spa days

Location: UK
Published: Monday 16 November 2020
marina politis

The term ‘self-care’ has become a buzzword recently, featuring heavily in the dialogue surrounding mental health.

It is often a hashtag accompanied by pictures of luxurious bubble baths or sunsets, or a proclamation of having started a new hobby, be this jogging, yoga or crocheting.

Although the increased acknowledgement of the importance in taking time for ourselves and prioritising our wellbeing is a positive, the conversation surrounding self-care still has a way to go, and our narrative surrounding it is not always solely constructive.

This is not to say that we should neglect self-care – it should always be a priority – but we need to expand our definition of what self-care is and think critically about the motivations behind our perceived self-care.

Self-care shouldn’t be a tool to mask what are underlying issues that need addressing. When does a glass of wine to de-stress at the end of a day become a negative coping strategy, that in fact embodies the opposite of what self-care is and only lets us be in denial of things that might be bothering us? When is a daily run no longer a healthy habit but in fact a form of disordered exercise?

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t treat ourselves with a glass of wine, takeaway or pint of ice cream; or burn off steam at the gym, but, these activities shouldn’t solely be a form of escapism. Self-care has to mean reflecting on the sources of any stress, unhappiness or other negative emotions, and identifying methods to minimise these in the long term.

Self-care is also often promoted as an investment in the time that we can be productive. The elusive work-life balance is seen as an ideal where we ought to maximise the output in all aspects of our life. Can it be that self-care, however, contributes to this toxic notion of productivity?

Could the life element of the work-life equation not stand in isolation, without having to be a tool to maximise what we achieve in work or studies? We are told to sleep for eight hours because we will study better and nourish ourselves to optimise our concentration, but why not just do this for ourselves?

Sleeping well to feel rested and nourishing ourselves because our bodies and minds are worthy of care is enough of a reason. Self-care is not only justified where we see the results through increases in traditional measure of productivity

We must also ensure that the promotion of self-care doesn’t shift the responsibility that decision- and policy-makers hold in needing to prioritise mental health, on to those who are themselves struggling. While strategies such as mindfulness will no doubt be useful to many, they are not a solution to the UK’s mental health crisis.

NHS mental health services, with their endlessly long waiting lists need greater investment; universities must put further resources into counselling services that are at capacity, rather than therapy dogs and mandatory welfare lectures; and employers review their working conditions, rather than host staff yoga sessions. We need systemic change, not hollow sentiments asking individuals to look after themselves in a system that does not look after them.

In looking after ourselves as individuals, how do we include the ‘less-glamorous’ acts of self-care in the conversation surrounding mental health and wellbeing? When we talk about self-care only in terms of facemasks, cake and social connection, is this suggesting that those individuals who find that their mental health isn’t managed by these acts, are not working hard enough at self-care or have somehow failed? 

My self-care is a carefully concocted recipe of ensuring to set time aside for friends and family; getting outside and moving (often acquainting myself with squirrels in our local botanical garden) and spending time away from medicine. Just as important as this, however, is focusing on the basics of maintaining a healthy routine, with adequate sleep and regular meals.

Changing my sheets and hoovering my bedroom isn’t interesting or exciting self-care, but it is important and we must challenge the notion that all self-care is ‘Instagramable’ or pretty. For me, all of the aforementioned strategies are built up on the foundation of a daily antidepressant, and engaging in support and therapy, while staying accountable and honest about my mental health with my friends, even when I would rather just say that ‘everything is fine’. 

For those of us where self-care does mean taking medication each morning; making the time to go to therapy, or prioritising our wellbeing over other domains of our life, such as academics, it can still be difficult to justify this to the external world.

The antidepressant I pop out of its foil each morning does not make me a lesser medical student, or mean much at all – so why is this still harder to disclose than talking about a Sunday ‘self-care’ hike or brunch? We need to change the culture surrounding mental health in medicine by having open, honest conversations, and I hope that through blog posts like these, we can begin to change the dialogue surrounding mental health and reduce the stigma that still exists.

Self-care is unique to each individual and whether your self-care takes the form of a repeat prescription or a run; a bubble bath or a therapy session; learning to set boundaries and say ‘no’ or baking- all of these are valid. No one form of self-care trumps the other, and we need to talk about the full spectrum of what looking after our mental health can entail.

Marina Politis is a Glasgow year three medical student and BMA medical students committee deputy chair for welfare

The Self Care Forum promotes Self Care Week (16 – 22 November) as an annual national awareness week that focuses on embedding support for self care across communities, families and generations.

The initiative is a reminder to NHS doctors and staff to take better care of their own health and wellbeing generally, particularly at a uniquely challenging time for the NHS.