By Cori McMahon, Psy.D, NCCE, Vice President for Clinical Services
The term “self-care” has become a popular buzzword, doubling in Google searches since 2015 and dominating the $450 billion health and wellness industry. The practice of self-care has medical roots, and the term itself was coined in the 1950s to describe activities that enabled patients who were institutionalized to preserve some physical independence and to maintain a sense of self-efficacy concerning the ability to care for oneself.
Engaging in self-care can promote physical and psychological wellness, including improved health outcomes, longevity, and improved ability to manage stress. The American Heart Association describes self-care as a naturalistic decision-making process addressing both the prevention and management of chronic illness, with core elements of self-care maintenance, self-care monitoring, and self-care management. And a study in BMC Palliative Care in 2018 defined self-care as “the self-initiated behavior that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.” Taking a bit of a broader perspective, The World Health Organization’s working definition of self-care includes “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.”
The common theme among all these expert sources suggests that self-care also entails engagement with healthcare, like getting regular cancer screenings, taking medication as prescribed, or participating in annual wellness exams, for example.
As self-care has become common in popular culture, the definitions have become more accessible and applicable to our daily lives. Principles seem to focus on better understanding of our needs and taking the necessary steps to meet them.
Regardless of the exact definition of the term, we know it is something that we are supposed to be doing — something we need to fit in among very hectic schedules already filled with work, kid-related activities, and home management, and something that (gasp!) has to be prioritized if we want to be able to continue to do all of those other things and (imagine this!) also experience some enjoyment in life.
Self-care has become even more important
Samueli Integrative Health Programs conducted an online survey of over 2,000 adults to better understand the psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and to determine how people are managing various threats as well as opportunities. Results showed that 80 percent of participants intended to be more mindful about regular self-care practices after the pandemic, with 46 percent reporting struggling to maintain mental and physical health during the past year. Interestingly, 64 percent reported being more focused on mental health now more than ever and many (44 percent) were seeking guidance and support for practicing self-care during the pandemic.
So, what does “self-care” actually mean to you? Many of us — especially those in helping professions — think of self-care as something that might take away from the care we want to give to our patients and our loved ones. In fact, mental health work during COVID-19, and moving into the post-COVID era, is incredibly stressful and has resulted in burnout for many.
With good intentions of stepping up and helping as many patients as possible, mental health providers have made themselves vulnerable to burnout. While it is clear that neglecting self-care can result in occupational dissatisfaction, decreased quality of life, and even poor patient outcomes, there remains a stigma around focusing time and energy on caring for oneself.
Get serious about self-care
Considering how to implement or enhance self-care in your own life. You might start by checking in with yourself and asking yourself how you’re doing emotionally, physically, and socially. Given overly full work and personal lives, we are apt to neglect those brief check-ins so it might be helpful to find a few minutes at the same time daily or every other day.
Once you’re able to pinpoint a short list of two or three of personal needs, you can consider what your self-care activity/activities might be. Self-care definition and approach will be different depending on the person and their needs.
Maybe you’ll benefit from:
- 5-minute deep breathing exercises a few times daily
- Attending a yoga class
- Taking a walk
- Dedicating time for rigorous physical activity
- Spending time with your pets
- Taking time out for non-work-related reading
- Social time with friends
- Setting aside time to attend to medical appointments
The essential piece is that your self-care activities are enjoyable for you and are of benefit to you. When self-care becomes a regular part of your day, the benefits can expand beyond you to those around you and can impact health outcomes by improving immune function, decreasing stress, and increasing productivity.
Many of us in the behavioral health field are experiencing burnout right now — in some specialties more than half of us are maxed out. Remember that self-care is an ideal way to set healthy boundaries that enhance, rather than detract, from what you contribute in your professional and personal interactions.