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More than a hashtag: How self care is being reimagined for the Covid era

Following its birth in the 1960s, ‘self care’ has transmuted from a mental health concept into an amorphous, social media-spruiked brand. Now a back-to-basics version is being touted as an aid to building resilience in the face of Covid-19.

We’ve all seen the ads online, tempting us into some “me” time. Over 28.6 million “self care” hashtags on social media boast about new clothes, new hair, feet rubbed or backs waxed. Self care has exploded into a massive industry in the last decade, even while its original purpose has waned. From its roots as a tool for traumatised workers, self care morphed into a cute fad, then became a commodity focused on people’s individualism while simultaneously preying on their anxieties. Now, in 2020’s upended world, a back-to-basics version of self care could just be the most important tool to tackle stress and help create better connections and stronger communities.

These days it’s best known for enticing us into buying therapy lamps or writing ourselves permission slips, but self care actually started as a pretty good idea. During the 1960s and 70s, self care had a medical definition and was prescribed to social workers and therapists to help them deal with emotionally hazardous working environments. In the 1980s, French philosopher Michel Foucalt claimed that care of the self was the foundational principal for all moral rationality. He pointed out that many ethicists, including Greek philosopher Socrates, believed that caring for yourself isn’t just good for you, but for the world. Sounds legit. If you’re at your best, you’re able to look out for others.

A selection of images tagged #selfcare on Instagram

Unfortunately, somewhere between Ancient Greece and Instagram Stories, self care got a little lost. Do we really need a lamp that imitates the sun when the sun itself is just behind our curtains? Do we need a phone app to monitor sleep, when the phone next to our heads might be the reason we’re restless? And importantly, do we actually need to pay for it? Not according to the New Zealand national chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. “Self care doesn’t have to cost,” says Dr Mark Lawrence. “It’s more about getting people to think about the things that drive them into a difficult place… and trying to look for simple tools that might offset that.”

There are certainly plenty of tools to choose from. Self care’s transformation into a commodity – one making bank off our hectic lifestyles and deep insecurities – has created endless products pushing you to be a better you. Taking care of yourself is now an industry worth 4 trillion US dollars. So why do people pay for dubious products, if effective self care can be free? “There’s a reason people might feel better, even if self care products aren’t addressing underlying issues,” Lawrence says. “If you pay for something, there’s a placebo effect. You’re making a contribution to your wellness and the psychology of that is when you part with cash for a product, it might not benefit you, but you get a sense that it benefits you.” And because the problem that the product is offering to fix remains, but the customer feels better, they’re likely to return for more. It’s a business model based upon feeding insatiable appetites. The Tim Tam of mental health.

As ancient rituals like meditation become money-making businesses, it’s worth asking whether such products can actually support our mental health. Shaun Robinson, CEO of the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation, says turning a profit from self care isn’t necessarily a problem. “I have some apps on my phone, some meditation apps,” he says. “I pay for them but I don’t mind because they help me.” He does sound a warning, however. “Self care… can be too individually focused,” he says. “It’s important to think holistically instead of just ‘if I get a facial or brunch with my friends, that’s enough for my mental health’.” The commodification of self care points to a bigger flaw in the western approach to mental wellbeing, he says. “We’ve spent most of the resources of the last 100 years of mental health focused around… a medical model [where] people get broken and then we fix them.” A better approach would be to take a proactive approach to good mental health, rather than waiting for problems to arise that then need to be addressed.

Another issue: these self care products could actually be doing more harm than good. Daily meditation and 10,000 steps a day add to our bursting to-do lists, creating expectations that can’t always be met. If we don’t do our power hour on yoga Thursday we can end up feeling that we’ve let ourselves down. Says Lawrence, “Any situation where you have expectations which aren’t being met… does create a degree of internal distress because you’re not reaching a particular goal.” Self-care becomes self-criticism. Seeing others on social media tick their ‘better me’ boxes with superfood smoothies and sunrise Pilates can become competitive – and destructive. All the more reason to notice when you’re tying your self-worth to validation from others, and to make a decision to stop doing it.

Self-care doesn’t need to involve buying more stuff (Photo: Getty Images)

But while you don’t need to do it for the ‘gram, it’s still worth prioritising self care. The United Nations is among the bodies warning of a looming mental health crisis in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lawrence says he’s already seeing this play out in New Zealand. He’s seeing more “worry, stress and concern” than in normal times, and expects his profession’s expertise will be in high demand as a result. “With the changes in employment, finances, that’s going to create a huge amount of moderate to severe stress. We’ll see people that we’ve never seen before.” The Mental Health Foundation’s Shaun Robinson says it’s to be expected that times of crisis will trigger symptoms of distress. “We need to go easy on ourselves and not try to fight against those feelings. The real issue is how do we manage them, how do we deal with them.”

One way to deal with them is by evaluating your coping skills. According to the Black Dog Institute, an Australian mental illness research organisation, examining our habits for dealing with stress is the first step in managing mental wellbeing. In unprecedented times like these, self care is more important than ever, the institute says. It’s released a guide to identifying your mental health needs and creating a plan to meet them.

Mark Lawrence believes the Black Dog approach has value. A daily mental health checklist can help people “be more aware of themselves before it comes to burnout, depression and further severe health concerns,” he says. Understanding what makes us tick – and ticked off – puts us in a better place to cope. It’s not a silver bullet, though. “Being self-aware of your coping mechanisms doesn’t necessarily lead to change.” As for Robinson, while he “doesn’t necessarily agree that every person in New Zealand needs to have a formal self-care guide” he supports people taking control of their own mental health. The Mental Health Foundation has its own guide to weathering the fallout from Covid-19, Getting Through Together – Whāia E Tātou Te Pae Tawhitia, featuring tips and encouragement for New Zealanders who find themselves struggling during this time.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, says Lawrence. “Self care is any action that takes care of your physical, mental, spiritual or emotional health.” It can be as simple as calling up a friend to vent. “If we hold on to emotional crap and it’s not dispensed, our ability to process and cognitively work through difficulties… are limited. It has to go somewhere.” Perhaps don’t dispense all that crap on the same person though, or even better, get ready for some return fire. Healthy relationships involve “reciprocal sharing”, he says. Take note: sharing emotional burdens is beneficial – sharing glam selfies, not so much.

Good self care benefits everyone in your life, says Robinson. “Making sure you’re paying attention to your own needs enables you to give to others and support others. It’s a two-way street.” Alongside connecting, learning, taking notice and being active, “giving” is one of the Mental Health Foundation’s invaluable Five Way’s to Wellbeing. “Putting time and attention into other people is really good for ourselves,” Robinson explains. “It makes us feel like we’re valued. It creates good positive hormones and chemicals in your brain which feeds healthy brain circuitry.” Caring for yourself enables you to support others, which in turn benefits your wellbeing, he says, creating one big, beautiful “self perpetuating positive cycle”. The circular rainbow of mental health.

Perhaps it’s time to forget the labels altogeth (sorry ‘grammers). “I’d never refer to it as self care, I’d refer to it as keeping yourself well,” says Robinson. “These practices that build up our mental well-being, where we support each other in these actions, can actually improve our performance in every part of New Zealand society.” Perhaps next, the world? The tools are there – and you don’t even need to hashtag #selfcare.

Where to get help

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Healthline – 0800 611 116

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz



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