The pandemic hit a lot of people really hard. I don’t think I need to say this for it to be known. It’s been a while since we first started wearing masks, though, and now that the pandemic has turned into a dull background noise, people are beginning to “get back to normal.” I’ve heard this phrase so many times over the past year, yet I don’t fully know what it means. To some people, I think “getting back to normal” is as simple as getting rid of mask-mandates, opening up travel, attending concerts or going to the gym. Sometimes people are referring to the disease itself—claiming that the pandemic has simply halted. Considering I’ve already had to test for COVID-19 since being back at school, unfortunately, I feel as though the last one is untrue. Obtaining normality is not so easy or linear.
While increasing community activity certainly may help us feel better about the pandemic, it’s not always a solution. If the pandemic presented underlying problems, maybe “getting back to normal” cannot be accomplished by going to the store without a mask on or planning a party with friends. When the pandemic started, I was a junior in highschool with no job, no bills and less responsibilities around the house. Now I am a sophomore in college with three jobs, multiple bills, living away from home, and managing the household alongside my roommates. I have more stressors in my everyday life now, so I cannot return to the same normalcy I had prior. That wouldn’t work.
The concept of normality is flexible and tends to change from person to person. In this case, the normality I’m referring to pertains to our everyday functioning capabilities. In other words, how we navigate our schedules and demands on a day-to-day basis. Every person has different needs to fulfill and different roles or responsibilities to accomplish, so handling stressors is going to look different for everyone.
Luckily, there are ways to manage stressors and to find that normality again. Many people recognize self-care as an important tool that helps people find the balance between managing workload and prioritizing mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health describes self-care as “taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health.”(1) By definition, self-care is a tool to help. Many of my teachers promote this ideology by suggesting students get work done early, keep up with scheduling and ask for extensions when necessary. This is good advice for many people, though it tends to prove ineffective for some. Self-care is one of those things that is not easily definable. Just like diet, sense of fashion or bedtime routines, self-care varies from person to person. It is adaptable. It needs to be adaptable because everybody has different needs.
Figuring out what those needs are can be difficult as self-care is broad and not easily definable. Even I tend to struggle in determining what the term means to me personally. To try and figure out how the general population views self-care, I surveyed a small group of people on what self-care means to them. This is what they had to say:
Q1: What do you think of when you hear self-care?
For this question, individuals could choose multiple options from a list of activities. There was also a write-in option. The answers were as such:
going outside or mental health walk—72.7 percent
brushing your teeth—54.5 percent
face masks or skin care—54.5 percent
going to the gym—36.4 percent
trying a new activity—27.3 percent
eating three meals a day—27.3 percent
dressing up, styling hair, wearing makeup, etc.—45.5 percent
getting 8 or more hrs of sleep—27.3 percent
spending time with friends—63.6 percent
Quality alone time—9.1 percent (write-in)
Q2: How often do you engage in self-care? (stats)
Individuals could pick one option out of a list for the second question. The answers were as such:
One to two hours per week—45.5 percent
Three to four hours per week—27.3 percent
Five to seven hour per week—9.1 percent
Seven or more hours per week—18.2 percent
Q3: What does self-care mean to you personally? (quotes and generalizations)
This next question was optional and open-ended. It asked individuals to fill in their own thoughts on self-care. Here were some of their responses:
Anonymous: “It’s the things I do to take care of myself. It’s not necessarily the extra stuff. Sometimes it’s the “bare minimum.”
Isabel: Self care is “making myself feel normal and happy.”
Sawyer: Self care is “a state of comfortability where you can relax and destress from the stressful activities in your life.”
Q4: Do you think there are self-care myths, or things that people "get wrong" about self-care?
This was another optional, open-ended question.
Anonymous: “I think that self care is very individual. What is self care for me might seem like too little for some, but it’s what I am able to do for myself at this point in time. For others it might seem like too much. Doing my makeup every day is time consuming but it’s helpful for me. Some people might see that as overkill or unnecessary”
Anonymous: “I think people use the term too broadly”
Alese: “It’s not selfish at all”
Isabel: “Thinking simple hygiene isn’t self care”
Sawyer: “Self care doesn’t have to have a routine. Do what makes you happy and fulfilled, as well as healthy. You don’t have to become a whole new person, just take the time to do what you love. Self care can look different for everyone. Mine would be sitting on my bed in my dorm with a podcast or YouTube video and doing some sketches, or maybe taking a nap. Others may find comfort and joy in going out and socializing. It’s different for everyone”
There are so many definitions of self-care that people seemed to recognize others’ definitions as inaccurate, or emphasizing the wrong thing. Isabel’s point on simple hygiene in question four highlights that some people disclude simple hygiene from their definition of self-care. This appears to be supported by the answers to question one, as only 54.5 percent of individuals included “brushing their teeth” in their definition of self-care. Additionally, Alese’s point that self-care should not be considered selfish implies that some people view self-care as selfish. This is an interesting point to consider. How would one define self-care in such a way that would make it selfish? Does this mean they do not practice it? None of the responses seemed to reflect this ideology, though there were many people who chose not to respond. I would not be surprised if some people thought this way.
In question one, “Going outside” and “spending time with friends” were the highest activities chosen. This subverted my expectations, as I assumed the options “Eating three meals a day” or “getting eight or more hours of sleep” would have been the highest scores. These two activities are integral to life as we know it, yet they seem to be regarded less. Joyous activities seemed to be favored instead such as interacting with friends, going outside, or some form of changing physical appearance. This was reflected in the open-ended questions as well, with concepts such as joy, comfort or normality emphasized in the responses. This ideology reflects the definition of self-care from more popular sources, which is the idea that self-care is “something that brings you more sustained joy in the long run."(2)
The problem I have with equating self-care and joy is the possibility that joy cannot be obtained. Maybe contentment or a simple ease is all that can be obtained at that point in time by practicing self-care. For those living with mental health issues or facing other adversities that make life generally harder, joy is not a guarantee. I do think that joyful activities are worthwhile, as they do improve mood and life quality; however, I do not think that the purpose of self-care should be to obtain joy. It may be misleading to the general public. Promising sustained joy can be detrimental in cases where a lessening of burden is all to be gained.
Considering this, my working definition of self-care is still not complete. But I will leave you with this: If doing something helps you get through your day, continue to do it. If reading a book, eating a sweet treat, drawing or playing a video game is what allows you to destress, do it. Going to the gym, getting schoolwork done early, cooking or taking extra time to sleep in the morning are also valid ways to destress. There is no “wrong” way to perform self-care.
1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Caring for your mental health. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/caring-for-your-mental-health
2. Lawler, M. (n.d.). What is self-care and why is it critical for your health? EverydayHealth.com. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/self-care/