Self-Care in a Pandemic: How Do You Be Kind to Yourself?
“You truly cannot help others if you don’t help yourself,” says psychologist Ritika Aggarwal.
“What does self-care mean to you?”
Chances are, you may not have had a clear and instinctive answer to this seemingly-uncomplicated question six months ago. But today, as I ask around, this inquiry is met with an almost intuitive, top-of-the-head response.
“The entire concept of ‘self-care’ seemed alien to me until this year. But now, it centres my days and life,” a friend replies.
The silver lining in the dark, dark cloud we have been living in for the past few months, has been a heightened sense of awareness about our mental health needs.
The work from home routine, the blurring of the work-life boundaries, and the constant pressure of being productive, have practically pushed us to recognize when to stop, and to just breathe.
This Mental Health Day, FIT sought to understand the need for self-care in a constantly changing environment, and how it means different things to different people.
Step One: Redefining Productivity
With the pandemic and the many significant upheavals it has wreaked on our lives, the standards we set for ourselves in terms of our work goals, productivity, and the dreadfully long to-do lists need to be looked at again.
Ritika Aggarwal, Consultant Psychologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre suggests that there is no universal definition of 'productivity’ – especially right now. Some individuals may be able to cope better by doing more work, while others might need to take a little bit more downtime to deal with their emotions.
“Neither is right or wrong, but we need to understand what works best for us. When we figure that out, we should communicate this to those around us.”Ritika Aggarwal
Commenting on the same, Dr Raj Kumar Srivastava, Senior Consultant and Head, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi, says, “One should not take the pressure to be productive all day. If you are being productive, it is better, yes, but even if you are not, it's alright. The most crucial thing during this pandemic is to keep yourself happy whether you are productive or not.”
Once we accept these changes, it is essential to redefine and create new, personal goals for ourselves, which may not necessarily be the same as someone else’s.
And with each goal you accomplish, make it a point to celebrate your achievements, Aggarwal says. “Congratulate yourself for doing what you set out to do and celebrate every little milestone. But also, forgive yourself for the times when you may not have the emotional bandwidth to complete the tasks.”
Step Two: Know Where to Draw the Line
Where do we draw the line?
“That’s a very hard question because again, the line differs for each individual. The basic objective is to not let yourself burn out. That wouldn’t do you any good,” Aggarwal explains.
“Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup. When you can sense the exhaustion, and feel incapable of processing new information, pause. Taking care of your health is the most important sustaining factor at this point, and fortunately, we have the time and opportunity to do so now.”Ritika Aggarwal
Start with the basics and get some good sleep, she suggests. Make sure you create a sleep routine, use the time before bed to do something relaxing, unplug electronic devices 30 minutes to an hour before sleeping, avoid reading the news at night, do not have large meals, caffeine or alcohol before bedtime, and create an overall conducive bedroom environment.
Second, find time to do the things you enjoy. Read a book, paint, play or listen to music, start a hobby, sing, spend time with your family and just engage in activities that help you relax.
“You must make use of this time to connect with yourself. Over time, we have missed out on that because we’ve been so busy socialising and building connections with others. This is an opportunity to understand and help ourselves,” Aggarwal says.
In addition, she reminds us to be kind towards our own self, just like we would be towards others. “We tend to blame ourselves for things that we would forgive others for. Tell yourself what you would tell a friend: It happens. We are human. We can make mistakes.”
“How we deal with this pandemic is different for all of us. We need to recognize that and be kind towards ourselves. Tell yourself that it is okay to feel worried or low, it is okay to miss your friends. It is all normal and you will be fine. Give yourself these reminders.”Ritika Aggarwal
Making a journal could be a way to allow your thoughts to flow onto the paper and help raise self-awareness. It’s also important to focus on the things you can control – like wearing your mask and following physical distancing. Doomscrolling and incessantly reading about dismal COVID updates will not be of any help.
It is also important to practice gratitude, Aggarwal suggests. “We are so used to being thankful for big events like a promotion, marriages, or having a baby, that we tend to overlook the smaller day-to-day things we are blessed with. For instance, feel grateful for the friend who called up to check on you, or for the colleague who offered help when you didn’t even ask for it. These little things need to be noticed. If it helps, keep a gratitude jar or journal and try reading it at the end of the day.”
Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation could help relieve stress and reduce anxiety. Aggarwal suggests the 54321 grounding technique, where you focus and observe five things you can see, four you can touch, three sounds you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
“Do whatever works for you. Nothing, and I repeat, nothing is more important than looking after ourselves and our families right now,” she says.
Step 3: Find What Self-Care Means to You
From recognizing its importance, to tips on how to practice it, we move on to what self-care means to different individuals, and how they attain the calm, peace and stability in this ever-spiralling world.
Sonya Jain, pursuing her Masters in Sociology: “I guess the idea of self-care is very contingent for me. The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown have impacted my mental and physical health in ways that I had never imagined before. So, instead of setting long term goals, I focus on my self on a day-to-day basis.”
“Dance and theatre – the two forms of art that are dearest to me – have played a huge part in preventing me from spiraling into an abyss of uncertainty and despair. With more time on my hands, I have been able to look at these art forms and experience them in a very different way. Looking forward to engaging with them gives me a sense of purpose, it re-instates my sense of self. In other words, it is like meditating.”Sonya Jain
Shivangi Gupta, an educationist and an entrepreneur: “Self-care for me is giving myself a window to escape from the web of negative thoughts that I tend to slip in if I overthink. That window, for me, has been indulging in art. Astraying my mind into a creative direction not only distracts me, but also helps me live a childhood hobby that was lost in the busy schedules of my daily life.”
Nishad Ahuja, a lawyer: “Self-care to me is spending time with my dog. Before the pandemic, I was working in another city and living away from my family. But now, I get to spend hours with Jordan, and that, for me, is the best form of therapy. When I feel frustrated or low, I take him for a walk, play with him, or just cuddle with him. He brings me joy.”
Manvi Duggal, filmmaker and ad director: “The very first step for me was to accept that there lies a mental health problem that needs to be addressed. Once I did that, my journey began. I started with exploring the things that I loved the most, and dedicated myself fully to learning them. Being a passionate dancer, I realized dance brought me happiness and peace. I also focused more on enhancing my skills as a filmmaker, and got my mind to think of new ideas that could be brought to life through my lenses. All this kept me occupied, and brought calm and stability to my life.”
During such unprecedented and stressful times, it is crucial to understand yourself and to know what works for you and what doesn’t. As Aggarwal puts it, “You truly cannot help others if you don't help yourself. Be kind to the person you see in the mirror. They’ve been through a lot.”
(The article was first published in FIT and has been republished with permission.)
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