For most of us, living through the COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful. It has touched so many aspects of our lives: health, finances, work, school, parenting. It’s been difficult and, as a result, we’ve likely been more stressed than usual.
One way to help manage increased stress is to engage in healthy self-care behaviours, but Dr. Sam Iskandar, clinical psychologist at Sunnybrook, says we’re not often good at doing that when we’re experiencing high levels of stress.
“Sometimes the more stressed we are, the more likely we are to neglect our self-care, but that’s actually when we need self-care the most. This is the paradox of self-care.”
What is self-care?
“I think of self-care as knowing our own physical needs, our psychological needs and our social needs,” says Dr. Iskandar. “And then being able to say, okay, so these are my needs, but am I meeting those needs?”
There are several physical needs that everyone shares: good sleep, some physical exercise, a nutritious diet, personal hygiene such as bathing and grooming. But beyond that, self-care practices will really depend on the person, says Dr. Iskandar.
He says for someone with hypertension, self-care might be checking their blood pressure regularly. For a person with anxiety, self-care could be a regular relaxation practice such as yoga or meditation. For social people, their self-care could be making time to visit with friends.
“And those are the things we stop doing when we’re under a lot of pressure,” says Dr. Iskandar. “We might think we’re being indulgent if we do those things. But that’s actually when we need it most.”
How to create good self-care habits
Dr. Iskandar says there are three key steps to creating good self-care habits.
The first step, he says, is to check in with yourself and assess whether you are meeting your physical and emotional needs. Are you taking care of your body? Have you stopped making time for your favourite activities?
It could be helpful to ask yourself: “Do I have some needs that are not being met or that I’ve neglected?” Dr. Iskandar says. “And then the next step is to come up with some sort of plan.”
That plan could involve calling a friend to schedule a patio date, or committing to a particular form of outdoor exercise while gyms remain closed, but whatever the plan is, Dr. Iskandar says once you have a plan for returning to those favourite activities or taking care of your body, it’s important to follow through.
The third step is to “try and make it a habit. Schedule it in, make reminders, try to make it into a routine where you’re actually following up on those things regularly,” he says.
Self-compassion and self-care
Self-compassion, the act of being able to recognize when you’re under stress and acknowledge you’re going through a hard time, is also linked to self-care.
“One of the predictors in who actually engages in self-care and who doesn’t is how much self-compassion a person has,” says Dr. Iskandar.
He describes the opposite of self-compassion as telling yourself what you’re experiencing is no big deal and downplaying these difficult experiences. And Dr. Iskandar says that makes it less likely someone will practice self-care, so it’s important to practice self-compassion and validate yourself that what you’re going through is difficult.
“To cultivate self-compassion, have kindness with yourself, treat yourself well. [Ask yourself], how would I treat someone I really care about if they were in this situation?”