It took a hotel stay to make Rachel* (not her real name) realise what had been missing from her life. Sure, she’d been on plenty of staycations and, as a jet-setting executive, enjoyed stays in luxury hotels around the world.
Yet this hospitality experience – a Quarantine Order – was unlike any other.
In that basic room, the corporate high-flyer, hands-on mother and supportive spouse found herself forcibly removed from everything that usually preoccupied her every waking moment. For the first time, she had no one to focus on but herself.
“At first, I just took it as enforced ‘me time’, and spent hours binge-watching programmes late into the night, snacking with abandon, taking naps in the day… all the things that seemed ‘fun’,” she says. “Yet my days were empty and I felt irritable.”
Making the change
Then, at the suggestion of a friend, she decided to create a daily routine that incorporated time for exercise (something she never cared for), journalling, and even trying embroidery as a new hobby. “I realised that I never had time for myself,” says Rachel. “I wouldn’t say that I ‘found’ myself in those weeks of isolation, but I certainly felt more centred and calm.”
Her quarantine order has ended but some elements of Rachel’s daily routine from then have endured. She now exercises daily, even if it means having to wake up earlier. And she allows herself time-outs.
“Some days when life gets to me, I remove myself from everything — like stepping out of the office for a solo walk, or just locking the door to my bedroom for some uninterrupted quiet. I try to take myself back to that time and place during my quarantine, to get back that sense of peace I felt. Yes, there’s always something to be attended to, like an anxious client or a needy child – or both at once. But I’ve come to realise that I attend to the needs of others better when I attend to those of my own.”
Self-care isn’t selfish
Had it not been for quarantine, says Rachel, she probably would have continued to dismiss self-care as mere indulgence. More than 51 million Instagram posts tagged with #selfcare — spanning self-care ideas, widely reposted motivational quotes on pastel backgrounds, to self-promoting #OOTD selfies and beauty product endorsements from aspiring influencers — it’s easy to see why many perceive it as nothing more than a passing fad.
Life coach Ingrid How, who holds graduate diplomas in counselling and positive psychology, says cultural norms may also make it harder for some to accept that self-care is essential.
“Asian cultures tend to prize performance, achievement and hard work above all else. So even simple acts like taking a break in the middle of the day or leaving work on time can be perceived as being lazy, indulgent or irresponsible. Some might even see self-care as selfish because ‘others are working harder than you’,” says How, who has worked with several clients suffering from burnout.
We think that we have to spend all our time achieving something, whether it’s finishing work and replying to emails. Yet research has shown that taking breaks can boost mental and work productivity.
— Ingrid How, Life Coach
Neglecting self-care can have medical consequences too. Across the world’s developed countries, rising levels of stress have been linked to conditions spanning obesity, cardiovascular disease and mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. These effects have been worsened by the global pandemic. According to Clarise Chew, a counsellor at Singapore Association for Mental Health Insight Centre, a study by Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore, showed that one in three adults, “particularly women, younger adults, and those of lower socioeconomic status, experienced psychological distress related to COVID-19.”
“While both men and women need self-care, the latter may need more reminders to take time out for themselves. Women generally have to juggle several roles, including caregiving and work responsibilities, and the pandemic has made the situation even more challenging with many having to work from home. Women are also more inclined to place their family’s needs above their own, and self-care often ends up a low priority,” she says.
Little moments, big differences
Fortunately, there are ways to immediately improve our mental well-being, and a good time is start is 10 October, World Mental Health Day. How says there’s evidence that certain forms of self-care, such as practicing meditation, mindfulness and gratitude, can enhance happiness through positive thoughts and emotions. “Most people don’t realise that you can be intentional about creating happiness, and it can start from small actions.”
I always tell people to do what sparks joy. It can start from identifying and savouring the small and simple activities you enjoy and building on that.
— Ingrid How, Life Coach
And while self-care isn’t considered a form of therapy, therapy is a form of self-care, says Chew. “The process of therapy or counselling can result in profound effects that come from insight and behavioural change gained,” she adds.
“Authentic happiness is an internal state of being, and sustained well-being can be nurtured from within,” says How. She adds that many of her clients are often too busy to “tune in” to their needs, which results in behaviours such as mindless eating, lack of rest and exercise and unhealthy and disconnected relationships.
How believes in the power of small rituals. She used to wake with a list of “to-dos” in her head, which meant every day started in a stressful, work-fixated state. Now, before launching into work, she does stretching exercises, prepares breakfast and chats with her husband, all while listening to soft jazz music. “This ritual helps me feel like I’m focused on myself and I start my day calm and grounded.”
Chew agrees that small acts of self-care can be highly effective. “Even specific, short moments of self-care practiced throughout the day can be beneficial,” she says.
3 steps towards better self-care
So what are three easy self-care ideas everybody can integrate into their daily routine?
“Eating well, such as nourishing your body with good nutrition, having your meals on time and bonding with others through meals; moving often, even just having a short 10-minute walk after lunch to help destress; and creating, such as playing music, baking, gardening or even completing a puzzle, can be essential components of self-care that contribute towards positive mental health,” says Chew.
Self-care doesn’t have to mean alone time – involving family and friends can be particularly rewarding. And it’s worth remembering that while money can’t buy happiness, it can certainly buy a revitalising massage or daycation to help reset the mind even when things get hectic. With thought, intention and a sense of gratitude, even the simplest thing – whether it’s sitting down with a cup of tea, knitting (a la Tom Daley) or preparing a simple and delicious breakfast – can become a powerful act of self-care.
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