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Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.
Christine Meinecke Ph.D.

Self-care in a toxic world

Self-care may not be what you think it is.

Gulf Coast oil gusher. Gaza blockade and flotilla. Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. North Korea. Joblessness. Homelessness. Toxic world.

Coping in a toxic world seems to be on a lot of people's minds. Today, for example, a couple of my clients and then the manager of my office building talked to me about how distressed they feel when they read or watch the news. Next, while running errands and listening to Science Friday on NPR, I caught part of Ira Flatow's segment, Bad News Burnout. Finally, I called a lifelong friend, and she talked to me about the same thing! She also mentioned a poster she saw recently, designed in Great Britain to boost public morale during WWII. See below:

Keep calm and carry on.

Poster designed in Great Britain to boost public morale during WWII - BBC News Magazine

Whether the war zone is at your doorstep or in your head, "Keep calm and carry on" strikes me as genius - a sure-footed, first step in a plan for coping with a toxic world. The plan that I suggest to others, as well as follow myself, has two essential parts: a news fast (stop reading and watching for as long as necessary) and an enhanced regimen of self-care. For some, there is a third step, social activism.

What self-care is

While an enhanced regimen of self-care may sound like a good idea, most people are fuzzy on what self-care is and how to practice it. Medical and mental health professionals pioneered the concept of self-care by prescribing healthy lifestyle changes and stress management behaviors. Unfortunately, these prescriptions are often ignored because they require hard work and perseverance.

During the 1980s, the term self-care became popularized. It is now common to hear talk (especially among women) about needing to take better care of oneself. Consequently, it became irresistibly profitable for advertisers to perpetuate the fantasy that self-care can be easy. As a result of the self-care marketing blitz, many of us think that getting pedicures, choosing hand-dipped dark chocolates, and buying 10,000-thread count bed linens equal self-care.

What self-care is not

Self-care is not self-pampering - not that there's anything wrong with self-pampering - pedicures, dark chocolates, and other luxuries. That is, as long as you can afford luxuries. Spending money that you don't have is self-indulgence.

Self-care is not self-indulgence. Popularly, the terms self-care and self-indulgence are used interchangeably, as in "Oh, go ahead, indulge. You deserve it." We tell ourselves that we are practicing self-care when, in fact, we are engaging in self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is characterized by avoidance of the effortful and substitution of quick and easy antidotes. We tell ourselves that the stresses of the day have drained our energy and that vegging on the sofa with a quart of ice cream or a six-pack of beer is all we can expect of ourselves. Rather than shouldering the hard work of self-care, we settle for temporary and largely symbolic fixes - some of which actually stress our systems further.

How to practice self-care

Self-care means choosing behaviors that balance the effects of emotional and physical stressors: exercising, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, practicing yoga or meditation or relaxation techniques, abstaining from substance abuse, pursuing creative outlets, engaging in psychotherapy. Also essential to self-care is learning to self-soothe or calm our physical and emotional distress. Remember your mother teaching you to blow on the scrape on your knee? This was an early lesson in self-soothing but the majority of adults haven't the foggiest notion how to constructively soothe themselves.

A common mistake in romantic relationships is depending on a partner to soothe our pain. Most of us get married, in part, because we want someone other than mother to calm our fears and offer us band-aids. Of course, it is never a mistake to seek comfort in the sweet embrace or wise words of a spouse. The mistake is believing that a spouse is obligated to be an open tap of emotional support. It is also not a spouse's role to teach us how to self-soothe. We must learn this skill on our own.

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About the Author
Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of Everybody Marries the Wrong Person.

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