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Why You Might Have to Fake Self-Care This Winter

Why is self-care during the pandemic so hard? The reason may surprise you.

We know self-care works, but why is it so hard during the pandemic?

Self-care, such as leisure activities, fun, exercise, social time, or watching a favorite show, effectively lowers stress. Researchers have found that self-care reduces the impact of stress on both physical and psychological quality of life. As the pandemic creates financial stress, health/infection stress, decision stress, loneliness, losses, and significant life changes, it's especially important to make time for things that "fill your cup."

On a physiological level, self-care breaks lower your cortisol (stress hormone) levels. For example, scientists found that people were able to significantly lower their cortisol levels when they walked or sat in nature for just 20 minutes. Studies also suggest that self-care can send a signal to your brain to be happier, especially if you "savor" the self-care activities rather than just do them.

We understand that we feel better if we go on that walk, visit with an old friend, soak in the tub, or do whatever we love for a bit. We know it calms us, connects us to others, brightens us, and lets us breathe.

Then why is self-care during the pandemic so hard?

Why, instead, are we drawn toward habits like working too much, drinking too much, or zoning out on electronics, instead of doing the things that brighten us, the things that keep us happy? Why don't we call a friend back when we know it will make us feel better?

Research suggests that even low levels of depressive symptoms are associated with poor self-care.

Being sad, down, or in a mild funk sends our self-care skills to the curb. This is important because depression has skyrocketed during the pandemic. Studies show that depression symptom prevalence is more than three-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before it. Many adults are also experiencing loneliness, which, research shows, partially predicts depression.

If we don’t feel like doing self-care, can we fake it?

“Faking it” is aligned with the therapeutic strategy of behavioral activation, which, research shows, is straightforward and clinically effective. Behavioral activation increases your contact with positive, pleasurable, or rewarding activities (self-care). For example, if you’re feeling depressed, and you don’t feel like going for a walk, but you do anyway (fake it), you feel better. Behavioral activation, an incredibly simple yet effective intervention for depression, involves scheduling pleasurable activities and then self-monitoring that you’ve done them.

Tami Forman writes that "self-care is not an indulgence, it’s a discipline." Being disciplined about faking self-care by activating certain behaviors this winter will reduce depression and moderate the impact of stress.

Writer Jayashree Rajagopalan discusses six types of self-care, including:

  1. Physical Self Care—drinking water, eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, exercising, attending to a physical issue;
  2. Emotional Self-Care—opening up to a friend, getting counseling;
  3. Social Self-Care—connecting with others, calling a loved one;
  4. Spiritual Self Care—e.g., spending time alone, in nature, or meditating; connecting with spirituality;
  5. Work Self Care—e.g., setting good boundaries, getting professional development; and
  6. Psychological Self-Care—e.g., cultivating hobbies, making a list of things you want to do.

While we often discuss self-care as what we need to do (e.g., exercise, go to bed early), it's also helpful to conceptualize it as what we need a break from (Detox Self-Care), such as unhealthy habits or too much work. For example, one study showed that when participants took a five-day break from Facebook, it lowered their cortisol levels. Other research suggests that a "dry January" or break from alcohol can improve energy levels. Studies have found that taking a lunch break from work improves energy levels over time and short-term vacations from work tend to lower stress and improve well-being.

While the above types of self-care are about what you do externally, self-care is also about what you do internally (Self Compassion). Research has shown that self-compassion is associated with better moods and positive characteristics. Researcher Emma Seppala has found that self-compassion incorporates:

  • Being kind to yourself (treat yourself as you would a friend)
  • Remembering common humanity (you’re not alone in your mistakes)
  • Mindfulness (being aware of emotions without judging them)

Activating self-care, despite our emotions telling us otherwise ("faking it till we make it"), will boost joy, reduce the impact of stress, and help us avoid getting more depleted during this challenging time. Choosing what self-care we'll savor (whether a favorite feel-good movie, a cookie-baking night, a Zoom with friends, or a nature walk) will make little things go a long way.

More from Erin Leyba LCSW, Ph.D.
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