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The phrase “new normal” or “new Covid normal” has been used endlessly since the beginning of the pandemic.
Whatever the “new normal” might be, it means something different to every one of us: From the office worker who is used to watching her favourite Netflix show or listening to a podcast on her morning commute but now drags herself out of bed 10 minutes before work, to the restaurateur who now has to work as a delivery rider to make ends meet — life is very different now.
Some of us have adapted well to the changes, for others, the upheavals and disruptions have not ceased. Regardless, the ever-changing measures still create stress and frustration, with many of us experiencing pandemic fatigue, where the prolonged, heightened state of fear and caution leads to burnout.
In such situations, we often forget to care for ourselves while we deal with more pressing matters.
Self-care is critical
Self-care remains ever so important especially during such times.
But effective self-care takes effort and commitment. Some of us might already find self-care to be hard even outside of a pandemic!
The constantly evolving Covid situation and safe management measures make it extremely challenging, especially with social distancing rules and restrictions, to catch up with family and friends.
But it is still possible to engage in effective self-care activities.
Self-care means many things to different people. Self-care is formally defined by the World Health Organization as the set of daily activities that focuses on maintaining optimal health, preventing illness, and managing lifestyle issues that arise.
As the concept of self-care gains momentum, in part due to the pandemic, these definitions have evolved. Today, self-care focuses on tuning in to and meeting one’s needs.
Self-care can be anything that you do for yourself that feels nourishing and rejuvenating. It can be engaging in an activity that is intellectual, spiritual, or physical, or simply something you find relaxing or enjoyable.
Self-care is simple
During my time as a clinical psychologist, I’ve made several observations:
The first observation is that a self-care activity does not have to be complicated.
Care for your well-being by monitoring your stress levels and functioning within your physical and mental limits — be it in work, family, or personal interactions.
Adages such as getting sufficient sleep, having a nutritious and balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and spending time in nature are all good self-care advice for any period — not just Covid.
Some of these activities can also be done together with friends and loved ones, strengthening both your personal and social support systems.
But we often make excuses for ourselves. Several of my clients say that even these activities are difficult due to the pandemic. For example, they might find it difficult to go for exercise or walks in nature due to family or work commitments.
Which leads me to my second observation: Self care should start with small and achievable steps.
We will be easily discouraged from doing any form of self-care if we take the all-or-nothing approach. For example, it might be daunting to think about doing a full hike around MacRitchie Reservoir, but it is possible to take a short 20-minute walk along the park connector closest to your home.
Once you start to get into the habit of incorporating small steps into your daily routine, you may find that it is easier to work yourself up to something that requires more commitment when you are ready.
Go easy on yourself and celebrate any progress you make. For example, if you like to paint but don’t because you keep telling yourself you don’t have time, set aside a small art corner in your home that you can sketch or paint in small breaks during the day.
Self-care is multi-layered
There’s also another, more complex self-care concept. Self-care can be typically thought of as falling into one of two categories: temporary or enduring.
Temporary self-care typically refers to short activities that give you some space and is associated with the release of dopamine and serotonin. For example, acts of indulgence like buying a branded handbag is seen by some as a form of self-care, especially if it brings them a sense of well-being or benefit.
However, the benefits of this temporary form of self-care are unlikely to last for long.
On the other hand, enduring self-care refers to long-term practices and habits that permanently strengthen neurological functioning. An example of this is practicing mindfulness or learning a hobby you find relaxing.
You can also turn temporary self-care activities into a more enduring lifestyle change: Going for a walk or a run can give you a temporary high; but turning that into part of a fitness lifestyle will give more lasting benefits.
So my last observation is that it is preferable to develop enduring self-care activities that are sustainable and beneficial in the longer term.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a combination of both: We should also enjoy the occasional temporary self-care activities like ice cream!
Self-care is acceptance
I want to share one other reflection that has arisen from my practice. This is the concept of acceptance as a psychological strategy to reduce or minimise suffering.
One struggle that many face during this period is living with the expectation that things will return to the way they once were. But with the discovery of each new Covid variant or the announcement of yet more safe management measures, a return to our old way of life seems further and further away.
Unfortunately, there is no indication when or if things will ever return to the way they were before. In fact, it appears that the reverse is true – Covid is likely to become endemic as part of our daily lives going forward.
We would find it easier to adapt to the new normal if we embrace the fact that Covid-19 might be with us in the long term and accept aspects of the situation that we cannot change, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and safe management measures.
Put another way, I like to adapt American educator Stephen Covey’s “Circles of Influence” model to the idea of psychological flexibility: Let’s consider all the events and situations that happen to us as coming under either our “sphere of influence” or “sphere of concern”.
First, identify the items within your “sphere of influence”: These are the things that you can do something about. You may not always be able to control or determine the outcome, but you can take steps to influence it. Identify what needs to be done and set these as distinct, achievable tasks. You’ll feel a whole lot better once you tick these off your checklist.
Once we acknowledge that the things that fall within our sphere of influence are what we can affect, we can take steps to complete those things according to the values and principles that we deem important.
Next, tell yourself this: “There are always going to be things that I am concerned about, but which are not within my sphere of influence”. This is your sphere of concern.
Here is how both spheres look like:
There will be many concerns that we cannot change or challenge. Dwelling on these thoughts will keep us in a bubble of constant worry and anxiety instead of helping us deal with the situation.
In our new normal, for example, such issues within our sphere of concern would include social distancing and circuit breaker measures. Fretting about something you cannot influence will only result in more distress, anxiety or stress.
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Notice that acceptance does not mean that you approve of or like the situation you find yourself in. What it means is that you have decided to embrace and acknowledge what is happening.
Tell yourself: “I am going to allow myself to worry about it for no more than 10 minutes. After these 10 minutes, I shall leave my worries for my tomorrow self to grapple with.”
You don’t have to use these exact words, but you get the idea.
By accepting the situation, you have now come to terms with what it is – no more, and no less – and you are no longer actively struggling or resisting the fact of its occurrence.
So the general aim of this exercise is to help us develop psychological flexibility – the ability to remain in contact with the present moment, and being able to adjust or persist in behaviours while staying true to your personal values.
This tool has been found to be clinically effective in managing worries by freeing up your “head space” for important, relaxing or fun activities.
Self-care is kindness
In the end, self-care is kindness to yourself. Don’t let anyone guilt you into thinking that taking time out of your other duties is frivolous and irresponsible.
This is of course, not carte blanche for you to neglect your responsibilities. Adulting happens to all of us!
It is about finding balance in your personal and professional lives. And understanding that sometimes, we need to be kind to ourselves first, in order to keep being kind to others.
Neglecting your own needs can be just as detrimental as ignoring the needs of those who depend on you.
Understanding that, and taking steps to rectify any imbalance in your life, is the first step towards mental wellness in the new Covid normal.