Self-care is a very complex and relevant topic. As a society, we’ve been seeing significant increases in rates of depression, anxiety, suicides, and loneliness. This needs to be seen as a mental health crisis.
There are things which are beyond our control, and this is okay. We have always lived in a world of uncertainty, and we all know that the only certain thing in life is death. I don’t mean to sound grim, but for our other efforts, there’s a 99.9% chance it will work at best. This means there’s always that tiny 0.01% chance it won’t. But we still get up every day and try to do our best. We need to be realistic with ourselves. Under the current circumstances (I primarily mean the Covid-19 crisis and climate crisis), it is highly unlikely to be perfectly stable all the time. Some anxieties, some hopelessness and helplessness are bound to appear. This is where prevention and self-care come in by promoting good mental health and good overall health.
Speaking in general terms, self-care is an important approach to the management of long-term health conditions and to preventing ill-health by living a healthy lifestyle. It is proven to be an important contributing factor in dealing with a wide variety of health problems (Cosgrove, 2008). This concept is used in relation to mental health as well.
Let’s look at some key insights in modern science, relevant to this topic.
- Neuroplasticity. This refers to our brains’ ability to constantly change through our experiences, and most of the time unwittingly by forces around us which we have little to no control over. This also means we can influence our brains in a more intentional way and cause changes we want to see in ourselves (Davidson, 2000). For example, it’s a proven fact that a regular meditation practice brings about changes in our brains (Davidson, 2003).
- Epigenetics. This is the study of how our behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work. We all have a specific gene sequence and, for the most part, it will not change during our lives. However, we can influence how “active” certain genes are and to what extent they’re present in our ways of functioning. How high or low the volume of expressing a certain tendency is, is highly dependent on our circumstances and our demeanor. There’s a study that’s shown how a mother’s behavior towards an infant can cause life-long changes in the gene code, and that these changes can even then be passed on to the next generation or two. A change in our behaviors and circumstances can bring about an enduring change in our genes (Davidson, 2003).
- The bidirectional pathway between our brains and bodies. Activity in the mind can influence the body, and vice versa. This important because we now know that people who report higher levels of wellbeing are also physically healthier. Training our minds to cultivate wellbeing will induce changes in our bodies that will promote both physical and mental health (Dahl et al., 2020). In addition, mental illnesses are a risk factor that affect the incidence and prognosis of diseases traditionally classified as “noncommunicable”. For example, patients with type II diabetes mellitus are twice as likely to experience depression as the general population (Cosgrove, 2008, cited in Kolappa et al., 2013), and those patients with diabetes who are depressed have greater difficulty with self-care (Gonzales et al., 2008, cited in Kolappa et al., 2013). All this is still being researched, but it is very worth considering.
In the next part of this post, we’ll investigate some ways we can incorporate self-care into our everyday lives…
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counselling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Dahl, C. J., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2020). The plasticity of well-being: A training-based framework for the cultivation of human flourishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(51), 32197-32206.
Davidson, R. J., Jackson, D. C., & Kalin, N. H. (2000). Emotion, plasticity, context, and regulation: perspectives from affective neuroscience. Psychological bulletin, 126(6), 890.
Kolappa, K., Henderson, D. C., & Kishore, S. P. (2013). No physical health without mental health: lessons unlearned?.
Lucock, M., Gillard, S., Adams, K., Simons, L., White, R., & Edwards, C. (2011). Self‐care in mental health services: a narrative review. Health & social care in the community, 19(6), 602-616.