Opinion | Don’t let self-care overshadow caring for others

By Ana Altchek, Staff Columnist

Daily walks, evening meditation, weekly therapy — as life in quarantine persists, many people’s lives and social media feeds have been taken over by a new emphasis on self-improvement and individualism.

While I never expected to become passionate about daily exercise, balanced eating and mindfulness, these coping mechanisms helped myself and many others get through the last several months of utter boredom and oblivion. With that said, it’s important to remember that while some have managed and even benefitted from this lifestyle, others have consistently suffered.

Mental health and personal growth should remain a priority, especially since the winter months and potential third wave of COVID-19 are approaching. But the fact of the matter remains that there is still a global pandemic, and not everyone is flourishing in this new state. Thus, it’s important to continue to check in on friends and family members and make others an equal priority to yourself — the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. 

Adopting a self-serving or selfish mindset isn’t completely unwarranted in these unprecedented and peculiar times. After all, most of us spent months in some level of isolation and had to learn to become independent. Plus, we’ve all had to sustain a constant mode of fight-or-flight in order to protect ourselves and avoid a potentially life-threatening virus. 

Thus, physical and mental wellness have become top priorities as individuals try to navigate through the new normal of social distancing and staying at home. While these coping mechanisms have gotten many through this challenging and unfamiliar period, it’s important to note that living the self-care lifestyle is a luxury in this climate.

After all, the individuals dealing with the greatest disadvantages — those who lost their jobs, have been forced into uncomfortable or dangerous living situations or struggle with severe mental illness — are the ones who are inevitably excluded from the self-care movement. 

Someone scrambling to make money or experiencing domestic abuse most likely doesn’t have the time or resources to have a spa day, nor are they in the right mindset to do so. It’s likely that these people rely on others as a major source of support, so it’s important that friends and family make sure they’re checking in and doing what they can to be emotionally available.

The self-care movement doesn’t solely exclude these kinds of cases, though. Considering the main symptoms of depression include loss of interest in activities, lack of energy and general feelings of sadness and worthlessness, anyone struggling with this illness might find an activity like a daily run completely unattainable. Or someone struggling with anxiety, the most common mental health illness, may be able to find the will to practice meditation, but find it useless in enhancing their mental state when they have constant negative thoughts.

Naturally, the people struggling the most under these conditions may be the least likely to ask for help or admit they need support — especially when everyone around them seems like they’re doing just fine under the new normal. Thus, it’s vital to routinely check up on others, even if they seem okay, and remind them that they’re accounted for, cared about and still important despite the physical barriers that the virus has placed in between their relationships. 

Aside from merely checking in, it’s important to regularly keep in touch with those who aren’t directly in your pod. For those who don’t have friends nearby or strong familial ties, this nearly year-long hiatus from social normality can feel mentally and emotionally debilitating. Luckily, many people can see others safely in person as long as they follow social distancing precautions, but this kind of format remains restrictive.

Checking in does not mean assuming the role of a therapist — nor should it compromise one’s own mental health. But friends and family have an unsaid duty to be there for their loved ones, and this responsibility shouldn’t be forgotten just because COVID has altered the way people interact and heightened one’s responsibility to take care of oneself.

Leaning on others may even help those who consider themselves wholly independent at this point. In fact, the Oxford Journal published a study in 2017 that examined social and communal ties in relation to mortality that contradicts the overemphasis on individualism. The study revealed that people who maintained close social ties and unhealthy lifestyles, such as lack of exercise and smoking, actually outlived those with poor social ties and healthy lifestyles. 

Ideally, people should maintain healthy lifestyles as well as close social connections. Nonetheless, this study shows that trading off close ties for complete independence is actually unproductive in pursuing long-term health and wellness.

Thus, keeping close ties with friends and family is always important for healthy and balanced lifestyles. But during tragedies and traumatic events, community support is even more vital in order to promote societal recovery. This is why commemorations, mourning services and days of remembrances are still practiced years after 9/11. In order to heal, reliance on loved ones is necessary. 

Many people may feel burnt out because of the elongated timeline of the pandemic, and they may not realize the full scope of how world-altering this period has been. While people need to adapt to these new circumstances, they need to simultaneously keep in mind how much these conditions continually affect people, whether they’ve been infected or not.

Individuals who have benefitted from self-care activities should continue to engage in these practices, but should also consider themselves lucky. If mud masks and deep breathing exercises were truly life-changing, the world would be a far better place. 

Ana writes primarily about cultural issues and lifestyle advice. Write to her at [email protected].