How You Can Use Self-care to Fight Stress, Anxiety, and Social Injustice

Julia Malacoff
Medically Reviewed
August 19, 2020

Often mistakenly associated with spa treatments, self-care is an essential health practice that can take many forms. “I think of it as a healing aspect and something that we can do ourselves without taking a bunch of supplements ,” says Jamie Kyei-Frimpong , DNP, FNP-BC, a nurse practitioner at Parsley Health.

Almost any form of taking care of your body and mind can be deemed self-care. “The typical ones that I use with my members at Parsley Health are meditation and movement,” Dr. Jamie says. But volunteering, journaling, taking naps, talking to loved ones, snuggling with pets, gardening, and yes, going to get a facial or manicure or massage, can all be forms of self-care.

You can also think about it on a larger scale: “Self-care might be thought of as a lifestyle with a series of decision points, in which we decide whether some activity or responsibility will add to or take away from our sense of peace, level of clear-mindedness, and clarity of purpose,” explains Rheeda Walker , PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health .

Self-care is more important than ever.

In normal times, self-care is crucial on so many levels. For instance, getting enough sleep , moving regularly, and meditating can regulate our blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, hormones, inflammation levels, and more.

But self-care is also a tool for dealing with anxiety and stress, according to Dr. Jamie, which is particularly important in today’s world, given the COVID-19 crisis and the consequences of systemic racism.

With our daily exposure to important but often stress-provoking news and social media, Dr. Jamie says she commonly sees patients who are experiencing physical signs of stress and even HPA-axis dysfunction . They don’t have much energy, can’t concentrate, and generally don’t feel great. (Sound familiar?)

Self-care, even in its most basic forms, can help with all of these issues. “If you meditate and get enough sleep , it’s going to reduce your cortisol levels . It’s going to help your brain function better. Plus, our bodies heal while we’re sleeping,” Dr. Jamie explains.

It’s important to note that self-care isn’t anything new. For BIPOC, especially women BIPOC, engaging in self-care has been a political act for decades . In a system where health outcomes are clearly drawn along racist, sexist lines—take, for instance, the maternal mortality rate among Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women or COVID-19 outcomes —self-preservation and taking control of one’s own body is a form of protest.

“Only the most ‘assimilated’ are allowed to advance, but assimilation is psychologically taxing. The decision to be intentional about one’s authentic identity regardless of what ‘they’ will say is a courageous act that inherently promotes self-care and well-being. BIPOC who reject the white, heteronormative identity are likely to be psychologically resilient,” Dr. Walker says.

For BIPOC, who are continuously reminded of the trauma of their ancestors via current racial trauma, effective self-care right now is likely to be centered on rest .

“We are conditioned to run ourselves ragged,” Dr. Walker explains. “If someone doesn’t run themselves completely into the ground, there is a perception that they aren’t doing enough. However, we have to rest in order to achieve whatever the goal is at the highest level.”

And in this moment in history, self-care should look different for non-BIPOC, with a focus on activism and community.

“For those who are ready to be part of change beyond social media posts, getting politically active in ways that make sense is a wonderful start,” Dr. Walker notes. “Everyone doesn’t have to be on the front line, but everyone can avoid feeling paralyzed by the weight of injustice.”

Self-care isn’t an excuse for white people to “unsubscribe” from racism, COVID-19, or anything else going on in the world.

In the current world climate, it can feel like a challenge to balance taking care of yourself with paying attention to the issues society is facing and doing your part to help.

“We all want to be informed, but if it’s a tremendous distraction, avoid television or social media until after lunchtime or until just before dinnertime,” Dr. Walker suggests. “It’s a strategy that I use, personally.”

“It’s important to set boundaries,” Dr. Jamie agrees. This will look different for every person, but might include actions like:

  • Unfollowing people and outlets that consistently post negative content that provokes anxiety. (The exception to this would be content that challenges you to confront your own biases.)
  • Limiting the amount of time you spend on social media and reading the news, either by designating specific time limits (i.e. 30 minutes a day) or certain actions associated with news and social consumption (i.e. only looking at your feeds while commuting).
  • Seeking out and regularly consuming content about people who are taking action to make the world a better place.

One thing is clear, though: Self-care doesn’t mean ignoring things that make us uncomfortable, such as racism. Instead, it’s about finding ways to help that line up with your own personal strengths and values.

How to pivot your self-care routine

Six months ago, your self-care routine might have involved doing things that aren’t even options now: going to the gym, getting massages, grabbing coffee with friends. But a solid self-care practice is all about learning how to adapt.

It can and should change based on your feelings, your schedule, and what comes up in your life, says Dr. Jamie.

“One of the keys is really knowing what fills your cup, and how much you need to fill your cup so that you can give to others and acknowledge everything that’s going on in the world,” Dr. Jamie explains.

Some of the most impactful actions you take to help others and yourself at the same time aren’t necessarily super visible. “We don’t ever want to play the comparison game, because then you’re never going to be doing ‘enough,’” Dr. Jamie says.

“As long as you are acknowledging what’s going on, doing something to educate yourself, and supporting the cause in some way, you’re on the right track.”

In fact, there are many self-care ideas that contribute to social movements at the same time. For instance:

  • If you like to journal, you can split your time between your personal journaling and writing letters to your local government advocating for racial justice or political reform.
  • If exercise is a form of self-care you enjoy, you can take classes from or buy workout programs and apps created by BIPOC. If you’re looking for resources, our friends at Well+Good put together a great list of Black-owned fitness studios and instructors.
  • If you like skin-care, taking baths, or face masks, you can purchase products for at-home treatments from beauty businesses owned by BIPOC.
  • If reading helps you relax, you can take a BIPOC-led anti-racism course , sign up for a daily anti-racism newsletter , or buy books from a BIPOC-owned bookstore.
  • If being social helps you de-stress, you can make it a point to bring up racism as a topic of conversation with friends and family. Or volunteer to support people in your community who could benefit from your privilege.

“These are all smaller things that aren’t necessarily shown to the world,” Dr. Jamie explains. “But they all help the movement.”

Julia Malacoff

Julia Malacoff is an Amsterdam-based freelance writer, editor, and certified personal trainer. She covers a wide range of wellness topics including nutrition, fitness, specific health conditions, and the latest scientific research in these field. Julia graduated from Wellesley College and she works with brands like Shape, Cosmopolitan, Fast Company, Precision Nutrition, Equinox, and Aveeno. Outside of work, you can find her walking her dog, trying out a new recipe, or learning Dutch.

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