Self care. What is it and why is it important?
Some days doing anything but work seems counterproductive, destructive even. What if I fail that test? What if I slow down my progress? What if I don’t get into medical school? Too often I am able to convince myself that I don’t have time to look after myself. I might be the only one but something tells me that I’m not alone, not even close.
I get it. As an aspiring medic and someone who just wants to make the most of my life, it can feel like I shouldn’t do anything but work on some goal or another. Feeling guilty for watching Netflix or fretting about a day trip are worries I have experienced many times. For a long time, I bought into a toxic productivity culture, where how much I got done somehow determined my worth as a person. Slowly but surely I’m realising how damaging this mindset and culture can be and learning to actually look after myself. I am choosing not to be driven by a fear of failure but instead by passion and a love for the process. I am learning to love the experiment that is our lives and let go of being perfect all of the time. Hopefully by sharing my journey, it might help someone else just a little.
So personally I have been interested in health for a pretty long time. It was what originally drew me to medicine. I am fascinated by lifestyle medicine and the power of what we eat and how we treat our bodies. Although I have always been pretty active and tried to eat well, I don’t think I’d truly considered, explored and utilised the benefits of self care. In my case, I am very good at convincing myself that I don’t have time to look after myself. Slowly but surely I am trying to shift that mindset. I am far from perfect but thought I would share what helps me.
So what is self care and why is it important? Quite simply, self care is just looking after ourselves and not just looking after our bodies but also our minds (although they are very much connected and many self care activities take care of both.) Specific activities vary from person to person and it takes experimentation to figure out what makes you feel good. We have to remember that self care is about caring for ourselves so we need to make sure it’s not becoming another thing we have to be perfect at. By all means, these activities should be a priority, but not another task that we feel guilty for not ticking off. For example, if you decide to do running, you don’t need to run every day no matter what or be the fastest runner. Pushing ourselves too hard can cause more problems which defeats the object of looking after ourselves. Why is it important? Personally for me, I try to focus on my well-being to preserve my mental health, increase mental clarity and also stay reasonably healthy but it can also aid our productivity. We can’t work 24/7. Taking breaks can help us be more efficient when we are working and more importantly, avoid burnout. This is so relevant for aspiring medics right now with plenty of parts of our application to think about, not to mention missing half a year of school.
So now I’ve hopefully convinced you that looking after ourselves and taking breaks is important, it’s probably time to mention some activities that I personally like. The first is pretty obvious and that is physical exercise. This is the one I struggle most to commit to but know how good it makes me feel. A simple YouTube workout in the morning can be a really great start to the day. Before summer, I had a good routine in place where I did a fairly short workout every morning and often did skipping (which is surprisingly tiring!) until I had some knee pain which skipping aggravated (like I said moderation and respecting your body is important). I am currently trying to experiment and build an exercise routine that I actually enjoy which I think is really important but I know that either way, physical activity makes me feel great. On this strain, going for walks can also be really great especially to help reduce feelings of anxiety and clear your head. I have really enjoyed going on more walks during lockdown and have noticed that they naturally calm me down if I’m feeling stressed or anxious. Another thing that can be really helpful is forms of mindfulness (being in the present moment) practice such as yoga and meditation. My new year’s resolution last year was to commit to daily meditation and although it hasn’t eliminated stress from my life, it has given me a tool to help calm myself down, reflect and has also made me more self aware. If you don’t like the sound of the meditation (even though it’s awesome and has an unfair stigma attached), you could try box breathing and practice focusing on your breath.
Journaling is another great tool to reflect, write down any worries and also document all the awesome or not so awesome things happening day to day. Journals are great things to look back on and help us in the present too. Something else that is really beneficial for me is having long conversations with friends, family and even people I don’t know. In lockdown, despite being introverted, I have really realised the importance of connection and have had way more long conversations (on video call) than ever before. For me, one on one interaction is one of the most effective forms of self care and makes me feel really refreshed. OK I’m getting close to the end of this list now don’t worry!
One very underestimated form of self care is literally just doing nothing and actually unwinding. We do need breaks and sometimes a Netflix binge, long bath or just time to do absolutely nothing is exactly what we need. It’s not unproductive, but essential for maintaining productivity long term. I’m not recommending spending all day watching Netflix but it’s OK once in a while and we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for regularly spending time doing nothing. The final thing I’m going to mention is just spending time doing hobbies and activities you love (at whatever level that makes you happy). This varies wildly from person to person but is an important part of being you and helps to make us well rounded individuals (which medical schools like). For me, this is sitting and playing songs on the guitar. I’m not the best in the world at it and have no goals for it but I enjoy playing and that’s what matters.
I hope you found this post useful in some way and I hope you are finding some time for yourself whilst preparing for the UCAT (and if you’ve already done it I hope it went well). I just wanted to mention that I am not a medical professional nor am I trying to say that these are the only ways to look after our mental and physical health. If you feel like you have a mental or physical health condition then please go to your GP. I don’t want to fuel the stigma surrounding taking drugs for our mental health either. I do believe though that taking time for ourselves can have a really positive impact on our lives and wanted to share some of my experience with others.
Thanks for reading this pretty long post! You’ve got this!
Written by Aimear Wolstenholme (student who has engaged with Medsimple programmes)