Pandemic Self-Care for the Long Haul

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We’ve all seen the coronavirus memes: an exhausted woman curled up for a nap on the home treadmill, someone dressed in pajamas watching all of Netflix in a week, or emerging from months inside with snarled gray hair covered in cookie crumbs. Everyone is joking about not taking care of themselves and coming out of quarantine looking like Sasquatch. But the jokes aren’t really jokes, are they? According to a recent study, more than half of Americans feel that the pandemic is harming their mental health.

Of course, when our mental health is at risk, we should fortify our self-care routines, including trying to look and feel our best (or, OK, not our best, but tolerable to ourselves and our pets). Seeing as we don’t know how long the quarantine is going to last, if you’ve let self-care go these last couple weeks, today is a good time to gently nudge yourself back on track. Even if you start with something simple — like getting dressed in the morning as if you were headed to work or school — it can make a significant impact on your sense of agency and well-being.

Amy Cirbus, PhD, LMHC, and Clinical Marketing Manager at Talkspace recommends making this a goal each morning, explaining that even “going through the motions of putting on clothes and feeling aesthetically more like ourselves can actually make us feel mentally ‘more together’. The physical organization we put into our outer appearance helps boost confidence, helps us organize our thoughts, and can convert to feeling collected overall.”

Why is Self-Care Important During a Pandemic?

While personal appearance and upkeep might seem like the least of your worries, taking care of yourself and keeping some normalcy can positively impact your well-being. Talkspace Therapist, Dr. Rachel O’Neill explains the mental health benefits of keeping up with your physical self-care during this time. She explains that it can:

  • Help to increase self-esteem
  • Increase a sense of normality by letting you feel connected to previous rituals and routines
  • Give you a sense of control over something, keeping you grounded during times when you feel a lack of control in other areas
  • Allow you the time and space to practice mindfulness

Below, experts offer practical, attainable, DIY advice for how to tackle personal upkeep during these months of uncertainty.

Creating Healthy Habits

Sometimes the self-care we want to do — writing that book, doing our daily 10,000 steps, eating vegetables with every meal — feels attainable only in our imaginations. We want to form healthy habits, but how now that the world is on its head?

“The definition of a habit is ‘a behavior done with little or no conscious thought’,” says Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, “so not every behavior can become a habit. This is important because when people expect a behavior to be effortless and it isn’t, they tend to quit. They blame themselves and think they must be deficient. But certain kinds of exercise, for example, won’t become ‘a behavior done with little or no conscious thought’ because ideally you’ll keep pushing yourself harder.” Eyal continues, “Learn to manage uncomfortable emotions like boredom. Distraction and procrastination are emotion-regulation problems. And make a schedule. You can’t identify distractions if you don’t know what you got distracted from.”

Staying Active

We’re lucky to be living in a time when at-home exercise apps, YouTube yoga classes, and Instagram Live workouts are ubiquitous. At any moment of the day, we can choose which workout we want to do, at what level, and for how long. Amazing! But for many in quarantine, even getting off the couch feels challenging. Boston-based independent personal trainer Tommy Brogan suggests “identifying your why.” That is, why do you want to work out? Why do you believe it’s necessary? Once you have clearly identified why exercise is important to you, not just why it’s important in general, you’ll feel more motivated to begin. He adds, “Then just start. It’s a misconception that action can only follow motivation. The feeling of motivation is just that: a feeling. Feelings fade. So you’ll want to get motivated by acting. Action begets motivation.”

Cirbus agrees that the mental health benefits of exercise are substantial:“When you move your body, whether via an exercise routine or just a jog in the park, it relieves stress, boosts mood, and generally creates a sense of accomplishment that translates to feeling positive about yourself — and hopefully your body, too,” she says. “That sense of accomplishment allows us to feel in control in a way that’s truly beneficial right now.”

At-Home Massages

Jaime Alexis Stathis, a Licensed Massage Therapist in Northern California, has given a lot of thought to social distancing-friendly massage alternatives for her clients. She is a fan of regular Epsom salt baths with lavender essential oil. “It’s good for both the muscles and the nerves, both of which are overloaded with tension right now.” Seeing as many people now work from makeshift home offices, Stathis notes that “the ergonomics may be less than ideal, and the neck, chest, and shoulders will pay the price.”

She recommends this post-bath stretch: “Place a rolled-up bath towel on the floor and stretch out over it with the bottom at your sacrum and the top at the base of your skull. With your arms in ‘scarecrow,’ relax for a few minutes.” Your neck and pectoral muscles will thank you.

Hair Upkeep

Though it may seem tempting, it’s not the best time to become your own professional hair stylist, so difficult tasks like cutting and layering will have to wait. But even if you can’t have a just-stepped-out-of-the-salon look for a while, you can strive for the just-deep-conditioned-because-I-love-myself vibe.

And you can cover your grays: “Use a semi-permanent color,” says Vince Varia, hair stylist and owner of d-Tangle Salon in Denver. “Mix equal parts of the color and developer, two tablespoons of each, and only apply it to your roots.” For more temporary solutions, he offers three hacks: part your hair in a new place, fill a few stray grays in with a Sharpie, or buy a root touch-up spray.

Taking Care of Your Skin

“I do my makeup every morning,” says Amy Doty, a licensed aesthetician and professional makeup artist in Dallas, “even though only my family sees me. I even use perfume. Then I feel more proactive and better about my day.” That level of proactivity may not be possible for everyone, but keeping up a daily at-home skin routine is good self-care, pandemic or no pandemic. Doty suggests video-chatting with a skin care professional you trust (one who isn’t a product-pusher) to identify what your skin needs. If you (like me) have the patience for only the most basic routine, Doty prescribes a pre-cleanse, a cleanser, a toner, and a moisturizer. “A pre-cleanse is a deep-cleansing oil that melts away excess sebum, makeup, and impurities that build up on the skin.” She recommends the brand Dermalogica. “And if you’re out walking and biking, don’t forget to reapply sun protection every couple of hours.”

Doing Your Own Nails

It may seem unimportant compared with, you know, a global pandemic, but taking care of your nails is a small, simple way to take care of yourself. Celebrity nail artist Alicia Torello suggests a weekly routine: “If you have nail tools, push back and trim your cuticles. If you don’t have tools, go straight to filing.” She recommends filing in one direction into your desired shape with a 100/180-grit nail file. “You can easily make a nice hand scrub by combining olive oil, almond or coconut oil, brown sugar, and honey. You can also add any essential oils you might have at home. Lightly scrub the tops of your hands and fingers and rinse. Apply lotion to your hands and nails to seal in moisture, and then add cuticle oil, or whatever oil you have around the house.”

All that said, the most important thing during these long, quiet days is to feel as steady as possible, so if the thought of revamping your routines triggers anxiety or shame, forget it! Just bookmark this article and return to it anytime you’re ready. Remember, it’s not about how productive you are, or how glamorous these self-care rituals are, but about the positive effects they have on your well-being. “We are all grieving right now,” says therapist and integrative health coach Lauren Seltzer Verrillo, “and that process is not linear. Be kind to yourself.”

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