In 2020, Self-Care Is Becoming A More Radical Act

Gone are the days of pampering in the name of mental health. Taking care of ourselves now requires real and uncomfortable work.

Amid a global pandemic, climate change, racial unrest and a 24/7 news cycle, self-care is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity.

Collective stress and anxiety have surged in 2020. Almost 50% percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they’ve experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression this year, according to a June survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Among those surveyed, women, Black and Latino Americans were more likely to be affected.

The impending election has also increased tension. According to a July 2020 report from the American Psychological Association, a majority of Americans said the current political climate was a significant source of stress in their lives.

“I’ve seen an increase in anxiety, depression, grief and loss in my clients this year,” said Erin Scott, a New Jersey-based licensed professional counselor and owner of The Healing Space Counseling and Wellness Center. Health concerns, family issues, job losses and national news can all play a role.

“I had an influx of clients who came to me this year as a result of everything happening with Black Lives Matter,” said Beverley Andre, a licensed marriage and family therapist, creator of Your Favorite MFT and the owner of BeHeart Counseling Services, which specializes in work with Black and brown women and couples.

“Many of them weren’t feeling safe in their workplaces because of the emotional and mental stress they’d been experiencing,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened the intensity of many issues and events. “We were forced to sit still and pay attention to things we might have otherwise ignored,” Scott said.

Spending more time at home has led people to watch and read the news on an almost hourly basis, which Scott said can elevate stress, anxiety and grief.

“We were forced to sit still and pay attention to things we might have otherwise ignored.”

- Erin Scott, professional counselor

On top of all that, many people have let go of their coping strategies, said Adolph Brown, a clinical psychologist, social justice advocate and motivational speaker. Without the ability to maintain a regular routine or see friends as usual, it’s easy to adopt habits that exacerbate any sadness or stress you might feel, he said.

To get by, many people have turned to self-care — but not necessarily in the way you’d expect.

How 2020 Is Further Changing The Concept Of Self-Care

The events of this year have altered many people’s personal definitions of self-care.

“People used to talk about self-care in terms of pampering yourself,” Brown said. “But self-care today is more like parenting yourself.”

Self-care used to be billed as a “therapeutic spa experience complete with wine and candles,” Andre said. But applying a face mask or taking a bubble bath pale in comparison to the real work you have to do to keep yourself physically, emotionally and mentally well in 2020.

“Self-care is not a massage or a manicure,” Brown noted. “It’s putting boundaries and limits on your behavior like a parent would.”

That may look like eliminating interactions with a racist relative, for example, or making hard decisions about some people in your life. That may be turning off your computer at the end of the workday, even if you think you have more you can do. It might be turning down an important invite, even if it means disappointing someone.

“People used to talk about self-care in terms of pampering yourself. But self-care today is more like parenting yourself.”

- Adolph Brown, clinical psychologist

Brown added that it’s also important to note that self-care is not toxic positivity, which he defined as avoiding what you’re actually feeling for the sake of being positive. Acknowledging your feelings is now a vital, critical component of self-care ― even if it’s unpleasant. “If you don’t reveal it, you can’t heal it,” he said.

Practicing self-care in 2020 also means self-preservation, Andre said. It goes beyond nurturing or self-soothing; it’s a matter of survival, particularly for Black people and people of color.

“Some people really feel like they’re at the end of their ropes right now, and that their lives are being compromised,” Andre added, noting that because of that, the way people take care of themselves now is radically different.

That was the case for Margo Gabriel, a writer from Boston who recently moved to Lisbon, Portugal. The racial injustice in the U.S. was affecting her daily life and making it extremely difficult to focus on her work. Without the ability to travel, cook for loved ones or visit museums this year — all previous forms of self-care for Gabriel — her mental health started suffering.

“What I have learned in 2020 is that self-preservation is paramount to the stability of my mental health,” she said. “My move abroad is the greatest act of self-preservation I could have done in my life.”

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

Some Ways To Protect Your Mental Health Right Now

Self-care no longer looks like the millennial pink, relaxing version we’ve been sold. This radical version may be harder or more uncomfortable, but experts say it’s also essential to living right now. Some people may feel like they need to take more drastic measures to protect their mental health; there are also a few other meaningful and radical steps we can all take more immediately.

Here’s what practicing self-care can look like in 2020:

Identifying and acknowledging your feelings.

You can’t begin to take care of yourself until you accept where you’re at. That’s why Andre encourages her clients to write down all the different emotions they’re having — from fear and rage to sadness and desperation.

“Once you identify and acknowledge your feelings, you can start figuring out what to do with them,” she said. “Would you like to make peace with that feeling? Would you like to change it? What’s connected to this emotion in your environment?”

Asking these questions can help you determine what you need to move forward.

Limiting your social media and news consumption.

Part of self-care is acknowledging your personal limits. If you feel overwhelmed, anxious or sick to your stomach after reading the news, limit what, when and how much information you take in. Even if that means deleting an app.

Aisha R. Shabazz, a therapist based in New Jersey, said she’s needed to overhaul how she uses her devices now. “I don’t consume as much social media as I used to because of the insidious posts related to the brutality of BIPOC,” she said.

You may feel guilty if you’re not checking the news multiple times a day, but it doesn’t mean you don’t care or you’re not involved, Scott added. “It simply means you’re prioritizing your mental health.”

Recognizing when your emotions need extra attention.

Conditions like stress, anxiety and grief can all manifest in your body, Scott said.

That’s why it’s important to take note of how your body and brain are functioning. If you’re dealing with regular migraines, back pain, nausea or restless sleep, for example, you may be experiencing mental health issues, Scott said.

“If you lack motivation, have feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, experience obsessive worry or fear leaving your home, it could be beneficial to talk to someone,” she said.

You can join a virtual or local support group through Mental Health America, or look into affordable therapy options. Other great resources for finding mental health help and a community include Psychology Today, Therapy For Black Girls, Therapy For Black Men, Brown Girl Therapy and Open Path Psychotherapy Collective.

Advocating for real change.

Protesting safely, voting, calling senators and sharing information can all be forms of activism that help improve your mental health. Not only is it a way to feel a level of control in this extremely uncertain year, but it can also lead to positive change.

Hieu Le, who works at the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., said part of his self-care practice has been dedicating time to text and phone banking in battleground states.

“By speaking to voters 10 to 15 hours a week, I have been able to have conversations with thousands of people where we discuss our own personal issues,” he said. “Through this, I’ve been able to find collective solidarity and see that I’m not alone.”

Saying no.

That said, the key here is to look after yourself. Channeling energy into activism is critical, but know your limits. It doesn’t make you a bad person to take some time off.

“You cannot pour from an empty cup,” Scott said. “You have to be OK in order to help other people.”

Finding joy where you can.

Joy is not the same thing as happiness. “Happiness comes from people, places, things and events, but joy is an inside job,” Brown said. “Happiness says ‘because of,’ joy says ‘in spite of.’”

Gabriel is doing this following her move abroad. In addition to connecting with a group of fellow Black folks doing the same, she has also been journaling more often and spending more time outside, all of which have had a marked positive effect on her mental well-being.

Cultivating joy is about understanding who you are and what you need. It can be as simple as writing in a daily gratitude journal or spending time with loved ones. However, it can also be a long-term pursuit that involves therapy, community or activism.

“Joy is the resistance,” Brown said. “We may have a larger burden to carry to make sure everyone’s voices are heard right now, but we are so much more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.”


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