Ray Ajemian: The toxic side of self-care culture

Sunday, May 10, 2020 - 5:05pm

With the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic weighing heavy, self-care has entered the forefront of public consciousness. Self-care, broadly, is any action one takes to improve their mental and physical health. Contemporary self-care culture, however, skirts around the root of the problem, opting instead for temporary gratification that may be harmful long term. Social isolation has made this more apparent than ever, exposing the thinking that makes these flaws possible as well as invisible.

Looking at self-care tips online, you'll probably see a few common ones almost everywhere: eat well, exercise, sleep, go outside and, of course, drink water. These are the most important things you can do for yourself; it's impossible to practice true self-care without these habits. Unfortunately, this has fostered the notion that the deficit of these activities is what causes mental health problems, when in reality depression or anxiety are what make these behaviors difficult. 

Depression, for instance, commonly affects appetite and sleep, prompting too little or too much, and can cause constant fatigue. These symptoms make eating well, sleeping well and exercising impossible for many, and the feelings of hopelessness that are characteristic of the disorder make it all the harder to motivate oneself to do anything without immediate gratification, no matter how vital. Anxiety, another mental health disorder that many struggle with, often causes insomnia, digestive problems, lethargy and a plethora of exhausting physical symptoms like a rapid heart rate. These symptoms make it harder to sleep, eat and work. Despite this truth, many people see well-being as a choice — including some mental health professionals, such as A.B. Curtiss, a cognitive behavioral therapist and author of the pointedly-titled “Depression is a Choice: Winning the Battle without Drugs.”

The latter half of that title raises another major issue with popular self-care culture: an aversion to medical mental health care. Medication isn't necessary for every mental health patient, nor is medication alone effective for the vast majority, if any, of those affected by their mental health. The overprescription of psychiatric drugs is an increasingly prevalent issue. However, stigma against the use of psychiatric drugs is just as common (and, as Curtiss demonstrates, not limited to non-professionals) and disregards those who actually need medication. Mental health disorders are complex biopsychosocial phenomena. Once again, using depression as an example, their origins may be purely circumstantial, such as a traumatic experience, for which therapy is most appropriate, just as they can be purely biological, for which medication may be the most effective treatment. The same is true of anxiety disorders.

That said, the overprescription of drugs reflects what really makes popular self-care so ineffective. Drug companies happen to make a lot of money when doctors prescribe more medications, and the willingness to accept a quick fix facilitates this exploitation of mentally-ill people. This drive for an easy solution, even at a price, can be seen everywhere in self-care articles that suggest readers go out to eat, see a movie or buy their favorite coffee. None of these things address the biological or psychosocial causes of a disorder, but they're far more appealing than seeing a doctor or a therapist — and how can you blame the people with depression or anxiety that makes it more difficult to work through deep-seated trauma? Companies have realized that they can sell self-care (or at least that they can pretend to). There's no shortage of overpriced beauty products marketed as self-care products, a focus on which can, ironically, exacerbate self-image issues and thereby worsen one’s mental well-being, particularly if they have anxiety or depression. There are even pre-packaged self-care kits you can order to be shipped to your home, as if self-care has a universal answer with a price tag.

Popular self-care is also concerned with profit in the form of productivity. One particularly brazen article proudly advertises itself "5 Productive Activities You Can Disguise As ‘Me Time’" — not self-care that you can disguise as productivity, mind you. It asserts that "being productive is more important (than self-care), and the two are mutually exclusive," yet suggests blending the two, despite this supposed exclusivity. There is a clear implication that self-care isn’t worthwhile unless it produces something tangible, and this isn't an isolated incident. The "productivity is self-care" mentality is everywhere you look. It's rather appropriate that these articles are often published by sites like Forbes, as the obsession with productivity, even in our free time, makes us wonderful employees. Self-care becomes a fortunate boost, rather than important in its own right.

It's no wonder that there has been increasing pushback against this work-centric "self-care." However, this too can be dangerous, as self-care that is too laissez-faire ceases to be self-care. Advice that includes "eat whatever the hell you want" and "accept your new sleep schedule," while useful in that it takes the pressure off the individual to “act alright” when they may not feel alright, is usually the exact opposite of what someone struggling with depression or anxiety needs to do: eat healthy food and sleep on a consistent, sufficient schedule. Even for those without depression or anxiety, healthy eating and sleeping habits are vital to maintaining good health. The important part is that you're doing something for yourself, not solely for the purpose of productivity.

We all need a little self-care right now, but don't waste your spare change on face creams and your free time on working. Stay happy by doing what you want to do and what you need to do, not just one or the other.

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu