During the first lockdown last year, many of us were – despite all the fear the pandemic caused – able to enjoy the new experience: no more commuting – a source of stress for many; more sleep as our days started later; more quiet and cleaner air as traffic calmed; empty diaries as most work and all social engagements ground to a halt; more money for those in employment, as there were fewer opportunities to spend it and we found we needed less – apart, perhaps, from food and toilet paper.

But this year, you may be finding it different. After months of being cooped up at home, the novelty has long worn off. We miss our friends, family and work colleagues. We can no longer imagine that we used to go out for drinks or a coffee with colleagues after work or get ready to see a West End show. We thought the coronavirus pandemic was bad last year, but now we are battling an more contagious mutation, and so many people have died prematurely. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, it is winter. Last year, at least, we were blessed with sunshine and fine weather almost from the start of the lockdown. Now, it is cold, wet and dark. As things are, even the most patient and compliant of us find that their patience is wearing thin.

The pandemic is causing much stress, ranging from worry about oneself or a loved one catching COVID-19 or infecting others to the perhaps even more immediate worries about unemployment, debt or social isolation. Keeping stress is check is a major factor to achieving mental wellness.

Stress is a catalyst for ill health

When clients first come to see us, we take a thorough history. If we didn’t know already from the countless media reports on the damaging effects of stress, what we see in clinical practice confirms it: The more stressed our clients are, the more likely they are to succumb to chronic illness and the harder they find it to manage the condition.

Over the last few decades, our lives have been becoming ever faster and even more hectic. Demands on us – at home and at work – are high. If we want a rewarding career and a well-oiled family life, with a happy partner and healthy children, we must keep up with the increasing pace of daily life. But if we want to have any chance to keep going, we must – must! – do something just for ourselves regularly. That’s not selfish; it’s a necessity. Even if you didn’t look after yourself for your own sake (which, frankly, you should), you need to be healthy and happy to be able to support your children, partner, parents and friends, too.

The reality is that the incidence of stress-related illnesses – such as anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances and burnout – has skyrocketed in recent years and is still going up. But that’s not all: Stress can also trigger many physical illnesses, such as heart and circulatory problems, stomach and digestive problems, and even affect the immune system – which, right now, we want to work at peak performance level.

Whereas in the past, the need to look after oneself was ignored or ridiculed, there are now, fortunately, many studies which prove that taking care of oneself is simply essential for physical and mental health. The term for this is self-care, and it has become a buzzword in the last couple of years. Self-care is everything we do to promote and maintain our mental, physical and emotional health. This includes nourishing the body, movement, making sure to get restful sleep and maintaining meaningful relationships.

Self-care in practice

Stressed employees are less productive and at risk of burnout. Human resources departments have long recognised this. Many companies now offer support, created quiet seating areas, organise lunchtime mindfulness, yoga or meditation sessions, and encourage employees to take more breaks to get out into fresh air and sunshine.

Yet, there is only so much our employers can do for us. There is a lot more that we can – and must – do for ourselves. Self-care is the realisation that only you can make yourself happy and that, if you make sure that you dedicate some time every day purely for your own enjoyment, you will have more fun, you will be more fun to be around, and you will have far greater reserves to deal with the stresses of everyday life.

So, what – beyond basic needs – qualifies as self-care? The answer is simple: whatever makes you happy! By that we mean, truly happy. A glass (or bottle) of wine, a doughnut, or a shopping spree may make you temporarily happy. Yet it’s only a fleeting moment, often followed by regret soon after. No, what we have in mind are things like:

– Curling up with a book
– Walking in nature
– Soaking in a bath
– Listening to music
– Singing
– Having coffee with a friend (socially distanced of course!)
– Cooking or baking
– Unwinding in a sauna or steam room
– Dancing
– Knitting or crochet or origami or woodwork …

Only you know what makes you happy. What do you do for no other reason than that? (And, no, we do not mean work or housework – even if you enjoy those.) The activity you choose does not need to have any purpose. At all. It’s just for fun, and it is just for you. You don’t even have to be good at your chosen activity, as long as you enjoy it.

No time for self-care?

Do you think you have no time for self-care? Not even 20 minutes a day? Then, for your mental health, you need to find it. Just for a few days, take conscious note of how you spend your time, perhaps even track it.

Is there time mindlessly spent on social media, shopping channels, playing computer games or watching TV or Netflix? We’re not saying that any of those are necessarily bad – there are some great shows on Netflix to take your mind off the daily grind –, but how good to you feel after such activities?

Do you feel that it was time well spent? Did you enjoy catching up with your friends on social media, or did it instil jealousy or the feeling that your life doesn’t compare well with theirs? Does a computer game really calm you down or agitate you? Are you going to miss the money you spent online on things you didn’t need? Did watching the news make you feel informed and hopeful … or anxious and depressed?

When you carve some extra time for yourself out of your day, suddenly more time appears as if by magic, which can only mean that focussing on your own happiness (as well as your job, family and friends), you’ll have a much more positive, can-do attitude that gets things done more efficiently.

Have a go and treat yourself to some self-care. It doesn’t have to be long. Just 20 minutes a day is a good start. It doesn’t have to be expensive either; there is a lot you can do that doesn’t cost you anything. There’s nothing to lose, only to gain.

Of course, right now as we are in lockdown, our options are limited: health clubs and spas are closed, likewise cinemas, libraries, coffee shops. We cannot see friends, colleagues or even family right now – unless we live with them and sometimes secretly wish we could see a little less of them. However, there is still a lot that we can do to pamper our body and mind – especially the mind. In this week’s newsletter, we will share with you our top tips for self-care in lockdown. It’s not too late to sign up!