What to Do About Self-Care Fatigue
These days, most of us are inundated with information about the importance of self-care. Whether it’s a post on Facebook or an email from human resources, somebody is telling us that we need to find time for ourselves. But in a time of unprecedented stress and prolonged uncertainty, many are feeling worn down by all this sunny self-talk.
Still, self-care really is critical, and if you’re feeling overwrought, it may be time to seek out resources to up your motivation and renew your energy. We spoke with Lourival Baptista-Neto, MD, who oversees CopeColumbia alongside colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry. Baptista joined us for a conversation on what to do when you’re just plain tired of hearing about self-care.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CUIMC: These days we are seeing an abundance of information about self-care. For starters, what does “self-care” really even mean?
Baptista: Self-care means becoming more intentional. It’s about being proactive and engaging in certain behaviors that promote resilience, well-being, and the overall maintenance of health. We all do this automatically to some extent, but it's not necessarily as consistent and intentional as it needs to be, especially now as we progress through such a prolonged and difficult situation. Practicing self-care simply means consistently and intentionally engaging in behaviors to promote health, well-being, and resilience.
You once compared coping with the stress and anxiety of a pandemic to running a marathon, and self-care is a bit like hydrating along the way. But we've been running for more than 12 months straight. Are you hearing from patients or colleagues that they're getting sick of hearing about self-care?
Yes, I have. Many people have heard enough self-care talk. There is a degree of what we call self-care fatigue, and it really represents a general sense of exhaustion. People are feeling emotionally fatigued, tired of waiting and hoping for a change and a normalization of life. There is fatigue of self-care, of Zoom calls, of having kids in the house not going to school. We are all suffering from the fatigue of uncertainty, and there is a generalized experience of exhaustion and frustration.
I think people are now looking for a quick answer. They're asking for a way forward. There is some acceptance of the situation, but also some degree of helplessness and a desire for a magic solution to bring us to the light at the end of the tunnel. For a lot of people, the vaccine represents renewed hope. But people are also realizing that their lifestyles still won’t be completely changing for some time to come.
Why is self-care messaging becoming frustrating?
Self-care fatigue occurs when these messages about self-care keep coming, but our reality is not changing around us. When that happens, we can sometimes even have the opposite reaction to these messages. While we may be worn out on self-care messaging, we don’t want to undermine or minimize the importance of the message itself. This is our reality. The situation hasn't changed, and the value of self-care hasn't changed either.
We tend to dwell on what we cannot control. That is human nature. But we run the risk of missing the opportunity to focus our time and energy on the things that we can control, and that’s our behaviors and our choices. That is the major intent of self-care messaging. It is a grounding exercise meant to give people that two-minute pause and the ability to self-reflect and refocus their energy.
Common self-care tips stress the importance of being well rested, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in a recommended amount of exercise. What should we do if we no longer have the mental or physical energy to meet those daily goals?
Many people are doing a significantly better job now with practicing self-care than they did before the pandemic, even with self-care fatigue. I think the frustration comes from the fact that despite that effort, the reality hasn't changed. That breeds a sense of helplessness. People want concrete changes in their way of life, and self-care is not necessarily providing that. What self-care has given them is the day-to-day reserve energy and resilience to go through this prolonged challenging time.
For people who are running out of that reserve energy and perhaps losing the motivation to engage in beneficial behaviors, I think that's when they should try to reach out and take advantage of the resources available to them. It’s sometimes harder to find that energy or motivation alone, so having structure and support can help.
Think about wanting to start an exercise routine on your own versus having a trainer or going to a group class, both of which offer motivation, structure, and coaching. It is simply harder to be motivated and initiate on your own. In this case, that’s when mental health resources and the support of our peers can be helpful.
At CopeColumbia, a question we’ve been discussing frequently is “How do you keep hope?” Hope is such a crucial issue right now. We have to keep hope alive and deliver it in the belief that we'll have a better future. The moment that we lose that, it becomes more difficult to move forward as individuals and as a system.
I think we need to keep pointing to the last year. Despite the challenges, despite the pain and suffering, we are moving forward. We are resilient. And being resilient doesn't mean there is no pain, no suffering, no challenge. But we need to remember that we have made it through this so far and, with the right tools, we will continue to do so.