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Why we need to normalise self-care for men
We're often encouraged to prioritise productivity over our health and well-being. When we're busy, practising self-care is often treated as an afterthought or occasional treat, rather than a crucial part of our lives and an important way to stay well. And due to gendered norms, it is often seen as something exclusively for women rather for everyone - including men.
What is self-care?
Often, self-care is portrayed as taking the occasional spa day, but this is a misconception. Instagram and Pinterest are awash images of people in face masks and fluffy robes as part of this trending self-care aesthetic. However, this carefully curated version of self-care can detract from its key elements.
Self-care can mean saying 'no' to additional work projects when your workload is too much to handle, or speaking to friends or family when you're struggling with your mental health. It can also mean eating more fruit and vegetables, going on frequent walks and consulting your doctor when you need to. It can also mean taking time to focus on yourself and the things you enjoy, or establishing a sleep routine.
All these are important, but there's still more.
Gendered views of self-care
Although there has been a greater focus on the importance of looking after yourself, research suggests there are still gendered differences in who engages in self-care. "There is a societal pressure for men to 'stay strong' and that is linked to the impression of having everything under control," says Counselling Directory member and psychotherapist Philip Karahassan.
"As a result, men are seen to be weak if they show any vulnerability or feel the need to look after their mental health. Men are expected to keep calm and carry on and take it on the chin, which is unrealistic and unhealthy."
In a society in which people are expected to work long hours, there is an underlying belief that we must always be productive. However, this isn't possible when we're being pulled in many different directions and juggling work with personal responsibilities such as childcare. But by taking some time out to engage in forms of self-care, it's possible to relieve some of the pressures of everyday life.
This can boost good mental health and help in managing stress, while relieving symptoms of anxiety and low mood. "There has been a stigma among men getting help for their mental health and so more needs to be done to normalise and destigmatise men's mental health needs," says Karahassan.
"I think more needs to be done around the physiology of how mental health leads not only to behavioural change, but also physical change in the brain," he adds. "Men - just as much as everyone else - need to understand that getting help for one's mental health can change us physically as well as mentally and emotionally."
Crucially, self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence or being selfish. It means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, function well and do the things you want and need to do, while caring for other people too. This is particularly important at the moment, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our health and well-being.
Why is self-care for men important?
Normalising self-care among men has never been more important. Three times as many men as woman die by suicide, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Men are also less likely to access psychological therapies than women, with only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies for men.
Although self-care might not resolve mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, it can help create a greater awareness and understanding of negative thoughts and feelings. Looking after yourself also helps to build resilience and develop healthy habits and coping mechanisms too.
"Without self-care, emotional state will decrease and men can find themselves feeling as if they have no way out of their plight, and even in extreme cases suicidal," says Karahassan. "By normalising men's self-care, we will literally be saving lives and changing the society, to normalise mental health and vulnerability among men."
How to engage in self-care
Self-care is different for everyone, depending on their needs. However, there are some general steps you can take to improve the way you feel.
Talk to trusted friends and family
Talking to people you trust can make a big difference to how you feel, allowing you to think through any problems or how you feel. Sometimes, you just need to let out how you're feeling with no real plan for a solution. At other times, speaking to friends or family can help you gain a different perspective on an issue.
"Talking to someone, whether professionally or otherwise, is a big step forwards that allows you to gain emotional space from your issues," says Karahassan.
Be kind to yourself
It's tempting to push yourself to do more, whether it's taking on too much work or agreeing to see lots of people, when you really want to relax at home. There may be pressure to be productive and available all the time, but it's important to take stock of how you feel and what you need to stay well.
"Be kind to yourself; know that you have done nothing wrong by feeling the way you do. You are no less of what you consider to be a man," adds Karahassan.
Visit your doctor when you need to
Self-care isn't just about the activities that people do on their own to promote their well-being. In 2019, researchers published a self-care framework in The British Medical Journal, emphasising that it includes the way we interact with healthcare systems too.
This means self-care includes things like getting a vaccine, scheduling regular health screenings if necessary, or taking prescription medications on schedule. It also includes seeking professional help for mental health problems, either by speaking to your doctor or by going to counselling.
Make small lifestyle changes
Small day-to-day changes can have a big impact on our well-being. This might mean eating at regular mealtimes, or working on your 'sleep hygiene' so you feel more rested. It's not always easy to stick to these care routines, but they get easier over time as they turn into everyday habits.