How Society Lies to Us About Self-Care & Why it Matters

In the 1960’s it was believed that segments of DNA that don’t code for protein was useless and just wasted space. Later, breakthroughs in comparative genomics discovered that this so-called “junk DNA” was passed down over evolutionary time more so than DNA that coded for proteins, 80% vs 20%, respectively (source). That’s huge! This means that we inherited more DNA that appears to do nothing than ones that actually do something. I mean, what’s with these junk DNA that live off the backs of honest, hardworking DNA and depend on the gubberment? (I’m being satirical here, bear with me). Like, why would evolutionary pressures positively select for noncoding DNA? “Common sense” might lead us to think that this means our DNA is getting weaker over time. Rest assured, that’s not true. As it turned out, noncoding DNA might not directly do anything but it has a number of critical biological roles, from maintaining structural integrity of chromosomes to cell recognition to various genetic functions. In fact, it’s been discovered that damage to noncoding DNA has been connected to a number of health issues to include cancer and infectious disease (source 1, 2, 3). So the tables have turned. What was once insignificant is, in fact, mighty as hell. The meek, as it turns out, might very well inherit the Earth.

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The above example (the DNA, not the bird) is an analogy to ways that modern society treats and perceives self-care. Like junk DNA, self-care has a history of being considered accessory. Fluff. Unskilled. Some even view self-care as self-centered. At best, in some circles (namely mental health professions), self-care is seen as am often neglected chore. Like cleaning my office desk. It should be done, but … a behaviorist might say that it doesn’t happen because it isn’t being positively reinforced. Our society, our culture, does very little to acknowledge and motivate people to attend to this critical work. At best, it shames people for not being well enough (or for being “weak”), but research has long established that shame only throws gasoline on the fire (source). And therein is the tragedy. People doing some of the most important work are burning out at alarming rates (e.g. physicians, nurses, social workers, teachers). In some cases, substance abuse and suicide among these professions can be as problematic as it is among the people whom they serve and with whom they come into contact.

So self-care is a problem. So what.

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And yes you do get bonus points. Some of those points include trivial things like, oh you know, life-and-death … and so much more. Here are some points to consider:

According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. And more than 75 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints (source).”

As the need for a solution to chronic stress rises, wellness services and self-care resources become exorbitantly commercialized (source). This leads to economic and cultural barriers that exclude many people, especially those from historically oppressed communities (reference). Yet, people from oppressed communities would benefit the most from these services since they experience significantly higher rates of acute and chronic stress due to trauma, discrimination, and life-threatening living conditions (source). What was once rooted in the community with ready access is now behind a gated community. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, spas, and massage are just a few examples. These self-care practices had grassroots beginnings, now they are out of reach due to market competition. Privatized entities limit access by creating certification processes for instructors, leaving out well-practiced community elders who may not have the language and social capital to access what was once tradition but now has turned into industry. These were survival and resiliency practices of the community to mitigate acute and chronic stresses that lead to the health issues named above. It isn’t the whole picture, but I can imagine how these barriers contribute to rising morbidity rates among communities where these ancient practices originated.

Your well-being directly affects the people in your community. No one is an island, society is an ecosystem. We rely on each other for well-being.  In the work setting, people rely on you to show up and be effective. If you’re in the care industry, having jeopardized health and wellness can make you liable of inadvertently harming the very people whom you serve. Being unwell has a ripple effect on our friends, family, and even strangers around us (being well also has a ripple effect, just a more pleasant one hopefully). This isn’t to drive home any guilt or shame. The point is that culture and social infrastructure need to start reflecting the interconnectedness of well-being. Self-care is not a game of Solitary, it should be more like a game of Line Them Up, Looks Count, or What’s Your Role. That’s what being human is like, or so I’d like to believe. There is a natural inclination to contribute to each other’s wellness. It’s the fear of scarcity and not mattering that motivates self-centered behavior at other people’s expense.

Most people don’t know how to provide self-care, they merely cope. This includes professionals and nonprofessionals alike (source). This may in part be due to barriers to self-care resources, but there are also barriers to developing a routine of self-care. Time is a resource, and it’s not a resource afforded to many people. Some people are able to carve out time in their schedule to go for a jog or tour the community art exhibit. More power to them, but there is a large percentage of the community that are fighting to make ends meet with multiple jobs on top of family obligations. For people who literally work from dusk til dawn, and crash for a few hours of shut eye before returning to the grind, the ideals of self-care are simply out of reach. 

In the military, soldiers are expected to maintain a standard level of fitness. Physical training is as aspect of the job which you get paid to do. It’s not just a case where your superiors tell you to hit the gym after work or you’ll pay for it later. I argue that emotional and physical fitness are required for all jobs. Building and maintaining that fitness ought to be a component of one’s work. I also believe it ought to be available to people who are not employed since them not being well is not only unjust, but it comes at a cost for the community at large as well. What would it be like if offices dedicated time in the work day to group mindfulness and stretching? What would it be like if there were health coverage for people that invested more money into interventions that prevent illness, rather than investing money only after people get sick? For instance, imagine health coverage that allows someone to receive a massage session weekly or every other week? Or an office granting more vacation time and shorter work weeks? There is a growing body of research indicating that shorter work weeks not only result in fewer sick leaves but also in more productivity. It’s a win-win scenario. It’s not diminishing work ethics, it’s called working smarter not harder.

At this point most people will be having racing thoughts of — well how is that supposed to work? Where would the money come from? Doesn’t that just encourage laziness? … and on, and on the questions roll. What I have to say is this. Before we are open to the idea and the data that it’s a good thing, coming up with strategies to implement it are not very useful. People and society tend to only rally resources toward a cause when they believe in it. Human beings are clever and slick, if we wanted something bad enough, we usually find a way to make it happen. There are already examples of successful businesses that practice these principles within the US. It’s not about flipping the economy upside down and giving in to the C word…. ready for it? tun dun DUN! *communism* I whisper it because you never know who’s listening. And just because I’m paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t watching me.

Listen, I’m not so idealistic to say that once we wrap our minds around it that things will be perfect. Policy administration almost always has its snags, regardless of its political alignment. But at least we are taking steps into the right direction. Do traffic lights always deter collisions and promote flow of traffic? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we scrap the idea altogether. We can make positive changes. This way,  when we return home, we can feel good about our day. Instead of stressing over how the week (month/year) is stacking against us, we can spend time doing more constructive things.

Oh you mean like impressing our pets with our happy dance?

weird-girl-dancing-with-cat

Sure why not! In addition, how about we consider purposing our newfound bandwidth to join liberation movements against oppression and social injustice? Before you gas out from the thought, hear me out. I’m not even talking about changing the whole dam planet (though if that’s your thing, more power to you!). It could be on any scale … your country, your state, your city, your neighborhood, your block, or even your own home. Both consciousness raising, and more importantly, the follow through with direct action. When we are isolated and exhausted things can feel so hopeless. Our drained spirits get sapped from its will to resist, to transform, to create. But that will is still there. It’s part of what makes us humans beautiful. We yearn to make a difference. To leave our mark, however big or small. And together, we can accomplish so much. We can make empires crumble, we can build a more innovative and kinder world. Those are the things the establishment keeps us away from by keeping us fighting tooth and nail to acquire basic necessities like food and shelter, never mind social justice. As the saying goes, if the Devil can’t make you bad he will make you busy. It doesn’t have to be this way. It can be different. So different. As unimaginable and different as weekends, holidays, and sick leaves used to be. There was a time when people thought kings and queens would rule the Earth forever and that’s just the way things are. There are already pockets of resistance in our own backyard and around the world. Many places already are implementing ways of life that are beyond popular comprehension. Are we listening to the people? Do you … hear the people sing? =)

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