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Self-care’ Is Not Being ‘selfish’: How Women Can Put ‘me-first’ And Live Healthier

26/05/2022

Many women have started realising the importance of prioritising their health over their duties and commitments, but they still struggle to actually do it.

Over the past few decades, Indian women have increasingly taken a larger role in workplaces and moved beyond the household. However, while more women now have flourishing careers and financial independence, many continue to have traditional roles at home. “Women are still expected to take care of others first, even if they have to juggle between their careers, parenting and taking care of elders,” points out Dr Aafrin Shabbir, Consultant- Internal Medicine at Gleneagles Global Health City, Chennai.

This has a substantial impact on women’s health. Having to put everyone’s health and well-being ahead of their own, women are left with little time and energy to invest their own. No wonder the burden of non-communicable disease is increasing alarmingly among Indian women.

“Self-care is important. We must put ourselves first, for our own good. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others,” Dr Aafrin says. Dr Siddhika Ayyer, Consultant Psychiatrist at the same hospital, emphatically adds, “Self-care is not selfish.” She points out that many women tend to feel guilty about taking care of themselves, sometimes even when it is absolutely necessary for their well-being. “I ask women to train themselves to think – ‘I love myself,’” Dr Siddhika says.

So how exactly can women do “self-care”? Here are a few tips from Dr Aafrin and Dr Siddhika.

Compulsory ‘me-time’ to de-stress

“Your mind needs to relax, and for that, you need to spend time with just yourself to do something you like or nothing at all. Develop a hobby and do it regularly, or sit with a coffee and stare outside the window for a few minutes,” says Dr Aafrin.

“Everything starts with the mind,” explains Dr Siddhika, adding that taking time out for ourselves to relax, think about the day, plan it out and focus on what we need to do towards better health could be a first step towards self-care.

The lack of self-care and down time leads to stress, which plays an important role in exacerbating many illnesses women deal with such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac illnesses, infertility, thyroid imbalance, and skin diseases. “Often medication doesn’t work as well if you are too stressed,” Dr Aafrin says. De-stressing also helps us sleep better, which also helps improve overall health.

Dr Siddhika also talks about the increasing cases of clinical anxiety among women. “It doesn’t just present as feeling irritated or tense, but as headaches, acidity, and feeling tired all the time. Finding ways to de-stress is a crucial part of dealing with anxiety,” she says.

‘Me-time’ is all the more important for postpartum women (first few weeks post pregnancy). “To enable new mothers to take down time, other family members should step in and take care of the child. It should not just fall on the mother to deal with the baby always,” Dr Siddhika says.

Dr Aafrin says that if mothers are too busy, they can take some time out for themselves by participating with children in their recreational activities. “If children are doing drawing or painting, or horse-riding or yoga or karate, you can also join them – it need not be just for children. It can be fun for you and you get to spend some time with your child – and if it is physical activity then you can also sneak in some exercise this way!”

Working 24/7 isn’t exercise

Mothers who are busying running a home and working a full-time job often talk about how their entire day is exercise – running around the home doing chores or keeping busy at the office. “No, that’s not what we mean by exercise; what is exercise? Your heart rate has to increase, and you should lose calories. Doing housework may not be enough for that. Your day may be tiring and stressful, but you may still not have got enough exercise. When we prescribe exercise, we specifically say that it has to be 45 minutes of physical activity at a stretch. Both the doctors say that it is important to make exercise a part of our daily routine, and if not, do it whenever you can. Try and do something fun, so you can sustain it.”

Exercise can help with infertility, weight loss, varicose veins, and cardiac ailments. Physical activity may also help alleviate mental health issues, like depression. “When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins (happy hormones) – and that gives a mental boost such as my uplifting mood. Exercise can also help women reduce the chances of dementia in old age. However, a word of caution for women who are dealing with body image issues and exercise too much. We see a lot of young women overdoing it, which affects their health in the long term, such as arrhythmic heartbeat and some other cardiac issues, and that must be avoided.”

Focus on your dietary needs

Everyone knows that a balanced diet is key to good health, and yet, most women with family responsibilities don’t plan their family’s diet with themselves in mind. “What gets made at home is often dictated by what the husband, elders, or kids want; even though the woman is the one cooking for everyone. A portion of the family diet should be what is good for us.”

The first step to avoiding or treating the most common illnesses is a good diet. Polycystic Ovarian Syndome (PCOS), which is being increasingly reported among young women, is caused by a bad diet. Anaemia, even during pregnancy, is considerably high among women in south Asia, and while excessive blood loss during periods is a major reason for that, unhealthy diet could be a contributing factor too. About 11% of Indian women are estimated to have thyroid issues.

Along with a healthy diet, a healthy relationship with food is also important. Women often starve themselves to stay thin, or depend on food to lift their mood. We are seeing a lot more cases of eating disorder owing to the unrealistic beauty standards society expects them to subscribe to, which women feel compelled to live up to.

Social circles which enable self-care

Even if women want to look after themselves better, they often say, “I don’t know how to”. They either don’t have the time or the environment to do it. The doctor explains that the idea is to think of ways to change behaviours in a systematic manner, so self-care becomes a natural part of women’s lives, and not something they have to put extra effort into.

Being part of a social group with shared goals motivates us to look after ourselves better. It could even be an online network. Try to find people who will go on this journey along with you.

Men need to step in and create such an environment for women. Husbands, sons, and men in the family should encourage the women to take care of themselves, and step in to support when needed. Men need to reduce their dependence on women too. And when you speak to women about self-care, don’t force them, create an environment for them so they will do it themselves.”

Dr Aafrin Shabbir
MBBS, M.D (General Medicine)
PG Dip in Clinical Endocrinology & Diabetes (UK)
Consultant
Dr Siddhika Ayyer
MBBS, DPM, DNB (Psychiatry)
Visiting Consultant
Department of Psychiatry

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