Let's Talk About Affordable Self-Care

It would be super great if my anxiety could dissolve like a bath bomb in warm water.

I’ve heard it said that the chemicals in my brain can dance with lavender, that an arsenal of scented candles and Bath & Body Works lotion will allow me to finally unwind.

These days the Internet is crowded with self-care tips ranging from herbal tea to coloring books, with no shortage of recipes and instructions on how to renew, relax, and rejuvenate. I believe, more often than not, this advice only perpetuates a hierarchy of who deserves self-care, and who doesn’t.

Now, I do believe in the good intentions of self-care culture. The acknowledgment that mental health is important and worth nourishing is a step in the right direction. With rates of anxiety and depression rising in the workplace, in school, and at home, there has never been a more necessary time to prioritize mental health.

But what’s the cost of self-care?

For the person struggling to pay rent each month, a trip to the spa might not be an option. For the person living with depression whose groceries depend on their two jobs, defining self-care as taking a personal day off to treat yourself isn’t going to help. For the person struggling with anxiety as they stand in the checkout line calculating which items to put back if their credit card doesn’t go through, asking them to add an adult coloring book to their cart does nothing to alleviate mental stress.

That last one is me. And I’m happy for you if you can afford to take a weekend vacation when you get overwhelmed. I’m genuinely happy for you if coloring books, herbal tea and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s make up your self-care and fit within your budget. I also recognize that, while I can’t afford to treat myself to a bag of peanut butter M&Ms every time I have an anxiety attack (and believe me, I wish I could), I am privileged enough to have professors and employers who offer me unpenalized time off every now and then. Many don’t even have that.

Your personal self-care routine, no matter how expensive, is not the problem. What needs to change is the substantial association between taking care of yourself and spending money. If you’re in a similar situation to me, you’re probably used to feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of a society that keeps offering remedies you can’t afford. When self-care becomes synonymous with having cash, it can be easy to give up on the concept of self-care all together.

And what about when self-care culture demands from us time we don’t have? I can’t tell you how many times “exercise” has been offered to me as mental health medicine. That should come as no surprise, as the endorphins that come with exercise have been associated with all sorts of psychological benefits. But when we treat self-care as a one-size-fits all concept, we end up ignoring the variety of contexts and situations that dictate how people can (and want to) practice self-care.

For example, my school and work schedules don’t allow enough time for meaningful exercise. If I tried to make an exception, falling behind on homework would increase the anxiety that exercise was supposed to reduce. For others, carving out extensive self-care time might be impossible when they have jobs that frequently demand overtime, or they can’t afford enough childcare to construct a quiet, peaceful atmosphere where they can be alone.

When we frame self-care as generous and indulgent, the message we send is that relaxation is for those who can financially afford it. The sentiment of learning to respect your self-worth and cultivate happiness is absolutely noble and positive, but when placed within the confines of spending, we leave out anyone who doesn’t have an extra dollar for manicures, chocolate cake or bath bombs. We need to reimagine self-care as a wider spectrum of living instead of limiting it to an economic concept.

What if self-care culture transcended specific behaviors and purchases? What if instead it was a lifestyle, an attitude, a system of beliefs that guided our everyday decision making? What if society treated self-care as a malleable concept that looked differently for each person?

What if we weren’t taught to shy away from self-care because we can’t afford to take care of ourselves how society thinks we should?

Demanding people to treat you with respect is self-care. Listening to your favorite song on your commute to work is self-care. Even posting a selfie on Facebook can be self-care. It isn’t always relaxing and lavender-scented. Self-care might take courage. It might take trust. It might be congratulating yourself for making an anxious phone call, or protesting for the rights you know you deserve, or crying into your pillow at the end of a long day.

Sitting next to a friend and eating pizza might not be as glamorous as shopping sprees and tiramisu, but it is no less self-care. Having an empty or near-empty bank account doesn’t mean your mental health is any less important. Take care of yourself, whatever that looks like.

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