self-care south asians
[Photo Credit: Eduardo Flores]

The warning signs were all there: Every day I would feel restless, anxious, fatigued and jaded. Despite all the red flags, I was actively ignoring the fact that I was burnt out and starting to break down.

To make matters worse, I was also working in the field of mental health as a therapist. So being burnt out didn’t only have a negative impact on me, but it also affected those I was treating. It was unfair to those who looked to me for guidance because I knew I needed to lead by example. So, I felt, if I was neglecting my own mental health, how could I be useful in helping others find their clarity?

Five years ago, my program director called me into his office with a look of genuine concern. We spoke for a while, and as soon as we were getting ready to wrap up our conversation, he asked:

“What are you doing for self-care?”

“Nothing, I just don’t have the luxury of downtime” I replied.

My program director encouraged me to spend the weekend dedicated to helping myself refresh and recharge. I felt like a hypocrite. On the one hand, I advocated self-care for my clients, but on the other hand, I wasn’t practicing it in my own life.

I was so hesitant to give myself a break because I was afraid of falling behind.

Work Hard, Play… Never?

When I was growing up, I saw my dad work long hours, eat on the go, neglect rest, and rarely take a vacation. I admired his work ethic because it was critical to his success. But even at a young age, I came to associate hard work with never taking a break.

Many of my close friends who grew up in South Asian households share this “no-days-off” mentality. As friends tend to do, we’ve often looked for ways to turn this into a game, finding ways to compete in who can work harder. The commonly accepted belief is that if you need rest, your hustle is invalid— and you don’t have the mindset necessary for success. Needless to say, that mentality is not only ridiculous but also harmful to our well-being.

So, what exactly is self-care? Though one too many lifestyle brands have hijacked the phrase for marketing us their “must-have” products, it does still have some meaning to it. Self-care is deliberately doing something to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. It takes on many forms, and it can look different for each one of us. And importantly, it’s crucial to remember that not everything that feels good is self-care. It can be tempting to conflate carefree or even reckless behaviors that ultimately make us feel worse with those that are rejuvenating and healing.

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That was me five years ago. Today, I’m willing to admit that I have limits and that taking time off doesn’t discredit my determination. I actively incorporate self-care into my life and genuinely feel like a better version of myself because of it. It’s increased my productivity, boosted my self-esteem, reduced anxiety, and reignited some lost passions.

It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t a magical transformation. Just like anything worth achieving, getting well took some work. But it was worth it. Here are five simple things I’ve done to care for myself. If you’re not sure where to start with your self-care routine, consider these—even if it’s just one.

5 Ways I Incorporated Self-Care into My Life

1. Exercise

Studies have shown that South Asians who live in Western societies have an increased risk of diabetes and an increased risk of heart disease compared to the general population. Exercise also improves overall mood by stimulating the brain to help you feel happier and more relaxed. I always viewed exercise as a chore, but exercise doesn’t need to be something that’s daunting or punishing. Even an easy walk for 20 minutes can help get the blood flowing, strengthen physical fitness, and boost your mood. Dancing, yoga, walking your dog—whatever gets you moving counts.

2. Journaling

Journaling isn’t always a go-to method for self-care, but writing down your thoughts allows you to process the emotions hiding beneath the surface. Many of us South Asians grow up in communities that value secrecy and silence, where emotional transparency frowned upon, even looked at as a sign of weakness. If you don’t have someone immediate you can talk to, journaling can be therapeutic. And it can take on many forms from a gratitude log or venting your daily frustrations to simply writing down positive affirmations so that they can be visualized.

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3. Socializing

Meaningful social connections are essential to self-care because spending time with loved ones reduces stress. Research suggests that social isolation is linked to increased morbidity and mortality, increased levels of stress, reduced physical health indicators and decreased mental health outcomes. And socializing can be almost anything—a chat with co-workers, an overdue call with an old friend, plans with your inner circle, drinks with acquaintances, dinner with your family, etc. Socialization experiences are easy to weave into any self-care routine, and they have the benefit of positive emotional support when life stressors start to build up.

4. Unplugging

In this era of overwhelming digital technology that’s always fighting for our attention, we can all benefit from going off the grid sometimes. The first thing many of us do in the morning is to check our phones, right? But the digital distractions start right there. It’s easy to get caught up in devices, mindlessly checking apps and social media feeds. Unplugging for a day—or a few hours—not only gives our brains a break, it lets us be truly mindful and increase awareness of our body, thoughts, and feelings.

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5. Sleeping (Enough)

Sleep is easy to neglect for almost anyone. I personally would find many reasons to go to bed late to make up for lost hours in the day. But research shows that although many people report getting a full night’s rest, they don’t feel well-rested, often inhibiting them from performing at an optimal level. Sleep reduces free radicals in the brain, giving us renewed vitality, a more positive outlook on life, and energy to obtain our full potential. It’s fine to “catch up on sleep” once in a while, but making an effort to get a full night’s rest every night can make all the difference for your mental and physical health.

Takeaway

Moral of the story: We should never feel guilty for setting aside time to focus on ourselves. As South Asians, a strong work ethic is everything for us, and self-care is routinely treated as self-indulgence and a weakness. But the truth is: We’re human, too, and we have limits and needs. And when in doubt, ask yourself, “How useful am I to anyone if I’m exhausted, sick, mentally drained, or lacking in motivation?” When you put the same level of focus on caring for yourself as for your job or family, you can extend more of yourself to others, too.

Today, I’m done with competing for “who can work the longest and hardest without a break.” My friends have also all taken an initiative to be more proactive about their well-being. The games are out and self-care is in. As a result, I feel more whole, grounded, focused, and ready for more.

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