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“Snowflakes” and Selfies: Misconceptions of Millennial Self-Care

Millennials are having a moment. Between “killing” entire industries (chain restaurants, breakfast cereal, napkins – nothing is safe from our revenue-destroying grasp), documenting the aforementioned murders via Snapchat, and finding new ways to combine healthcare and the arts, we’re rather busy. As is the case with any generation, though, we make sure to leave plenty of time in our full schedules to worry. We love worrying. So, like any twenty-something with a smartphone always in hand, I took to Twitter to ask my peers about the health concerns that keep them up at night.

Nearly every answer I received was related to emotional exhaustion – whether due to work, relationships, health issues, the current political climate, or the stress of the new Game of Thrones season. Questions like, “What are the best ways to get out of an emotional funk without medications or alcohol?” and “If my heart’s sad but my body feels like it’s dying, do I spend emotional energy fixing my body or physical energy becoming happy again?” poured in.

The flurry of replies related to mental health wasn’t entirely surprising. Think pieces pop up often about how millennials are the most depressed and anxious generation, with the cause attributed to narcissism, helicopter parents, the increased pressure to perform academically, professionally, and online, or all of the above. However, while millennials do have statistically higher reported rates of diagnosed mental disorders, for Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical coordinator at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, “reported” is the keyword.

“Some studies out there indicate millennials as a group may actually have higher emotional intelligence, which basically means they can be more in touch with their feelings and are more prepared to talk about them,” Gallagher said. “Among older generations, mental health tends to be considered a private matter – it can be pretty stigmatized. The willingness among millennials to acknowledge mental health and seek support likely plays a part in the interpretation of these higher reported rates.”

Whether or not millennials are more disposed to developing mental health issues requires further study, but their openness to discussing them correlates with a surge in talk about “self-care,” or the conscious decision to carve out time to focus on personal needs, interests, and overall well-being. The analogy commonly used to explain self-care compares it to using oxygen masks on an airplane. Even if you tune out every pre-flight safety presentation, you likely remember that you’re told to “secure your own mask first before helping others” – the point being that you’ll be unable to successfully help others if you don’t first ensure that you remain conscious. The same can be said of self-care.

“When we talk about self-care, we’re very simply talking about taking care of yourself – setting aside time so you can refocus and reenergize,” Gallagher said. “In our culture, that can be more difficult than you think since we’re connected to work, family and relationships, and other things that fill our days with busyness – especially with technology tethering us. But self-care is necessary for our sense of balance.”

It sounds obvious enough. We know that we’re supposed to get sufficient sleep, eat nutritious meals, maintain good hygiene, and keep our bodies and minds active for our health and happiness. However, the increasing buzz around self-care is inexplicably contested. Every list of techniques is countered by articles with headlines that playfully jab at the navel-gazing of “generation treat yo’self” or paint self-care as the rise in “the ultimate in narcissism” and the downfall of man. They frequently take the position that self-care in moderation is fine, but millennials cross the line into self-indulgence. This provokes questions. If it isn’t detrimental to others, why does it matter if someone’s version of self-care is an extra-large latte with avocado toast, meticulously crafting their bullet journal, or watching cat videos? Why is caring for yourself a radical act?

“We have to take the judgment out of self-care. There’s nothing wrong in indulging in things that give back to your mind and body,” Gallagher said. “We’re not talking about ‘indulging’ in two bottles of wine every night. You have to do what works for you and helps you be healthy and energized. Burnout is the opposite of self-care, and reaching that point is problematic, both mentally and physically.”

The side effects of burnout can include chest pain, headaches, gastrointestinal pain, a weakened immune system, and an increase in depressive feelings or anxiety. This is where attempts to “tough it out” become dangerous and self-care becomes vital. However, when stretched thin by a workaholic lifestyle, tenuous relationships, body issues, and/or financial stress, it can be difficult for even the most emotionally intelligent millennial – or anyone – to know what to do next.

“There’s a term we use when treating depression called anhedonia, which is the loss of pleasure in things you used to enjoy,” Gallagher explained. “This in itself implies that in order to be healthy, well-rounded individuals, we need to do things we enjoy, even if – especially if – it’s hard to motivate yourself to seek out that pleasure at first. My advice is to launch an investigation into yourself.”

After overcoming the hurdle of recognizing that you deserve time, care, and pleasure, Gallagher suggests you look at your history to determine what types of activities you enjoy. Many self-care lists, while well-intended, tend to promote a one-size-fits-all, “spontaneity + whimsy = positivity” philosophy that has been satirized by Yoko Ono in The New Yorker. You know the drill: sell your possessions and travel the world; head into the woods and don’t return until you achieve enlightenment; give your phone, tablet, laptop, and smart-watch a blazing Viking funeral in the middle of a lake. Sure, these may work for some people, but self-care is about finding feasible strategies that fit your personal interests and that give back to you.

For example, it’s important to get moving and spend time in the fresh air, but if climbing a mountain isn’t your speed, explore other options. If social events get your serotonin pumping while quiet yoga sounds like torture, use your support system as your self-care system. Sometimes, a five-minute breather is all you need, while other times a full mental health day is in order. Whatever you choose, revel in it without guilt or self-judgment. However, it’s crucial to remember that “self-care” also includes recognizing when self-motivated strategies aren’t enough, or if building up motivation in the first place is too overwhelming. A walk in the park might not cut it, but it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to detachment, irritability, or fatigue. Being kind to your body and mind can mean accepting vulnerability and seeking professional support.

As you experiment with self-care methods, Gallagher recommends you take stock of your emotions. How did you feel during the activity? Were you fully invested in it? Did you feel challenged and renewed at the end? To take that reflection a step further, practice mindfulness and meditation, both of which can lower stress levels while offering the chance to focus on “the now” and work through uncomfortable feelings.

“Ultimately, the reason why [mindfulness] is so beneficial to people is that it enhances their experience of depth, meaning, and connection in their life. In fact, that’s the best antidote to stress,” Michael J. Baime, MD, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “If three minutes is what you have, then three minutes is what you do. Three minutes is definitely better than nothing.”

It’s particularly important for millennials – those social media mavens – to remember that the purpose of self-care is not to simply present yourself as a happier, healthier person because others seem to have it all. It’s about taking the time to actually become that happier, healthier person. Our filtered social media existences can spill over into our social interactions, but as humans with rich emotional lives, we’re allowed to (unapologetically) be sad, happy, angry, wanting, lonely, etc. Ultimately, being honest about our emotions and determining how to balance them for the best quality of life is what self-care is all about.

“Some people may see self-care as a luxury or even as offensive: ‘I have this to worry about and these responsibilities, and you really think I have time for myself?’ But you’ll be surprised to find how many extra minutes you have in a day,” Gallagher noted. “Think of your life as a pie chart. How much of the pie can you devote every day or week to doing something fulfilling?”

The nation’s tense political atmosphere has reinforced the boom in online discussion of emotional awareness, but self-care has always been necessary for health and wellness. Make it a part of your daily routine, not just a “treat” or last resort when you feel like the world’s imploding. Taking time for yourself is critical for your sense of restoration; for you to be an entirely present partner, colleague, and friend; and for you to feel like you’re thriving, not just surviving. After all – to modify another common analogy – you can’t pour from an empty pitcher, but you also deserve that full pitcher all to yourself sometimes.

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