Self-care is healthcare
The global prevalence of stress-related mental health issues — attention deficit disorders, depression, eating disorders and so on — is increasing.
In the US, 13 percent of adults take anti-depressants and one person died by suicide every 11 minutes in 2019. In India, 36 percent of the nation's workforce suffers from stress and mental health issues, and globally, over 700, 000 people take their lives every year. All these various illnesses have one common denominator: lack of self-care.
Bangladesh — where 585 students died by suicide in 2022 — is not immune to global trend of rising stress-induced mental health issues. Sarah Anjum Bari of The Daily Star penned a column "I just need 30 minutes of silence" on July 15, 2022, alluding to some of these issues in day-to-day life. The importance of self-care is gaining more traction even in the popular media.
The great news is that through the daily practice of breathing, mindfulness, and other forms of intentional self-care, can actually help individuals overcome stress-related illnesses and improve their livelihood.
When asked, "What one habit can one develop to handle day-to-day stress?" Syed Z. Mahmud, a psychiatrist at Florida State Hospital, said, "Breathing exercise."
Breathing exercises and practising mindfulness are two widely used examples of self-care. They are gradually becoming acknowledged as imperative assets for a productive, happy life.
Originating 3000 years ago, from Hindu and Buddha traditions across the Indian subcontinent and the South-east Asia, yoga and mindfulness are increasingly gaining a foothold in the US and many other Western countries as pathways to better our personal well-being.
Mindfulness is the intentional care of the mind. It is also referred to as the quality of being in the present moment, paying attention without judgement, being present with the task at hand, redirecting wandering attention, and so on. Stilling the mind increases focus and clarity. To achieve that, one must exercise mindfulness daily – similar to the way muscles are strengthened by jogging. A commitment to regular mindfulness has shown gradual improvement in dealing with daily stress.
Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, in his 18-minute Ted Talk speech titled, "How mindfulness changes the emotional life of our brains" explains how our emotional life is deeply connected to our brains. The video has been viewed about 3 million times since it was published in 2019. What drew so many views to his speech? The answer is simple: humans are craving happiness, and Davidson gives them one simple tip: mindfulness.
Loneliness is a more significant predictor — by more than two-fold a magnitude — of early mortality compared to obesity, said Davidson. Wandering minds are unhappy minds. By looking at the positive, cutting back on the negative, cultivating curiosity and kindness, developing and nourishing social connections, and finding the purpose of life, we can significantly boost our happiness. Negative self-talk feeds depression, low confidence, and in extreme cases, leads to suicide. Mindfulness can prevent this, by improving self-image and emotional intelligence.
Moreover, studies show that stilling the mind boosts creativity and motivation to work. The practice helps employees become more productive, and develop many leadership qualities. In the US, many large corporations such as General Mills, Intel, Target, and many national sports teams, and even numerous military units have adopted mindfulness for their workforce. John Mattis, a former US Secretary of Defense, pursued stoicism, which is the practice of self-control and fortitude, during the Iraq War when leading the US military.
Google has implemented about a dozen courses on mindfulness for its workforce to help employees better understand their coworkers' motivation and increase their productivity. Aetna, a leading US health insurance company, adopted "Viniyoga Stress Reduction" and "Mindfulness at Work" programs for its employees. Aetna Foundation found that the programs helped decrease stress levels by 28 percent, improved sleep quality by 20 percent, and reduced existing physical pain by 19 percent among its employees. Aetna has also implemented mindfulness programs in thousands of elementary schools across the US to help children learn self-control, act compassionately towards others and manage early-life stress.
The other, and quite significant benefit of self-care is that it does not require a financial commitment and isn't confined to the classist hierarchy that burdens marginalised individuals with inaccessible healthcare in many nations. Anyone can nourish their body and mind and practise mindfulness anywhere, anytime. One can significantly improve chronic health issues that are borne out of stress and isolation through a daily 30-minute walk or stretch. These exercises boost the mood and strengthen the mind, giving confidence and inspiration one needs to tackle life's difficult circumstances.
In Bangladesh is the seventh saddest country in the world per the 2022 Global Emotions Report by Gallup and the 118th among 137 countries in the 2023 World Happiness Report by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. As such, we need to promote self-care more vigorously. It is a no-cost investment that yields the highest return and anyone irrespective of social and economic class can practise it. Everyone can refocus on improving personal and collective health by recalibrating the mind, and doing breathing exercises, among other ways of self-care. Employers around Bangladesh should facilitate daily mindfulness exercises for employees to increase productivity and motivation at work. We can promote self-care even as a fundamental national health policy.
Traditionally, when talking about mental health, the medical aspects are treated with more importance. However, the pursuit of happiness leads to more positive health outcomes. Ironically, self-care has not been given much consideration in the global health strategy; but the good news is, healthcare communities are increasingly looking into implementing various self-care practices at workplaces and homes, with or without government intervention, as it needs little to no regulation and costs. Communities in Bangladesh should tap into these largely underutilised methods of self-care and raise more awareness of its wonders.
ABM Uddin is a healthcare consultant for the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.