If we have learned anything in 2020, it is the importance of taking care of ourselves, whether it is physically, mentally, spiritually, or socially. There have been challenges that nobody expected, especially a worldwide pandemic. We have been in survival mode this year, trying to get through each day with a new normal, hearing the most recent death toll, watching or participating in protests, and dealing with an unpredictable election. Survival mode is simply not enough as we deserve to find moments of relief and joy in our lives despite all of life’s difficulties. Thriving despite the hardships, whether they are individual or collective, is a good goal for the new year. In order to achieve this goal, we must ensure we are taking care of ourselves in all of the above areas. As a therapist, I have seen the toll this year has taken on the lives of so many. With this in mind, I will discuss strategies for self-care and tools to ensure that we can become the best versions of ourselves in this challenging time.
Firstly, it is essential to discuss why self-care is important in order for us to make it a priority. During a pandemic, when circumstances are truly beyond our control and so many avenues of choice are taken away from us, we can find ourselves feeling hopeless, confused, and agitated. Our mental health is deeply affected as we struggle with feelings of being stuck in circumstances we cannot get ourselves out of. Self-care ensures that we have a firm footing despite the swirling happenings around us. Self-care grounds us in who we are, provides us with a safe place to falter and then rally ourselves again, and instills hope in ourselves and our ability to overcome. If we are not taking care of ourselves, we are allowing what is happening all around us to overtake us. Self-care is not selfish, contrary to what some may believe. Rather, self-care ensures that we can take care of the people we love because taking care of ourselves gives us the strength and fortitude to give of our time and our efforts to others.
Focus on Physical Health
Now that we are certain of the importance of taking care of ourselves, particularly during these trying times, let us focus on four areas of self-care: physical, mental, spiritual, and social. Beginning with taking care of our physical health, the pandemic has undoubtedly forced us to focus on this area. We realize the importance of taking our vitamins and eating healthy to ensure a healthy immune system, ready and prepared to fight off any potential viruses that may come our way. It has really become a life and death situation in which paying attention to our physical health is absolutely necessary. In addition to daily vitamins and a healthy, nutritious diet, exercise is an essential ingredient to a healthy lifestyle. The key to consistent exercise is to schedule it into your week. Just as we use our phones to pencil in work meetings and our children’s extracurricular activities, it is imperative to enter in mandatory time slots for exercise to ensure we get our workout in. Let us ask ourselves: what day/time would work best? What type of exercise do I enjoy and will look forward to each day? When we find a workout we enjoy, whether running, brisk walking, yoga, biking, or swimming, we are more likely to commit to it and incorporate into our daily lives.
Focus on Mental Health
Not only does exercise provide us with physical benefits, it also gives us mental health benefits as well, which takes us into the next area of focus for self-care. As a mental health professional, I have witnessed firsthand the mental health impact of the pandemic on individuals, couples, and families. Taking care of our mental health must be a daily, conscious act to ensure we have the resilience to persist through the rest of the pandemic and through our never-ending personal struggles. Praying is so helpful to us as believers, keeping our connection to Allah and asking for guidance and help. Also, journaling, meditating, and engaging in enjoyable hobbies and pastimes can provide us with the buffer we need when times get rough.Research shows that five minutes of meditation morning and evening leads to greater happiness. Again, it is helpful to set reminders on our phones for these activities to ensure we make time for them in our day. When the stress becomes too much to handle alone, meeting with a therapist weekly or biweekly can provide a safe space to discuss internal battles and external stressors and uncover strategies that will specifically assist us in achieving optimal mental health.
Focus on Spiritual Health
Next, spiritual health is of the utmost importance to us as Muslims. Our connection to the divine and our trust in Allah’s plan, even when we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, is vital to our success in this life and in the hereafter. Practical ways to enhance our spiritual wellbeing are the following: participate in a circle of knowledge (halaqa); set reminders on your phone for daily Quran reading;maintain a connection to a person of knowledge for guidance; and deepen and stren gthenyour commitment to praying salah on time every day. Checking in with ourselves on a daily basis to ask if we are doing our absolute best will ensure we are focusing on our spiritual health. The soul desires to remember Allah so depriving it will give too much energy to the nafs, which desires this world. Let us make our spiritual health a priority during the pandemic so we do not lose sight of the most important fact: the hereafter is everlasting. Let us strive in our own ways to reach for Jannah. Perhaps this is reciting our favorite dhikr as we cook a meal for our family or listening to an Islamic podcast on our way to work or to pick up groceries. Choose ways to connect spiritually that speak to you so that you enjoy it instead of seeing it as merely an obligation.
Focus on Social Health
The final area of health as we all struggle during this pandemic is social health. This has perhaps been an area that has been most impacted over the last eight months. We have been quarantined from friends, classmates, and coworkers, and many are still quarantining from anyone besides family due to the risk of infection. Social isolation and loneliness are high risk factors for mental health issues as well as for heart disease and early death. Therefore, it is imperative to engage in social opportunities now more than ever. Practical ways of doing so is to socialize with family in ways that offer opportunity for a deeper connection. Have a family connection circle at least once a week in which all devices are put away/turned off, the family is sitting in a circle, and eye contact is being made while having meaningful conversation. Role playing can be helpful for children to ensure they are practicing their social, people, and life skills during this time of social distancing, masks, and staying at home.Board games, puzzles, and outdoor activities as a family are other ways to connect, and then the good-feeling hormone, oxytocin, has an opportunity to be released.
Now that we have discussed the areas of physical, mental, spiritual, and social health and how important it is to make each of these a priority, we can write down for ourselves one practical tip in each of these categories to implement in the upcoming weeks. This year, 2020, has proven that each day is a gift and each tomorrow is unpredictable. Let us spend each day looking at it in this way and prepare for each tomorrow as if there will be a lifetime of tomorrows. Taking care of ourselves to ensure we are healthy all-around will demonstrate to ourselves and all of our loved ones that this life is an amazing opportunity and a test —filled with ups and downs, with enjoyable times and difficult ones; and throughout it all, we are going to give it all we’ve got!
Saadia Yunus is a licensed marriage and family therapist, trauma specialist, motivational speaker, and community leader. She has over 10 years of experience working with individuals, couples,families, and groups and offers online therapy to anyone in the state of NYand coaching worldwide. She serves on the advisory board of Dolan Family Health Center, the social media team of the NY Marriage and Family Therapy Network, and the board of the national men’s mental health organization, The Barbershop Group. She is also the cofounder of Muslimahs of Long Island.