Self-Care is What We Do to Heal from the Internet
Friendship and exercise have become "techniques."
When I type “self-care” into Google, this page is the top result. While there’s nothing authoritative necessarily about this link, it’s not unreasonable to think that most people who set out to learn about self-care are probably finding this page very early on in their research (SEO is king!). And I think it’s a pretty telling article.
It offers five different examples/applications of self-care for your life. Here they are:
Physical self-care: You need to take care of your body if you want it to run efficiently. Keep in mind that there's a strong connection between your body and your mind. When you're caring for your body, you'll think and feel better too.
Physical self-care includes how you're fueling your body, how much sleep you're getting, how much physical activity you are doing, and how well you're caring for your physical needs. Attending healthcare appointments, taking medication as prescribed, and managing your health are all part of good physical self-care.
Social self-care: Socialization is key to self-care. But, often, it's hard to make time for friends and it's easy to neglect your relationships when life gets busy.
Close connections are important to your well-being. The best way to cultivate and maintain close relationships is to put time and energy into building your relationships with others.
Mental self-care: The way you think and the things that you're filling your mind with greatly influence your psychological well-being.
Mental self-care includes doing things that keep your mind sharp, like puzzles, or learning about a subject that fascinates you. You might find reading books or watching movies that inspire you fuels your mind.
Spiritual self-care: Research shows that a lifestyle including religion or spirituality is generally a healthier lifestyle.
Nurturing your spirit, however, doesn't have to involve religion. It can involve anything that helps you develop a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, or connection with the universe.5
Whether you enjoy meditation, attending a religious service, or praying, spiritual self-care is important.
Emotional self-care: It's important to have healthy coping skills to deal with uncomfortable emotions, like anger, anxiety, and sadness. Emotional self-care may include activities that help you acknowledge and express your feelings regularly and safely.
Whether you talk to a partner or close friend about how you feel, or you set aside time for leisure activities that help you process your emotions, it's important to incorporate emotional self-care into your life.
Why is this piece telling? Because there’s not a single recommendation on it that’s actually tailored to someone with anxiety or mental health struggles. Every single item in here is a perfectly plausible thing for anyone to do regularly. In fact, I would say that every single item in here is something that most people did regularly for a very long time, habitually, and without any self-consciousness about their therapeutic value.
If you translate each item in this list from therapy-speak to a plain description of activity, it becomes obvious. “Physical self-care” is exercise. “Social self-care” is hanging out with friends. “Mental self-care” is reading, “spiritual self-care” is going to church, and “emotional self-care” is having a conversation. Basic, routine, simple activities of most people who have some degree of freedom in their lives…and then again, even most people who don’t have some degree of freedom in their lives get time for exercise, reading, and church.
So the question I have is: how does a list of very ordinary human activities go from obvious and unspoken, to vital expressions of self-care? Here’s one hypothesis: Most self-care techniques are simply routine activities that most people did before they gave that time to being online.
If you take exercise, fellowship with other people, and emotional well-being as a package deal, then it quickly becomes evident that there is indeed one particular activity that millions of people every day that categorically excludes all three of these self-care techniques, and that is being on the Internet. If you’re scrolling, you’re probably not burning calories; if you’re scrolling, you’re likely not engaging with people around you, and if you’re scrolling, you’re almost certainly doing some measure of harm to your mental or emotional health.
Taken as a whole, this list of self-care techniques barely conceals the fact that it’s a normal regiment for the individual who is not trapped online. When the average person logs off of social media, their recreational choices almost immediately tend toward one or more things on this “self-care” list. Even streaming a movie can become a therapeutic experience if the pleasure of the story is allowed to (at least for a moment) dominate one’s attention. It’s the act of losing oneself in something enjoyable that refreshes emotional life and gives some measure of hope about things.
So what are most people doing instead of these things? They’re scrolling. Imagine scrolling as a kind of archaeological dig. People who scroll the news are digging for evidence that things are really bad nowadays, and it’s probably group X’s fault. People who scroll Instagram are digging for evidence that everyone they know really is happier than they are, and how they could not be with all those [insert sponsored product placement here]. People who scroll Twitter are digging for a fight, people who scroll YouTube are digging for distraction, and people scroll TikTok are digging for…well, I don’t know. The point is that scrolling dominates the modern person’s time and attention in the margins of their life, particularly where social interaction or immersion in enjoyable hobbies might be. Perusing the internet is anti-self-care.
Why does this matter? For one, it seems obvious that digital technology is facilitating a genuine mental health crisis. Second, the identification of basic offline activities as forms of self-care makes me suspicious that we are losing the categories of non-internet life and are instead labeling everything around our scrolling as therapeutic: necessary for our well-being but medicinal rather than given. It makes me think of Amazon’s “mindfulness” initiatives and the plan to construct tiny, dark cubicles in the middle of the warehouse where employees could practice self-care in a designated “Wellness Zone.”
You also see it in that way metaverse and Web 3.0 leaders talk about finding ways to inject a little bit of humanity in their immersive digital environments. The assumption is that a life lived online = inevitable and good, but we need to incorporate self-care so people don’t start having blue-light induced suicidal thoughts. In our cultural moment, the acts of talking to a friend, going somewhere, or reading a book are becoming artifacts of psychological battles—opaque techniques that require articles, gurus, and influencers to teach us why and how to do them. We are now ordering our lives around the unspoken premise that we exist on the Web, but should take breaks every now and again for mental health.
Do physical relationships and non-scrolling hobbies need therapeutic-sounding categories in order to have legitimacy in our cultural imagination? It would appear so. When we call ordinary life self-care, it might be good to ask whether the habits and rhythms we’ve fallen into are anti-self-care. In other words, maybe friendship and spirituality are not techniques to survive another day in the metaverse, but the stuff of genuine humanity, and it’s the metaverse that’s a technique—a technique to hate ourselves, to make us more like profitable machines, dependent on a small class of elite gurus to teach us what we were all too willing to forget?