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When personal hygiene feels like a mountain to climb

This Self-care Week one of our Young Champions writes about personal hygiene being challenging and how setting small goals may help.

For those who struggle with their mental health, self-care can be both challenging and rewarding. For me, this includes personal hygiene.

This may be something like bathing, brushing teeth, or doing your clothes washing. Just like with everything, self-care looks different on everyone and difficult areas will not be the same for everyone. Bathing can be a real challenge when my mood is low, if I am anxious, or if I am struggling with my self-worth.

A person without mental health difficulties might find it hard to imagine not taking a daily bath or shower. They may say it’s relaxing, their ‘me-time’. But for me, something as supposedly simple as bathing turns into an exhausting and hugely daunting task.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I took a bath before going to a friend’s house. I didn’t have another bath until the Friday evening, almost a full week later. This is not a new struggle for me – at my lowest points, I have found personal hygiene increasingly hard to keep up with.

I have been told many unkind things about my self-care, even from mental health professionals. Yes, I’ll admit that it sounds gross – it feels pretty gross too. But my battle with basic self-care is not down to laziness. Not in any shape or form.

It’s due to a distinct lack of energy. I did not have the energy to run a bath, go upstairs to change and get towels, get in the bath, wash my hair and body, wash my face, potentially exfoliate and shave, wash the bath clean, dry myself, brush my teeth, brush my hair, and get dressed. I simply could not do that.

What most people may see as one simple task of taking a bath, I see as a long, tiring procedure that I frankly do not want nor feel able to do. It is a list. It is a mountain to climb. And I have the energy levels of someone who hasn’t slept all night.

But come Friday, I forced myself into the bath. It was a necessity, and partially embarrassment, that persuaded me to do so. I wasn’t embarrassed because I’d done something wrong or silly, like many may feel they have when they feel embarrassed. I’d done – or not done – exactly the amount I could manage each day. I piled my energy into every task, small or large, that I felt I absolutely must do. And there was nothing left in me at all after that.

So when I took a bath, it wasn’t because I magically felt better, as it could look from the outside. But I had to prioritise it over other things that were important to me. Even if personal hygiene felt more like a chore than other things, I know it is an important part of health and wellbeing.

And so I got in that tub and broke the bad cycle.

I didn’t exactly enjoy it at first. It was not relaxing, nor soothing at that time. Sometimes it can be, but this time it was not.

Despite finding taking a bath so hard sometimes, I have to say that it can be really helpful. It can be a way of summoning energy or, yes, of finding relaxation. For those, like me, who find mindfulness hard, mindfully bathing could be potentially helpful. Something like feeling the flow of the water or smelling the soaps you are using can be grounding, allowing you to try external mindfulness – to me at least, external focus when being mindful is easier than internal focus.

When I’m in touch with other young people with mental health difficulties, I have found that many struggle with hygiene. So it surprised me to find that young people listed personal hygiene as third in their self-care strategies in the recently published Anna Freud Centre’s report findings. Perhaps it’s the relaxation, mindfulness, or energising factors. Or maybe, for those who struggle with their personal hygiene, it’s a sense of achievement.

So, what can help?

1. If you struggle with seemingly basic self-care, it may be easier to set small goals. You can’t go from doing little for yourself to doing everything, so it’s best to work from the ground up.

2. Goals could be something like a daily wash or brushing your teeth. They can be bigger or smaller – whatever you feel is a challenge, but not too far-fetched to be achieved straight away.

3. Gaining support when it comes to self-care and goal-setting can be really helpful. Maybe that looks like asking someone to brush your hair for you, or to go with you on a fresh air trip.

4. A schedule can help some people. So if you usually get up at 7, it might help to set a time to have a bath, maybe 7:30. Perhaps you want to wash your hair twice a week – you could do this Monday and Friday at 7:30. This way, you can prepare yourself and get ready to achieve these goals.

5. It can be really helpful to reward yourself when you achieve goals – nothing too expensive to be practical, and something that makes you feel good. So if you struggle with baths, maybe after a week of taking them, you could get yourself a bath bomb. Or a nice coffee. Just don’t deprive yourself of things you love for the sake of ‘saving it’ for when you reach the goal.

Regardless of whether you always reach your goal or not, try to be proud of yourself. That isn’t always easy for everyone, but remind yourself that you’re doing your best and you’re always trying.

Yes, personal hygiene can be really, really difficult sometimes. I totally understand that. So if you’re taking care of yourself despite finding it hard, I’m here silently cheering you on!

On My Mind is a website that aims to empower young people to make informed choices about their mental health and wellbeing. The pages were co-produced by young people to help other young people. The website includes a self-care page that has 89 self-care strategies.