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Take Care: What Does It Mean?

18/08/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 17/08/2016 10:59 BST

Lately, when saying goodbye, particularly to someone who is under stress -- perhaps going into a new life situation or trying to manage an old one -- I have consistently used the phrase 'take care'. Come to think of it, friends and family have offered these parting words to me, too.

This got me wondering about the status of the much-used phrase, so familiar that it rolls off the tongue as easily as any farewell. Has it lost its sincerity, its credibility? Has it lost its actual deeper meaning, if it ever had one? And if it hasn't, how do we actually take care?

Reflecting on my early adulthood, I quickly concluded that 'take care' most definitely had a deeper meaning. When I went off to university, then New York and London, I heard the weight in an elder's voice when they used the phrase. Even today, when I hear it from certain people or dare to say it myself, I am certain that 'take care' is an offering of heartfelt advice in the absence of the right words, or in lieu of meddling.

But how does one take care, particularly when under pressure? Early on in the year, a good friend and I reflected on life in 2014. Noticeably, there had been as many ups as downs, but we both mentioned taking better care of ourselves, moving ahead.

Though fairly good stewards of our health, we both agreed that when tense, we often lose sight of what it really means to take care, sometimes perhaps out of concern, I suspect, for appearing selfish. At other times, we simply don't have time for ourselves, even for the basics such as eating and sleeping properly. Ridiculous!

According to some experts not prioritizing self-care is counterproductive, since taking care of one's self is of paramount importance for a healthy life experience. In practical terms, self-care can be likened to putting on one's own oxygen mask on an aeroplane before helping someone else.

Still, taking care of one's self, particularly while caring for another, often falls on deaf ears. Most of us either overextend ourselves, often letting others down as well, or we withdraw completely, blaming the other person, even if only subconsciously, for needing help in the first place. Either way, the experience can lead to emotional and mental-health problems, as well as physical ones.

Surely, however, there is a middle ground? Again, the question springs to mind: How do we actually take care?

First, it goes without saying that taking care means eating properly and getting enough sleep. Maybe, but the basics of looking after oneself, whether that involves taking medicine, doing exercise or drinking plenty of water, are often the first to go when stressed.

For example, recently while visiting the US to help look after my mother, I forgot I even had medicine, not to mention the poor diet I consumed.

A friend confided similar behaviour during a stressful time in her life. She also talked of the guilt she incurred for feeling ill and tired, which ultimately turned into resentment. Upon reflection, she confessed that if only she had owned her feelings and sorted them out then and there, she would have avoided the bitterness and some of the health hazards, too.

Dr Karyl McBride, in her article 'Is Self-care Selfish?' explains that owning feelings is key to taking care of one's self: 'Being in touch with our own feelings and embracing them is the healthiest thing we can do'.

Another healthy expression of self-care is to operate in the real world. Make no mistake about it, this advice is not a ticket for abandoning other responsibilities, but as life becomes more hectic for a number of reasons, the line between what is real and what is ideal becomes blurred.

Although it might sound ideal to act as a full-time caregiver, for example, it is not realistic -- neither physically, mentally, nor often financially either -- even for people who are retired or self-employed (surprise, surprise).

A few years ago when we inherited the care of my mother-in-law, being real was the hardest thing to do. I needed a reality check when it came to how much I could personally do while remaining healthy, not only for myself, but also for her and the rest of the family. In the end, we constructed a realistic care plan, which served us well, enabling us to breathe more easily, which is another helpful approach to self-care.

There is no point in waiting until the pressure has lessened to take a deep breath. To take care in the midst of anxiety often means letting go of stress. Easier said than done, isn't it? And more so for some of us than others.

According to experts, some people get something out of stress -- a buzz, a charge, if you will -- similar to what an addict gets from drugs. This feel-good factor keeps them stressed, but it doesn't keep them healthy. On the contrary, it makes them ill.

To this end, I was asked to give a friend of a friend some personal advice and as I listened to him talk about the problem, I realised that though he tried to detach himself from the situation, he was overwhelmingly stressed. After offering advice that didn't work for him, I suddenly realised that all there was left to say was 'take care'.

With that said, there was a peaceful silence between us. And suddenly he remembered that he hadn't eaten all day. An ocean between us, I hung up the phone, reminded that it is often the little things that go a long way, of course, when offered sincerely.

'Take care' is one such small offering. What does it mean? Now that depends on who is saying it and surely, on who is hearing it, too.