Why Don't Doctors Talk To Us About Self-Care? (And How To Bring It Up)
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
These days, "self-care" is a household term. The self-care movement—grown in response to our modern, high-stress lifestyle born of the digital age and its accompanying mental health crisis—has taken hold of our collective consciousness. We know we're supposed to spend time on ourselves, doing things that heal and restore our spirits and fill our cup back up. Conversations about what self-care looks like have flooded social media and wellness spaces (hello!), but one place where they're conspicuously absent? The doctor's office.
A new study found three out of four people haven't talked to their physician about self-care in at least two years. Yet the majority of patients—72% of those surveyed—wish they did.
People want to talk to their doctors about self-care.
The survey, conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of Samueli Integrative Health Programs, asked more than 1,000 adults and more than 300 physicians about self-care. A whopping 96% of those docs called self-care an "essential" part of a person's health, but nearly half of them say patients don't seem interested in talking about it. Weird, because 57% of patients say they want to talk to their doctors about what's important in their lives, 66% wish their doctor would give them more self-care guidance, and 65% want their doc involved in "all aspects" of their health.
"What these results show us is that patients have a strong desire for their physicians to be involved in more aspects of their health—beyond pills and procedures," Wayne Jonas, M.D., executive director of Samueli Integrative Health Programs, said in a news release. "They want a fuller partnership and a relationship where they can discuss their health and well-being in other, deeper ways that impact them. As physicians, it's important that we listen to these desires and adjust how we treat our patients. We need to organize our practices to support behavior change."
For the record, when these folks talk about self-care, most of them weren't talking about lighting candles and taking a long bath (although that absolutely is one delightful form of self-care). Instead, most talked about more basic needs like getting enough sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and taking care of their mental health.
How to bring up self-care at your next doctor appointment.
What's holding doctors back these days from bringing self-care up themselves? The biggest thing is time: 78% of physicians say there just doesn't tend to be enough time during appointments to talk about self-care, even though more than nine in 10 physicians want to be giving their patients more information on this crucial part of wellness.
So listen: If they won't prioritize it, you should. Self-care isn't frivolous, and it's absolutely within your right to ask your doctor about it and get their advice on how to better incorporate self-care into your lifestyle. The next time you're planning a visit to your doctor, consider prioritizing this conversation by doing the following:
Let your doctor know ahead of time that you'll want time to really talk.
"Many patients don't have any idea how much time they're scheduled to have with a doctor, so they don't realize that they may only be scheduled to have 15 minutes of a doctor's time," Lissa Rankin, M.D., a former physician and OB/GYN, writes at mbg. "If you're 20 minutes into your 15-minute appointment and you pull out a list of 20 questions without having warned your doctor, your doctor is going to have a hard time answering your questions... If you warn your doctor beforehand that you have a list of questions, your doctor can more effectively plan the visit so that your needs are met."
Find a health care provider who prioritizes holistic health.
"A part of my work is to get physicians and health care providers to include self-care as part of their questionnaire—self-care including exercise, diet, sleep habits, relationships, meditation, etc.," Eva Selhub, M.D., a resilience expert and coach who previously worked as a medical director and senior physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells mbg in an interview. "The bottom line is it takes self-awareness on both the part of the patient and the doctor."
Not all doctors take a holistic approach to wellness that incorporates all aspects of self-care, both physical and mental, and how they interact with one another. If you're not working with a doctor who's prepared to give you this kind of advice, you can always find another person to add to your health care team and visit separately to talk about self-care. (Here are a few questions mbg Collective member and functional medicine practitioner Robin Berzin, M.D., recommends asking your doctor to see if they're on the same page as you about wellness.)
"The doctors have a crunch time, [so] patients need to be more aware of what it is they are looking for and what kind of advice they need," Selhub says. "For instance, they might want to say that they are confused about healthy nutrition, or they would like to exercise [and they] don't know how to get started, or that they're feeling really stressed or unhappy in their relationships and don't know where to turn to. The doctors may not be able to give the advice but certainly can find someone that they can go to for that sort of help. In general, patients need to ask themselves what is it that they need, what is it that they want, and then from there they can figure out what kind of questions to ask their physicians."
Don't assume your doctor knows what's on your mind.
"As a doctor I can promise you that I'm not a mind reader or psychic," Selhub once wrote at mbg. "In today's fast-paced and high-stress world, depression is more common than most people realize. There are many ways your doctor can help you, guide you, or simply be there to listen. Often, just owning up to it and talking about how you really feel can help."
At the end of the day, your doctor's job is to take care of your health—every aspect of it. Don't be afraid to ask for what you need.