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When our faces can unlock smartphones and enable our bosses to call us at 2am on a Sunday morning (come on Clive, it really couldn't wait six hours?); and when the news is so beyond parody that daily life feels like a nightmare that we can't wake up from no matter how many times we pinch ourselves and rub our eyes, just running a bath (and resisting the urge to drown our phones in the water) has become a radical act.

Our time and attention spans are so stressed and squeezed that simple tasks – like sitting and breathing, and feeling the bath water slowly heat up our bodies or setting aside 20 minutes to read - have their own term: self-care.

After the US elections, Google searches for the phrase spiked to a five-year high. And in the run-up to Christmas, books devoted to self-care are nudging into the space currently taken up by adult colouring books and mindfulness manuals, including Jayne Hardy's The Self-Care Project and The Self-Care Revolution by Suzy Reading.

On Twitter, @Everydaycarebot sends tips on self-care straight from the belly of the beast by reminding followers to "go outside for a bit", "smell something good", and "reply to some emails". The TedX YouTube channel, meanwhile, has an entire playlist devoted to the concept. Self-care taps into that part of our brain that flirts with the idea of leading a Scandinavian lifestyle guided by lagom – everything in moderation – and hygge – where we appreciate small, everyday comforts. It's also perfect fodder for those who dismiss anyone with even a passing interest in well-being and equality as a "snowflake".

To be honest, "self-care" sounds nebulous at best and narcissistic at worst. But the stats prove that us humans aren't doing so well at looking out for ourselves at the moment, and we could do with a little help. In 2015, the United Nations dedicated World Day for Safety and Healthy to workplace stress: something that affects workers in all professions in both developed and developing countries.

Our mental well-being is so neglected that the cost of work-related depression in the European Union alone was found to be €617bn a year. Obesity rates have tripled since 1975 to more than 1.9 billion adults and our sedentary lifestyles are causing chronic disease and disability, according to the World Health Organisation. Taking all that into consideration, self-care doesn't seem so daft after all.

Still, what exactly is it? Suzy Reading, author of The Self-Care Revolution as well a psychologist, yoga teacher and health coach says that, on the most basic level, it's "nourishment for the head, heart and body."

"I think of it is as nourishment for the person you are right now, in this moment, and it also nurtures the person you are becoming – your future self. One glass of wine savoured in the evening might be self-care, more than that is unlikely to enhance who you are the next day. This is a useful distinction to make," she tells IBTimes UK.

In this way, self-care is the antithesis to the recent so-called "clean eating" fad, and its punishing diets and hardcore workout regimes.

It's a more holistic approach to health, where the mental benefits of eating a double-chocolate chip muffin are taken into account alongside the fact that it's full of saturated fat. It's a fancy way of saying "treat yo' self".

So, it's different to self-help, which involves reworking yourself. Instead, it's a reminder to stick to the very basics: maintaining hygiene, exercising and eating right.

"Self-care can be as simple as using a scent you love, repeating a mantra to anchor the mind, listening to a piece of music that fills you with joy, watching a bird on the wing or sitting and being with your breath for 60 seconds," explains Reading. "These simple 'micro moments of nourishment' can change the quality of your day in an instant."

Reading adds that the movement isn't so different to public health campaigns that used to remind us to brush our teeth. In fact, as far back as Ancient Greece, taking care of oneself was seen as a vital part of democracy.

"Focusing on the health of our own body and mind can also naturally start to increase our awareness our impact on the world around us, leading to more ethical choices," Dr Richard Chambers, clinical psychologist at Monash University and one of the lead educators on 'Maintaining a Mindful Life' on the FutureLearn social learning platform, tells IBTimes UK.

As well as the stresses of technology and 24-hour news, Reading pins the rise of the movement to a paradigm shift in psychology away from the disease model towards positive psychology and "the study of what makes life worth living".

"It is also linked to greater awareness of the potency of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercise, adequate sleep, good nutrition, therapeutic benefits of nature, social connection and other coping tools: lifestyle choices that boost resilience. In this way I see self-care as the future of preventative medicine."

"I don't think we're ever really taught how to take care of our psychological, emotional, social and physical needs," chimes Jayne Hardy, the author of The Self-Care Project. "We learn as we go and we learn from our mistakes. The landscape has changed massively in recent years with the leaps in technology too, so it's a case of us flexing to consider how that leap can work for us, and not against us."

But as the concept has gained popularity – most noticeably on Instagram where #selfcare has been used over 3.3million times – and thanks to its utter vagueness and uniqueness to each individual, it has been used by small-scale sellers to flog everything from nail stickers to body soaps. Bigger brands look set to jump on the bandwagon, as trends forecasting agency Mintel featured self-care in its trends for 2018. It predicts that "more consumers will be looking for ingredients, products and combinations of food and drink that provide nutrition, physical or emotional benefits that advance their priorities for self-care".

So how long before self-care becomes as meaningless a term as "clean-eating" and just another marketing tool?

Dr Thomas Calvard, lecturer in Human Resource Management at University of Edinburgh Business School, takes this concern one step further. He argues that self-care could enable employers to squeeze even more out of workers, and leave the onus of dealing with the subsequent stress on them. It could also absolve governments of caring for citizens in the wake of austerity.

"We seem to have stopped talking about stress, and skipped straight on to well-being and in some cases, burnout. But stress and stressors are still very much there in people's experiences, I feel," he tells IBTimes UK.

"Self-care is a slightly two-faced concept when it comes to well-being," argues Dr Calvard. "On the one hand, 'know thyself' and 'take care of yourself' and 'listen to your body' can all be empowering and useful things for individuals to learn and recognise in their lifestyles, in principle. On the other hand, many people cope with life's stressors in different ways, and different supports are needed on standby to achieve truly positive benefits for well-being." He adds that the "biggest irony" is that self-care depends on other people to work properly.

"People may need information, advice, social support, and other resources to become fully competent at various forms of self-care in the first place. Inequality and class structures are not helping – people don't really forget to look after themselves, I don't think, they simply feel alienated and disenfranchised and resort to negative ways of coping and self-destructing," he adds.

"It risks driving real personal harms and grievances underground, only to resurface in shocking collective crises of burnout, abuse and harassment. A classic example might be to tell a depressed person to just 'try being less sad' or someone with an invisible health condition to 'stop complaining and man up', with all the unhelpful toxic masculinity that implies."

Reading agrees that there is a danger that the idea will be "hijacked and diffused". But she urges that the fundamental idea is very important. Hardy add that the biggest misconception about self-care is that it's "fluffy and expensive".

"It can be, but it's more often than not, none of those things," she says.

"From my own experience of motherhood colliding with grief – twice over, I can testify that having a strong self-care practice helped me cope much better second time around and this is why I am passionate about raising awareness of the concept," says Reading.

"Sometimes self-care is the last thing you feel like doing (like that planned run when all you want to do is sloth on the sofa), but it is the nurturing thing that will take you closer to being the person that you aspire to be."

She concludes: "The other danger is that people may think that self-care requires some kind of costly product or experience which couldn't be further from the truth – it can as simple as cultivating the three Cs: compassion, comedy and curiosity."