The stresses of stay-at-home orders during a global pandemic, especially if you have worries and responsibilities when it comes to work, parenting, and other relationships, cry out for a bit of self-care — but the term may make some of us cringe. Advertisers and social media would have us believe self-care is all about lavish spa days and resort-style vacations; demanding employers and the myth of the parent who "does it all" seem to imply it's selfish, unproductive, or simply unnecessary. But true self-care isn't an indulgence to feel guilty about; mental health and wellness professionals agree it's about being aware of and tending to your own needs, which in turn make you better at tending to others.
What Is Self Care?
Self-care is a term for the things we set out to do with our own health and well-being in mind — and physical and mental health are one and the same in many ways, with the right regimen differing for everyone. Most everyone probably practices self-care in some form, but it's easy to let time for ourselves fall by the wayside amid other obligations, and the best results come from being deliberate.
One of the most important self-care steps is having a broad yet realistic view of what it can mean. Some experts think as few as 12% of adults have the health literacy to manage their own care effectively, and simply learning about it online and from books on the subject is only the start. Improvements have to be concrete and lasting.
Maintaining self-care depends on your own motivation. This is why those suffering from depression or other impairments tend to fall into self-neglect and have a hard time sticking to good habits even when their physical health depends on it. Those underlying issues have to be addressed — using common methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness training, and motivational interviewing — to ensure that a self-care regimen can be maintained. But self-care habits can increase motivation and self-esteem, and your ability to take care of yourself is influenced by personal values and belief in yourself. That can be bolstered just by getting out and doing what you know is good for you.
Stamp Out Bad Habits
While most everyone has some unhealthy habits they indulge in to lower stress, self-care is about making the sometimes hard decisions that are good in the long term. "Self-care means calling ourselves out on the things we are doing that aren't healthy for us, such as engaging in toxic habits," says Kristen Suleman, a licensed professional counselor based in Houston.
Tobacco use is the largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, so cutting out smoking and vaping is a big step. Similarly, if you find yourself relying on alcohol or other substances for relaxation, try setting realistic goals to cut back, or seek professional help for addiction. The same applies to any activity you find eating up more and more of your "me" time, including television, social media, or video games. Whatever your poison, start considering strategies to keep it in check. If you catch yourself falling back into the habit, try noting what triggered the lapse and think of how to prevent it in the future.
Be Positive With Yourself
If self-care or controlling bad habits can be a struggle, don't beat yourself up about it — this negativity can reinforce the underlying stress. "Negative self-talk has been shown to lead to depression and low self-esteem," clinical psychologist Kimberly M. Daniels says. "If you're constantly telling yourself how awful you are, you won't engage in other self-care activities — at least not long-term."
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to self-care, which is why it takes some amount of personal insight to really be effective. "Self-care begins with honest introspection," says Heather Chamberlain, of Marin Meaningful Therapy and Assessment Center in San Rafael, California. "What do you truly find restorative and rejuvenating? Not what should be restorative, not what works for your best friend — what really works for you? Do you crave going out and having an adventure, or is curling up with a good book your cup of tea?"
Though we may start a bad habit out of simple enjoyment, they can become ways to cope with stress. These unhealthy reactions to stress lead to an increased risk of elevated blood pressure, which should be monitored in adults with annual or biannual tests. Develop healthier strategies to manage the anxieties that drive us to drink, smoke, or stress-eat in the first place — it takes work, but will be worth it when you adapt and start enjoying what felt like a chore the first few times. Eventually, doing the healthy thing becomes routine.
Bad habits can also be a way to cope with emotions such as anxiety, anger, or sadness. Speaking about your problems with a therapist or friend, and working through them in writing are both forms of emotional self-care shown to help. Leisure activities that are productive or physical in nature, from hiking and gardening to crafts and photography, are also known to help.
Having a greater sense of meaning in life tends to make us happier and more resilient to stress, regardless of the specific faith. You needn't join a church to take care of yourself spiritually; solitary worship rituals such as meditation and prayer have also been linked to better mental and physical health.
Exercise Your Body
The benefits of regular physical activity are well-documented and include lower weight, stronger bones and muscles, reduced risk of chronic disease, and improved sleep and cognitive function. It's even proven to increase energy levels and mood by activating the release of brain chemicals, as anyone who's experienced a "runner's high" can attest. You can join a gym or get the benefits for free through jogging, yoga stretches, and exercises such as squats or pushups. At least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity weekly is advised.
Take a (Nature) Walk
Walking may be the most easily integrated form of self-care, shown to improve cardio, boost mood and energy levels, and decrease stress. The therapeutic effects are even more pronounced in parks and other natural areas.
Exercise Your Mind
Do crossword puzzles, watch, listen to, or read inspiring works of fiction, learn a foreign language, play games that test your recall, or take part in hobbies such as knitting or painting that involve fine motor skills. Mental self-care helps keep the mind sharp and can reduce the risk of conditions such as Alzheimer's.
Another approach: Try paying close attention to something you do automatically, such as brushing your teeth. Be deliberate about completing one task before starting on the next, rather than "multitasking," which is really about task-switching that lowers performance and adds stress.
Monitor Your Diet
Self-care also includes taking care of fundamental human needs — topped by eating and drinking. Though nutrition and diet are endlessly complex subjects, start by eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins; limiting consumption of saturated fats, sugars, sodium, and processed foods; and replacing grains such as wheat with legumes including lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans, which boast more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, as well as a lower glycemic index.
Common preventative tests measuring weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels can show how eating habits add to overall health. But pair them with professional advice, research, and even nutritional counseling services to build a sustainable diet that suits your individual needs.
If you eat on the go, while working on other things, or as an emotional response to stress, you are practicing mindless eating, making the food less enjoyable and developing habits that can lead to weight gain. As well as preparing your own food, mindful eating involves focusing on a meal with all your senses, taking your time, and even incorporating a ritual element such as saying grace. This cuts down on cravings and increases understanding of your body's dietary needs, so you can better monitor when you're full.
Monitor Your Sleep
Sleep also affects virtually every aspect of health. Not only does getting the recommended seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night bolster physical and mental health, it makes us more productive and less likely to suffer accidents from lack of alertness. Research even shows that driving after less than five hours of sleep is as dangerous as driving drunk. You can help yourself sleep by establishing set times for going to bed and waking up and avoiding factors that can interfere, including heavy eating, exercise, or screen use within an hour before bed.
Monitor Your Media Consumption
Prioritizing keeping up with news, social media feeds, or a favorite show too highly can increase the feeling of "time poverty" that prevents adequate self-care. Many media sources today use so-called "persuasive design" to keep us to keep us from breaking away, leaving us overstimulated and unrelaxed as a matter of habit.
"Studies indicate that when we power down our devices, our quality of life improves," says Teri Dreher, a registered nurse at Chicago's North Shore Patients Advocates. "Social media pressures increase our risk of depression and anxiety, [and] checking work emails after hours can precipitate burnout. Furthermore, the blue light generated by screens is proven to interfere with sleep."
Find a Healthy Work-Life BalanceSometimes, self-care means learning how to say no, even to an employer. Jobs that force you to be available and hyperconnected via email even outside business hours can leave it unclear what's expected and with less time to spend on friends and family, increasing the risk of burnout and declining work performance. "We need time to replenish and recharge our batteries," says life coach and health education specialist Nancie Vito, citing research that "people who unplug after work hours solve problems in a more proactive manner and are more engaged at work."
Beware sitting still for extended periods, which is associated with a higher risk of death from all causes, according to the American Cancer Society. "People that have desk jobs tend to settle in and not move around, which is one of the worst things we do," says Lynell Ross, a certified health and wellness coach and founder of Zivadream. "Research continues to emerge revealing that it is just as effective to do small bouts of exercise, such as walking for 10 to 15 minutes on breaks and taking the stairs, as it is to go to the gym in the morning or evening and do your workout at one time."
Monitor Your Body
Also called "body listening," self-monitoring means paying attention to physiological changes, so you can recognize what's abnormal and act accordingly. This includes monitoring specific symptoms for chronic disease sufferers as well as such things as breathing and heart rate. Being better attuned and interpreting subtle shifts correctly encourages early intervention to manage symptoms or anxieties before they can get out of control, whether that means visiting a doctor, removing yourself from a stressful environment, or just taking a few deep breaths.
Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
When was the last time you sat and did nothing? Taking a few minutes out of the day to simply focus on breathing and how you're feeling is an effective relaxation technique, yet surprisingly difficult if you're not in the habit — hence the popularity of apps such as Headspace that offer guidance for starting to meditate, which is proven to promote greater happiness.
Most adults make plenty of time for work, but hardly any for play. Far from being just for kids, time spent on enjoyable, unstructured activities can have restorative benefits for anyone. "Whether sharing jokes, tossing a Frisbee, drawing, playing cards, or a board game, playing can be a source of relaxation, stimulation, can fuel creativity and support emotional well-being," says Michelle Harris, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Parenting Pathfinders.
"Play not only helps to relieve stress, but it stimulates the mind and body and provides adults with an opportunity to connect. Although how we play varies from person to person, what connects all play is that it creates an opportunity to experience joy."
Expressive writing about positive and stressful events has long been associated with improvements in psychological health. "I often recommend free writing, a form of free-association journaling, to both teenage and adult clients, especially those who tell me that they've tried mindfulness and meditation in the past and haven't found a way to make it work for them," licensed professional counselor Katie Lear says. "Studies have shown that when someone writes in a journal regularly, it reduces the amount of intrusive, negative thoughts they experience and boosts their memory. This may help us to think more clearly and give us more time and energy to focus on the tasks that really matter to us in life, rather than wasting our time on worries." To start, Lear recommends setting aside at least 10 minutes aside per day to write, preferably by hand, about whatever comes to mind.
Holding grudges over unresolved conflicts may feel like we're just holding someone accountable, but the associated stress and negativity strain physical and mental health. Forgiving others and ourselves corresponds with major physiological rewards, improving sleep, reducing depression and anxiety, and lowering the risk of heart attack.
Finding things to be grateful about and expressing that gratitude can be powerful. "Recent scientific studies reveal that grateful people spend less time in doctor's offices. Grateful people who have one heart attack are less likely to experience a second. Sleep is said to be significantly easier for those who regularly experience gratitude," says Dr. James S. Gordon, of the nonprofit Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., elaborating on research from his book "The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing." Gratitude can be learned: To start, Gordon prescribes keeping a gratitude journal, making note of things or occurrences you're grateful for each day.
Dedicate a Space for Self-Care
Having a dedicated room or space for meditation and relaxation can make it easier to get into the habit, reducing the risk of intrusion and distraction from your phone, work demands, and those with whom you share living space.
Self-soothing refers to a variety of strategies, including deep breathing or imagining yourself as an uninvolved witness, that can be used to help relax when things start feeling too stressful or intense. It can mean slowing down to enjoy the little things, making use of all five senses — those moments of sipping hot tea, massaging your own arm, breathing in incense, taking a bath, reading a book, watching the wind blow through the trees, or whatever helps you feel calmed and rejuvenated amid other activities and obligations. The goal is to trigger a relaxation response to return to a normal state after acute or chronic stress.
Do Something Creative
Much as we love our smartphones and digital media, they tend not to provide a sense of meaning or accomplishment. Instead of reading news or browsing through others' achievements, try engaging in creative hobbies such as painting, quilting, or dancing. It fulfills a basic human need and "increases our happiness by releasing dopamine, the feel-good chemical that gives us energy and motivates us to do more," says Ross, of Zivadream. "And the word 'creative' doesn't have to relate to art projects. We can be creative doing anything we love, such as cooking or gardening."
Spend Time with a Pet
Pets are companions and reminders of the natural world within our own homes. They can help keep us active, giving us reasons to go for walks and play. The joy most pet owners feel is backed up by scientific research showing dogs and cats in particular can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness while elevating levels of pleasurable neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
Put Yourself First and Set Social Boundaries
Don't overexert yourself socially at the expense of self-care. Create the right balance between social activities and solitude, which will be different for everyone. Being a good friend shouldn't have to mean ignoring your own needs, and people should understand that (though you may have to explain it to them). When in doubt, remember that taking steps to self-care, reducing stress and exhaustion, will make you a better and more patient friend, partner, and provider in the long run, even if it limits your availability at times.
Seek Social Support
Though social obligations can sometimes detract from self-care, positive connections to others can also help promote it, giving us a sounding board to discuss on our habits — and social isolation is associated with higher risk for physical and mental conditions including heart disease and Alzheimer's. Whether it's family, friends, a religious community, or other groups (in-person or virtual), support systems can be worth an investment of time and energy. When just getting started on finding motivation for self-care, it can help to feel accountable to and encouraged by someone other than yourself.
Visit a Medical Professional
While some purists see health care providers as outside the scope of self-care, admitting when you need outside help can be crucial, and taking pride in your own self-care is no reason to ignore professional medical advice and prescriptions. That includes consulting with professionals about preventative care, including regular physicals, immunizations, blood or other tests to detect diseases early — such as pap smears for women or prostate exams for men — and low-dose daily aspirin intake in middle age. Self-care is arguably even more important for those suffering from chronic physical or mental illnesses, who are tasked with monitoring symptoms and managing changes diligently for best results in maintaining health.
Organize Your To-Do List
Research suggests that taking notes by hand helps us remember and process information far better than just hearing it or even typing it in. The same trick applies for to-do lists, which declutter our minds and thereby decrease stress. "If you feel like you are not present at work, at home, on the phone, it's often because our brains are working overtime trying to hang onto all that stuff we know we have to do," says time management and leadership coach Alexis Haselberger, who recommends using a single trusted system (such as a spreadsheet or planner) for all tasks, no matter how small. It can also make you more productive, suggesting tasks to scratch off the list during a bit of downtime.
Tailor Your Self-Care Routine
The sad truth is that not all of us can devote the time self-care deserves — we're just trying to keep up with what's already on our plate. But engaging in some amount of self-care is still essential to living a happy, healthy life, and working it into a daily routine can be easier than expected, so long as you're deliberate and realistic. Make your self-care nonnegotiable, setting aside time each day for things you genuinely love as well as those you just know are good for you. Having a routine, particularly in the morning, has been found to increase productivity, confidence, and feelings of self-efficacy that last throughout the day.