The idea of self-care has become more prevalent in recent years, especially in the past few thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many people still view the concept as selfish or something that only people with extra time can do. Is either of these true? Why should you be focused on self-care? How can you incorporate it into your life?

In recent years, the term “self-care” has been mentioned a lot, but it’s often misunderstood. Self-improvement is often mistaken for self-care, but they’re slightly different. Self-improvement implies that we think there is something we need to fix about ourselves. Self-care means doing things to take care of our minds, bodies, and souls by engaging in activities that promote well-being.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as: “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” So, if we break it down, self-care includes everything related to staying physically healthy such as hygiene, nutrition, and seeking medical care when needed.

In 2019, researchers published a self-care framework in The British Medical Journal (BMJ), which states that how individuals interact with clinicians and healthcare systems are also self-care measures. This means that self-care includes getting a vaccine, scheduling cancer screenings, or taking prescription medications on schedule. In addition, the International Self-Care Foundation includes health literacy as part of self-care, signifying that any steps you take toward better understanding health information you need to make appropriate decisions about your health.

Why does it matter?

People feel lonelier and less able to slow down, making them feel more anxious and overwhelmed by even the simplest tasks. Self-care can help because the benefits are broad and linked to positive health outcomes, like reduced stress, improved immune system, increased productivity, higher self-esteem, better resilience, and living longer. Therefore, you’ll have better physical, mental, and emotional health.

An article published in January 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that longevity depends on following healthy practices (ex. exercising, not smoking, and following a healthy diet) and adopting a positive lifestyle. A different study covered in JAMA Network Open in March 2019 noted that people who exercised between two and eight hours per week throughout their lives reduced their risk of dying by 29 – 36%. According to the researchers of a May 2019 report published in JAMA Network Open, having a strong life purpose is associated with reduced mortality rates.

A slightly older study from 2014 in the BMJ discussed how eating a diet filled with five servings of fruits and vegetables per day was associated with a lower risk of mortality, especially from heart-related issues. An analysis published in September 2017 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that getting less than seven hours of sleep per night was linked with higher mortality rates. It’s important to note that they also found that too much sleep wasn’t healthy either. According to research published in Lancet Planet Health in 2019, spending time in green space is associated with a lower mortality rate.

All of the factors are measures that are influenced by self-care. When we regularly take care of ourselves, we’re better able to handle the things in our lives.

Why don’t people do it?

Unfortunately, many people don’t do self-care because they view it as a luxury rather than a priority. A 2019 Harris Poll stated that self-care isn’t a priority for consumers because 44% believe it’s only possible for people with enough time, and close to 35% think it’s only possible for those with enough money. However, self-care doesn’t have to cost anything and doesn’t need to take up tremendous amounts of time.

The Shift

Per Google Trends, the number of searches for “self-care” has more than doubled since 2015. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a wake-up call for many to start prioritizing their well-being. A June 2020 Harris Poll discovered that 80% of adults indicated they’ll be more intentional about practicing self-care regularly once the pandemic is over. When you look at the data further: 64% said they’re more conscious of their mental health than ever before, 46% said they had been having difficulty maintaining their physical, mental, and spiritual health due to the pandemic, 30% revealed a lack of energy, 29% reported trouble sleeping, and 29% said they exercised less.

When it comes to support or guidance on how to practice self-care, 44% said they wished they had more help. Despite the lack of guidance, the survey found that some people are practicing more self-care activities, with 35% engaging in more creative pursuits, 31% praying more, 31% having more meaningful conversations with family or friends, and 25% spending more time outdoors or eating more healthy foods.

Self-Care Categories

There are several different categories under self-care: emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and community. Self-care is also broken down into temporary and enduring. An example of temporary self-care is going to dinner with a friend, which will provide benefits via the social connection, but it won’t last for very long afterward. Enduring self-care has more permanent effects, such as practicing mindfulness regularly.

Emotional self-care is focused on ensuring your emotional needs are met and protected by taking time for meaningful activities. The importance of spending time pursuing, developing, or just dabbling with a hobby or pastime is often brushed off as a waste of time. This can be many different things, such as self-talk, weekly bubble baths, saying “no” to things that cause unnecessary stress, and permitting yourself to take a pause. This is vital for building resilience and coping skills toward those stressors in life that you can’t eliminate and dealing with uncomfortable emotions, like anger, anxiety, and sadness.

When evaluating if you’re meeting your emotional self-care needs, consider these questions: Do you incorporate activities into your life that help you feel recharged? Do you have healthy ways of processing your emotions? While our emotions are always valid, they’re not always justified. Look to see if your emotional response matches the circumstances. Observe whether what you’re doing is helping or hurting the situation. If it’s making things worse, do the opposite of whatever you feel like doing.

Mental self-care involves doing activities that keep your mind sharp, such as crossword puzzles or learning about a subject that fascinates you. Another component is practicing self-compassion and acceptance. The way you think and the things you’re filling your mind with greatly influence your psychological well-being. When looking at your mental self-care, a few questions to consider: Are you making enough time for activities that mentally stimulate you? Are you doing proactive things to help you stay mentally healthy?

Physical self-care is a broad term that can include many things, like basic daily life activities that we tend not to follow through on when we aren’t doing well mentally or physically (ex. washing up and putting on fresh clothes, skincare, and dental hygiene). Caring for your body also means creating a routine for diet, exercise, and sleep. Furthermore, it means seeking care from doctors or other health professionals when necessary to help prevent illness.

It’s vital to realize that there’s a strong connection between your body and your mind. So. when you’re caring for your body, you’ll think and feel better. When examining your physical self-care, ask yourself the following questions: Are you getting adequate sleep? Is your diet fueling your body well? Are you taking charge of your health? Are you getting enough exercise?

Spiritual self-care involves several practices focused on connecting with your inner being, which may assist people in their personal development, sense of peace, stress management, and ensuring your spiritual needs are met. It can include things like attending a religious service, spending time in nature, meditating, incorporating regular acts of kindness into your day, or keeping a gratitude journal. Essentially, anything helps you develop a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, or connection with the universe. When looking at your spiritual self-care needs, ask yourself: What questions do you ask yourself about your life and experience? Are you engaging in spiritual practices that you find fulfilling?

Social self-care means nurturing friendships, family, and people in your community. The primary form is spending time enjoying the presence of people you like and love that isn’t attached to an agenda or need. The second form is being involved in causes and organizations you care about and bring meaning to your life. Often, it’s hard to make time for friends, and it’s easy to neglect your relationships when life gets busy, but maintaining these close connections is vital to your well-being. This means spending time and energy on building your relationships with others.

Sure, we all have different social needs. So, the key is figuring out what yours are and making enough time in your schedule to create an optimal social life. To assess your social self-care, consider these questions: Are you getting enough face-to-face time with your friends? What are you doing to nurture your relationships with friends and family?

How do you practice self-care?

While self-care doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, it does require checking in with yourself and asking yourself how you’re doing and what your body’s asking for. For some people, daily chores, such as making your bed in the morning, are examples of self-care. For others, there is no way this is self-care. Instead, these individuals may choose a pampering activity. If the activity helps you de-stress and carve out time for yourself, it counts as self-care.

When first starting self-care practice, it can be challenging to know what methods will best benefit you or what areas of your life you should focus on. To help with this, here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Where do I feel deprived?
  • What do I need more of right now?
  • What do I need less of?
  • What do I want right now?
  • What am I yearning for?
  • Who or what is causing me to feel resentful, and why?
  • What am I starving for?

The key is being specific in your responses because this will help you identify what you’re lacking and what you need to do. Instead of putting down that you feel like you don’t have time to yourself, you might say that you feel deprived of uninterrupted alone time away from your family. The other part of this exercise is creating a “No List.” These are things that you know you don’t want to do, and it’s just as important as knowing what you do want to do. This makes it clear what you refuse to deal with in your life. Some examples of things you could put on a No List are not rushing and not holding on to things you don’t love or need.

Once you determine which activities bring you joy, replenish your energy, and restore your balance, the next step is to start small by choosing one behavior you’d like to incorporate into your routine in the next week. Now, build up to practicing that behavior every day for the week and then reflect on how you feel. When ready, start adding in additional practices.

Self-care is about forming healthy, sustainable habits. This aligns with the Japanese productivity philosophy, the Kaizen Method, which focuses on constant, continuous improvement. However, you don’t want to change too much too quickly because that can be overwhelming, and you’ll be less likely to succeed at maintaining the changes. Self-care shouldn’t be a separate activity that gets added to your schedule but built into the routines of your life.

Since self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, your plan will need to be customized to your needs and what is currently going on in your life. This isn’t a one-time assessment but is something that needs to be reevaluated often. As your situation changes, your self-care needs are likely to shift, too.

Some people find it easier to add another habit to their morning regimen than trying to implement it later in the day. However, when it comes to things, like mindfulness, reflection, and journaling, this is best done at the end-of-day (whatever that is for you). If you’re a caregiver to a child, midday, when the kids are at school, might be the ideal period to schedule time to tend to yourself.

If cases you’re stuck for ideas about self-care activities, here are some examples journaling, starting each day by paying attention to your breath for five minutes and setting intentions for the day, eating breakfast, reflecting on what you’re grateful for each night, putting your phone on airplane mode for a half hour and release yourself from the flurry of notifications, calling a friend just to say hello, taking up a relaxing hobby, picking a bedtime and stick to it, cleaning your house, cooking/baking something, exercising, getting a massage, going for a walk, listening to music, meditating, reading, taking a bath, watching TV/movie, or doing yoga.

You want to avoid numbing behaviors, like drinking, eating, or surfing social media in excess. These are often mistaken as self-care. However, they aren’t. When something is self-care, you wake up the following day feeling better. When something is numbing, you wake up the next day and think, ‘Maybe I didn’t need that extra glass of wine or dessert.’

Potential Barrier

Many people wish they could get guidance from their doctor about self-care. In fact, the Harris Poll found that about 55% of respondents stated they wish they could sit down and talk about their life goals with their doctor but never did. According to physicians, the main reason for this is that they have to talk to patients about their disease and treatment, and they don’t have time to talk about the needed behavioral changes.

So, to make sure all your needs are addressed, you need to take responsibility for linking self-care to your medical condition. During your visit, bring up sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social and stress management. Before your visit, it’s a good idea to write down a set of questions for your doctor. If you write down questions, it’s much more likely you’ll get your questions addressed.

As a society, we need to remove the stigma that being kind to and taking care of ourselves is self-indulgent or selfish. Everyone can choose to proactively take care of their well-being and make self-care become an integral part of their lives. It’s essential for you to be healthy because it can help prevent stress, burnout, and impairment.

Self-care shouldn’t be viewed as something you only do if you have the time, nor is it a reward that can be gained once other tasks are completed. It’s not selfish, a waste of time, or self-indulgence. It’s actually selfish not to engage in self-care because you won’t be able to take care of the people in your life if you don’t care for yourself.

When you practice self-care, it reminds you and others that your needs are valid and vital. Even if you feel like you don’t have time to squeeze in one more thing, make self-care a priority!