Self-care is a simple idea. It involves taking care of your health. Most people may agree with the idea, but how many can name some elements of self-care, not to mention actually practice them? You can practice self-care better when you know what it is, what contributes to wellness and health, and how to identify and overcome barriers to caring for yourself in a meaningful and effective way.
Definition of Self-Care
Self-care includes actions you take to maintain or improve your health. Effective self-care requires a balance of activities that focus on different aspects of health: physical, mental, social, spiritual, and emotional.
Self-care is NOT:
- A luxury. It is essential to feeling and performing your best.
- Accidental. Self-care is intentional, and it requires planning and awareness.
- Unidirectional. Working on one aspect of self-care is far less effective than working on all of them.
- Self-improvement. It is a way to support yourself through acceptance and understanding.
Self-care can include these activities.
These aspects of self-care are all related. For example, exercising regularly improves physical health by lowering chronic disease risk and helping with weight control, but it also improves mental and emotional health by promoting growth of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which improves cognitive function and may reduce depression.
Similarly, stress management techniques can improve emotional health by helping reduce anxiety and process emotions, but it can also improve social health by reducing strain on relationships. It can also improve physical health by reducing unhealthily high levels of stress hormones and by preventing stress-related headaches and muscle aches.
Self-Care versus Selfishness, Self-Pampering, Numbing
Selfishness: Many people are reluctant to provide self-care because they think it is selfish to do so. They could not be more wrong. When you support your own health through self-care, you can be more capable of helping or taking care of others. You cannot take care of others when you are sick, nor can you be your strongest possible self when supporting others if you are not emotionally and mentally well yourself.
Self-Pampering: Self-care is different from getting your nails done or helping yourself to a second helping of dessert because you “deserve” it. Those actions usually go into the category of pampering since they do not directly improve health.
Still, there are times when pampering can improve your health. Going with a friend to get a massage and have a spa day while someone else takes care of the kids, for example, can improve many aspects of health.
- Physical health by lowering injury risk and pain due to overly tight muscles.
- Mental health by giving you a break from constant chatter (however cute, funny, and endearing) of children.
- Social health from quality time with friends.
- Emotional health by taking your mind off of daily worries.
Numbing: Millions of Americans turn to food as a way to deal with stress or emotions. Overeating, abusing alcohol, and vegging out in front of the TV are examples of mind-numbing strategies to numb the mind. Because they are not healthy and are not deliberate actions to take care of oneself, they are not part of self-care.
Overcoming Barriers to Practicing Self-Care
Why doesn’t everyone practice self-care if it feels good, is healthy, and helps out others? These are some possible barriers and some strategies for overcoming them.
- Lack of time. Cooking big batches of healthy food on weekends, doubling up social time with exercise or taking classes to stimulate your brain, and adding self-care activities, such as meditation, to your calendar so you save time for them.
- No extra money. Self-care activities can be free. Examples include taking a walk, cooking a healthy dinner instead of ordering pizza, and asking for skim milk and no whipped cream instead of whole milk when you order coffee.
- Stigma. Society too often values being stressed. People who are calm, reserve time to exercise and practice a hobby, and sometimes say “no” to others’ requests are often undervalued. However, it is these people, the ones who practice self-care, who can better support others.
- Not accepting oneself. Self-care is not self-improvement. It does lead to improved health, but only through accepting oneself.
- Not knowing how to practice self-care. If you are putting off caring for yourself because you do not know what to do, we have ideas. Keep reading!
Self-care can start with just one small change. For example, you might choose any of the following.
- Making sure to drink at least 64 oz. of water (8 8-ounce cups) throughout the day.
- Going to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual.
- Ordering or purchasing brown rice instead of white rice.
- Making a long-delayed doctor’s appointment.
- Visiting or having a video chat or phone call with a friend.
Being mindful about self-care can make it more effective and more likely to be sustainable. Paying close attention when you try your new self-care activity can help you notice how it made you feel. You might feel more energetic within days after you start sleeping more, immediately have a better mood after talking to your friend, or feel a burden lifted when you schedule a recommended medical appointment.
Those good feelings can motivate you to continue that type of self-care activity, and to add in more activities when you are ready.