Self-care is not just taking a bubble bath.
Self-care is anything we do to help ourselves stay physically, emotionally and mentally well. Effective self-care has a range of health benefits: boosts the immune system, increases energy, strengthens emotional health, reduces the risk of burnout, and increases our resilience when faced with challenges and struggles.
People refer to "focusing on self-care" in response to all kinds of difficult situations. Typically we get encouraged to “do more self-care” when we seem visibly distressed to other people.
But ideally, self-care is a consistent daily effort that we can also ramp up when needed to counterbalance an increase in stress. To that end, self-care is not as simple as occasionally getting a massage, taking a bubble bath, or having a night out with friends. Good self-care is a regular practice.
Effective self-care falls into 2 buckets.
Bucket #1 - On-going things we regularly do to take care of our overall health and well-being
Bucket #2 - Extra soothing activities we intentionally choose to do when stress is escalated
Let’s look at each bucket separately
Self care bucket #1: Ongoing self-care
Ongoing self-care means attending to our basic human functioning and needs.
There are 10 basic areas to regularly attend to:
1. Physical body care
Self-care is taking care of your physical body.
Seeing a doctor regularly for check-ups & bloodwork (I mean, we accept that we need to get our cars inspected yearly, so…bodies too)
Getting routine eye care, dental care
Observing and attending to any persistent physical pain
Taking medication as needed and as prescribed
Engaging in regular grooming – treating your body with respect and care and kindness (showering, haircare, hand & foot care, etc.)
Ask yourself: How do I feel in my body?
2. Nutrition & Diet care
Self-care is being thoughtful about how to fuel your body.
Choosing foods that help you feel good in your body
Consulting with an expert about foods that are ideal for you
Making efforts to avoid a pattern of eating too much or too little
Limiting foods that make you feel guilty or sluggish
Keeping an eye on sugar intake – sugar (in all its forms) can contribute to inflammatory processes that are linked to mood dysregulation
More detailed info about food options for brain health
Ask yourself: What foods help me feel most healthy or energetic?
3. Sleep care
Self-care is giving your body adequate time to repair and restore.
Aim for the amount of sleep that helps you feel rested.
Inadequate or low quality sleep has a direct impact on functioning.
7–9 hours of sleep nightly is ideal for most people
Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule, especially if you are having difficulty sleeping.
Have a nighttime routine/evening ritual – even better if it includes a gratitude exercise, maybe some stretching, or a wind-down activity like meditation
Research tells us that inadequate sleep:
is a risk factor for mood disorder episodes
adversely impacts cognitive functioning
can contribute to substance use relapse and suicidal thinking
increases mortality rates and decrease overall physical health
More detailed information about helpful sleep habits
Ask yourself: Do I typically feel restored when I wake up?
4. Media exposure
Self-care is being mindful about what gets your time & attention.
Whatever we expose our brains to will have an impact on our stress level
Pay attention to how you feel during & after exposure to various media and know your vulnerabilities
Consider social media platform use & impact
Physical/emotional reactions to news (TV, online, podcasts, breaking news alerts, etc.)
Impact of crime shows, podcasts or books
How video games & online activities ramp up emotions
Identify any possible emotional or triggering content
Ask yourself: How is this content impacting my stress level?
5. Substance use
Self-care is noting the impact various substances have on you.
Substances lower our resistance to negative emotional experiences
Substances have a direct impact on our mood regulation
Assess how substance use impacts your mood, energy, motivation, irritability, etc.
Including Caffeine - Some people find that caffeine leads to increased anxiety, irritability, or insomnia.
Alcohol can increase a depressive outlook or next-day anxiety for some folks
Ask yourself: How does this substance impact my emotional & physical state?
6. Exercise or physical movement
Self-care is moving your body regularly.
Our bodies are designed to move.
Aim for some sort of physical movement every day.
Try to build up to 20 minutes of daily activity if physically possible.
Remember that our emotions are energy and need an outlet.
Research tells us that after exercise:
The brain produces neurons to help subdue intense emotions
The brain is more open and flexible to new ways of thinking through stressful situations
Practice movement or exercise in ways that are appealing for you, not in ways that create a feeling of drudgery or frustration for you
Ask yourself: do I feel strong and able to do what I want with my body?
7. Connection to others
Self-care is fostering regular positive connection to others
We are social beings and need social interaction of some kind to maintain overall health.
Each of us has different/preferred way to feel connected but we all need connection as part of our self-care routine.
Time with friends in person
Time with friends via phone or online
Time with significant other
Time with family
Time spent helping others
Time in community – spiritual group, sports group, political group, affinity group
Time with animals (this is a great and sometimes preferred substitute for time with humans)
Ask yourself: Do I feel connected to others?
8. Connection to nature
Self-care is fostering a connection to the natural world.
Spending time in nature improves our quality of healthy thinking, mood, and overall mental & emotional health.
A study of 20,000 people found that people who spent 2 hours a week in green spaces (either all at once or spaced over several visits) were “substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t.”
About 17 minutes a day with nature is all you need to reap the benefits
Substitutes if getting outside is a challenge:
Spend time caring for indoor plants
Spend time looking at pictures/videos of nature, like these nature-scape videos
Ask yourself: could I get outside or connected with nature today?
9. Boundary care
Self-care is maintaining healthy limits that protect your resources and body.
Lack of healthy boundaries leads to feelings of resentment and irritability.
Unclear limits lead us to feel disrespected and taken advantage of.
Boundaries are clear limits for yourself and others based on your values and needs
Boundaries help reduce feelings of resentment internally and within relationships
Common boundary areas to address: time, resources, emotions, finances, physical, and sexual
More detailed info about establishing healthy boundaries
Ask yourself: am I feeling resentful or irritable towards people in my life?
10. Restoration time
Self-care is carving out downtime that is spent in a non-tasky way.
Especially in U.S. culture, we are quite focused on actively doing things all the waking hours. Chores, work-tasks, preparing meals, planning what’s next, etc.
Restorative time is the opposite of productive time. Our minds and bodies need time to rejuvenate and restore, even if 5 minutes is all you feel you can spare. Restorative time can look like:
Sitting outside and simply enjoying the view or sounds
Taking a quick nap
Passive entertainment, like show watching or book reading (not multitasking)
Watching kids or animals play
Laughing with a good friend
Listening to music with your eyes closed
Ask yourself: what helps me feel recharged or restored emotionally and physically?
Self-care bucket #2: Extra efforts when stress is escalated
When it comes to self-care, I often think of a teeter totter or the scales of justice. When tough or heavy stuff of life is weighing down one side, we want to focus on putting more self-care on the other side.
This makes self-care a necessity for coping with life, rather than something indulgent or selfish (as some of us may have been taught). Appropriate self-care makes us less selfish because it allows us the internal resources to focus on others with more energy and emotional availability.
And also, it can be quite challenging for us to find time for extra self-care when stress amps up. Our lives are already busy and over-full with demands for our time and attention and resources. The good news is that self-care does not have to take a ton of extra time.
Self-care can be as simple as doing things that are soothing for your 5 senses and attending to your breathing. Consider ways to provide comfort to yourself using your senses of vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
Self-care is finding comforting or pleasing things to focus your eyes on.
Intentionally find visual images that stimulate positive emotions
Pull up funny memes or videos
Look through photos on your phone
Go people-watching or window-shopping.
Go to a museum/gallery/website with beautiful art
Watch a sunrise/sunset/waves crashing
Watch a dance/cheer/step/skating performance
Take a walk in a park or scenic area
Watch kids or animals playing or animal live-cams
Watch videos/shows that bring levity or positive reactions
Ask yourself: what can I take in with my eyes that is soothing?
Self-care is finding comforting sounds or content you can listen to.
Listen to calming sounds or soothing music
Play favorite holiday or spiritual music
Pay attention to sounds of nature (waves, birds, rainfall, leaves rustling, night noises)
Pay attention to city sounds (traffic, horns, city music)
Play the soundtrack to favorite movies
Take a drive and sing along to upbeat songs
Create playlists for confidence, for positive energy, for managing sadness or anger, etc.
Nostalgic music is especially helpful to shift your emotions.
Ask yourself: what can I listen to that is soothing?
Self-care is focusing on aromas that comfort, calm, or transport you.
We have a whole lobe of our brain dedicated to smell memories.
Having soothing or pleasant or nostalgic smells can be especially calming.
Smell/use your favorite soap, shampoo, cologne, lotion.
Light a scented candle or incense or smell essential oils
Make cookies, bread, or popcorn
Visit a floral department or nursery and smell the flowers
Open the window and smell fresh air
Try to slow down and savor the smell of pleasant things
Ask yourself: What smells calm me or transport me?
Self-care is focusing on tastes that bring enjoyment or positive memories for you.
Eat one of your favorite foods
Eat a favorite childhood food
Drink your favorite soothing drink (hot tea, coffee, chocolate, latté, smoothie)
Sample flavors in an ice cream store
Savor your favorite mint, candy or gum
Get a special food you don’t usually splurge on
Also try to taste/drink slowly to really savor it and focus your attention on the thing and away from stressful thoughts & emotions.
Careful with this one if you over-use eating to soothe or alcohol to distract.
Ask yourself: what tastes have positive memories or are soothing to me?
Self-care is finding pleasing or comforting sensations for your skin & body.
Take a long, hot bath or shower.
Stroke your dog, cat, other animal.
Have a massage or give yourself a head massage.
Soak your feet.
Put creamy lotion on your whole body.
Put on clothing with a pleasant feel.
Take a drive with the car windows down
Stroke a smooth stone or polished wood or soft fabric
Get a hug or give yourself a strong hug
Put clean sheets on the bed.
Snuggle under a quilt or weighted blanket
Ask yourself: What sensations are pleasing for my skin?
Our senses are always with us and can give us a speedy way to feel something pleasant or calming. When we are particularly stressed, we may need to stack up multiple soothing efforts to take the edge off of the heaviness.
Self-care is noticing and regulating breath throughout the day.
The other thing that is always with us is our breath.
When we choose to slow our breath, it regulates our emotions and starts to chip away at the stress bubbling up inside.
It's not a gimmick or trite - breathing is part of our natural regulation system as humans, just like a wagging tongue is for a dog.
Simple method: breathe in slowly for the count of 4 and out slowly for the count of 4. Repeat 4 times.
Learn more about specific breathing exercises to try.
Ask yourself: Am I tight or holding my breath?
To recap: Effective self-care falls into 2 buckets.
Bucket #1 - On-going things we regularly do to take care of our overall health and well-being.
Bucket #2 - Extra soothing efforts we intentionally choose to do when stress is escalated.
Reflect on these 2 self-care buckets and assess how well you are treating yourself. Are there small shifts you could make today to take better care of you?
Sometimes regular self-care just isn’t enough to manage high anxiety and powerful emotions effectively. If you want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.
Image credits in order of appearance: Swarnima Telang @_itsahappyworld_;