The roots of self-care emphasize physical, emotional, and spiritual health and resilience. It’s not self-indulgence; it’s self-discipline. It takes discipline to get up early to run or meditate. It takes discipline to set boundaries and say "no." And it takes discipline to stay strong and balanced in an ever-changing world.
In this article, we’ll break self-care into four different domains: care for your body, relationships, emotions, and spirit — with tips from some of our therapists. You’ll see how a fresh take on self-care can return you to the term’s origins of physical and emotional self-preservation.
Care for your body
People often think of self-care as something special tacked onto real life — a relaxing bath or glass of wine after a stressful week. But at its core, self-care involves the basic things you already do every day: sleeping, eating, and moving. Self-care means you do these things in ways that make you healthier. And it shouldn’t take a lot of time or money. The simpler and easier the changes, the more likely you are to stick with them. Some ideas:
- Try to get seven or eight hours of quality sleep every night. That’s the recommendation of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society. You may need more or less time in bed, depending on how you feel. The goal is to wake up feeling refreshed, not tired. And don’t feel guilty about taking a nap instead of powering through the day’s tasks. Tips for a good night’s sleep: Avoid screens, bright lights, exercise, and alcohol right before bed.
- Eat whole foods, mostly plants. When possible, moderate or eliminate processed and fast food. A good place to start learning more about healthy eating is Michael Pollan's book, Food Rules.
- Stay active. Our bodies need consistent movement to be healthy. Schedule exercise as if it were an important appointment, then keep it. Walk, run, bike, swim, lift weights, garden, practice yoga or tai chi. According to Todd Miller, MD, director of Mayo Clinic’s sports cardiology clinic in Minnesota, the most important thing is to “just keep moving.”
Care for your relationships
COVID-19 forced some families to live closer to each other and others much farther apart. Some marriages and romantic partnerships crumbled while others got stronger. Separation sometimes frayed “weak-tie” friendships — those on the periphery of life — and deepened longtime ones. Other relationships might be in a temporary holding pattern or newly ready to take off. In short, there’s a whole lot of social reshuffling going on.
For some, the result of all this relationship turmoil sparked by the pandemic may actually be positive. We had a chance to re-evaluate the people we spend time with and the quality of those relationships. You might notice for the first time that some connections are draining and destructive instead of mutually fulfilling, says Linda Larkin, MA, LPC. “Your relationships should uplift you, not deflate you,” she points out. Despite everything the pandemic has taken away, it may have given you the chance to hang onto relationships that are healthy and let go of the ones that aren’t.
Here are a few ways you can practice self-care, even in a relationship or family dynamic, according to Lawrence Martin, MA, LPC:
- Understand your own personality needs. If you’re an introvert, plan alone time. If you’re an extrovert, plan a day to hike, bike, exercise, or have coffee with a friend.
- Find independent answers to the new problems you face. We can easily fall into the trap of relying too heavily on one person to meet all our needs.
- If you have a child, be honest with your partner about what is working or not working as you learn together how to parent.
- Appreciate your partner for the talents they have without expecting them to wear too many different hats. This will give your relationship the freedom it needs and will activate your own work of independent growth.
Care for your emotions
Facing and reflecting on your feelings is hard work, and most people aren’t very good at it. Yet this may be the most transformative part of self-care. Allowing yourself time and space to inspect your emotions — even the distressing ones — can be instructive and healing. Below are a few ideas to get started:
- Begin with mindfulness, a non-judgmental way of paying attention. With mindfulness, you don’t identify with, suppress, or criticize your feelings; you simply notice them. You don’t look at them with your usual prejudices, projections, and expectations. When you witness emotions this way, they often vanish on their own.
- Sometimes, though, clearly seeing what you think and feel can spur you to action. If you’re grieving, find someone to comfort or a meaningful cause to support. If you’re lonely, offer to help others.
Strong emotion can be a powerful agent for good, but not when it’s suppressed or turned inward.
Larkin says that if you can’t figure out what you’re feeling or continue to struggle with your emotions, it’s even more important to pay attention to them. She suggests talking to someone you trust or writing or making art about your feelings. Sometimes describing a thing calmly, without judgment, can help you name it.
Care for your spirit
“This form of self-care applies to everyone, whether or not you’re spiritual or religious,” Larkin says. “It includes activities that connect you with and nurture your inner spirit, essence, or heart.”
You can also think about spiritual self-care as a way to connect with what is deepest and best in you — a way to give your true nature a chance to grow and flourish. Caring for your spirit looks different for everyone:
- In prayer or a formal religious setting
- Through meditation, yoga, or a mindfulness practice
- In nature, through music, or working for a cause you care deeply about
The important thing is to find an activity that can help you reveal the truth of the present moment without troubling emotions or judgment getting in the way.
When you commit to self-care as a daily practice, your immune system, energy, and mood get a boost, improving your overall health, according to Larkin. You may find that you have the strength to be a better, more involved parent, partner, friend, and colleague. And your connection to yourself, your community, and the wider world becomes stronger and more meaningful.
Preventive Medicine Reports: “How socioeconomic status influences self-care for Black/African American women: A differential item analysis.”
Todd Miller, MD, cardiologist, professor in the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, and co-director, Mayo Clinic’s sports cardiology clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Psychological Science: “Early Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Relationship Satisfaction and Attributions.”
Linda Larkin, MA, LPC, Colorado-based psychotherapist, and art therapist.
Lawrence A. Martin, MA, LPC, Colorado-based therapist.