Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Learn what self-care is, how to plan it, and how to make it part of your everyday life.
What is self-care, and how does it impact your life? Many people would like to prioritize their own wellness, but aren’t sure how to begin. The stress of everyday life can make it difficult to even imaging taking care of yourself.
Self-care is a set of intentional practices that help you rest, energize, and live a healthier and more enjoyable life.
It refers to practices that maintain and enhance one’s energy, mental wellbeing, happiness, and physical health. It’s not an indulgence, but rather a necessity—much like keeping a car fueled and tuned up.
I’ve put together a self-care guide to help with this process. Check it out here.
A thorough self-care plan covers the following areas:
Mental health and wellness
Physical health (nutrition and activity)
Social self (family and connection)
Spiritual self, or higher meaning
Individual practices, such as physical activity or mindfulness, help you fulfill these important areas. Self-care is also known as self-love, self-help, wellness, and me-time.
These self-care tips and ideas cover areas that involve your brain, mental health, and overall wellness. Taking care of your thoughts and feelings, resting your brain, and creating fun in your life, are all important to overall wellness. So, let's get started!
1. Take breaks
Taking a break might feel like one more thing you have to add to your to-do list and then feel guilty about. But being too busy and distracted all of the time is often the lynch pin in the whole shebang of self-care.
In order to do all of the other self-care practices, you have to find a way to make it just as important as everything else in your life. If you get stuck on the idea that focusing on yourself is selfish, think of the oh-so-cliché airplane example. You know that one? You have to secure your own life vest first, so you don’t drown trying to save everyone else.
I also like this car metaphor. What if you made it a point to go around taking care of everyone’s car? You changed their oil for them, filled up their gas, and changed their tires when they needed it.
During all of that time, you did nothing to maintain your own car. Eventually your car would be unusable, or at least considerably less efficient, when it came to getting around to help everyone else.
Reframe the idea that self-care is selfish, and think of it as a necessity. If you’re reading this, you already have some sense of that.
2. Check in with your feelings
Once you have a little bit of me-time that’s not filled with 1,000 other responsibilities, you’ll have more opportunities to simply recognize what you’re feeling. If you’re not a touchy-feely person, don’t worry. This doesn’t have to be akin to having a good cry with Oprah.
Just notice that you’ve been feeling more stressed than usual, that you’re pretty fed up with your boss, or that you’re feeling resentful of some key people taking advantage of you.
Once you recognize these feelings you can simply acknowledge and accept them, or you can take action on them to change things. Either way, you’re checking in for a bit, rather than running on autopilot.
3. Challenge negative thoughts
I’m sure you know your inner critic. It’s the narrator in your head that thinks you should do everything better. It’s paranoid sometimes, and nothing’s ever good enough for it.
This negative self-talk serves a purpose—to protect you. It’s there to keep you from trusting that guy in the next cave that keeps taking your stuff, or to prevent you from falling off a cliff.
However, your negative voice is always looking for the worst in things. And rather than protecting you, these days it’s more often just making you grumpy and unhappy.
Start challenging these negative thoughts by first questioning them, then replacing them. In that process, you can still accept and validate your feelings.
4. Pick a mindfulness practice
I know, sitting and thinking about nothing is not your thing. Who has time for that? Actually, it’s a misnomer that mindfulness, sometimes synonymous with meditating, is about clearing your mind. It’s really the opposite. Rather than tuning out, you’re tuning in.
Mindfulness is the practice of noticing your experience, in the moment, without judging or trying to change it. It can be as simple as stopping to enjoy the breeze on your face, or as advanced as sitting on a hill and meditating for two hours. Any amount of mindfulness helps, and a regular practice can change your brain structure.
To get started, pick a simple practice. You might find a local trail and make a point to walk it slowly every day, noticing the leaves and sounds around you. You can take a local yoga class, or try some online tai chi videos. Some people find running meditative, or listening to ocean waves through their headphones.
5. Find a way to play
Responsible adults don’t have time to play, right? That’s probably true, but it might be worthwhile to do it anyway. Research shows that adult playfulness helps decrease stress, improves life satisfaction, and in some cases may even contribute to better physical health.
Play includes things that bring a sense of fun and pleasure. This is unique to each person, so could be as varied as joining a softball team to running around with the kids to taking a painting class.
Find what play is enjoyable and renewing to you, and work it into your day.
6. Learn new things
Like play, learning something new can help increase life satisfaction. It may even decrease the chance to develop dementia. And, it might just give you something exciting to focus on besides daily stressors.
If you spend a lot of time plotting how you’re going to dramatically storm out of your job, you might be able to replace that time with learning a new language or how to make the perfect chicken parmesan. You’ll spend less energy on the things that make you unhappy, and feeling less stressed will make it easier to solve those problems.
7. Contact a therapist
If you’re feeling stuck on things that are bothering you, or you seem to stay down in the dumps, you might benefit from an outside perspective. A neutral, trained therapist can help you work through problems you’re too close too to see clearly.
If you’re dealing with more serious issues, like chronic depression, major anxiety, or ADHD, a qualified therapist can help you get back on track. Look for someone trained and experienced in the specific issue(s) you’re dealing with. You might not be able to get into a session today, but you can start researching and even contact a therapist with questions.
Improve Physical Health
Western medicine is very focused on pharmaceuticals. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, this mentality sometimes misses more basic problems, like rest, nutrition and balance. Improving or addressing these areas of physical self-care might prevent or solve many of life’s other problems.
We often underestimate how much sleep affects us. It improves, or worsens mental health systems. It helps with pain management. It increases our patience, helps us think better, and makes your chatty coworker way more tolerable.
There are all of the typically recommended sleep hygiene tips (sleep in a dark, quiet environment), but if these haven’t worked for you, find what does. There are amazing sleep apps now that will practically lull you to sleep. Sometimes journaling or practicing mindfulness activities at night also help.
9. Get the right nutrition
The impact of food and nutrition is greatly undervalued in wellness and mental health care. Dieting stinks, but eating less sugar and more veggies and lean protein really can make you feel better. Rather than focusing on weight loss or dieting, which rarely works over time, just make small lifestyle changes towards more balanced eating.
Also make sure you’re getting enough vitamins, and that you’re not experiencing imbalances such as thyroid problems or low iron. These can sometimes be improved with simple supplements.
10. Find an exercise you enjoy
You’ve heard this one many, many times. We all know we feel better when we exercise. And many, many people have trouble sticking with it.
The best thing you can do for your fitness is find a sport or activity you enjoy. Positive reinforcement works much better than self-inflicted guilt trips. Feeling guilty makes you want to crawl back under the covers.
If the gym isn’t your thing, don’t go. Start training for a 5k instead. Try virtual reality fitness, or take your dog on an extra (or extra long) walk every day. Get as creative as you need to so you can look forward to the activity in the long run, instead of avoiding it.
Your Social Self
Some are more social than others. One person might go stir crazy alone, while another might thrive on it. But at some point, we all need support and at least some interaction.
Here are some steps you can take to improve your social wellness.
11. Get out of the house
If you’ve been social distancing, or tend to isolate anyway, getting outside can be hard. You don’t have to go to the county fair or an office party, just stop in at a local coffee shop, or visit a favorite park.
Humans love their caves, but are also meant to roam sometimes. Even if you prefer being in the dark with a thick blanket, you’ll feel better getting outside, even if it’s briefly.
12. Socialize, at least a little
Like getting out of the house, you don’t have to go all extravert if that’s not you. However, simply being around people seems to have an energizing effect for many people.
Start with no-pressure activities, like browsing at a local bookstore. If you have a friend to contact, reach out. You don’t have to talk about every life problem, or even any of them. Just spend a little bit of time around people.
13. Communicate with your partner/family
Many people suffer stress due to difficulties with their partner or other family members. Sharing a life together takes a lot of work sometimes, and if it’s not going well it can steal most of your joy.
There are certainly toxic, unsafe relationships that may be impossible to improve. However, there are other relationships where all parties involved are well-meaning, but just can’t get back to a happy place.
If this is the case for you, the likely problem is communication. Practice being friends again. Share about your day, validate and comfort each other, and gently share your feelings and concerns. It’s much better to have an occasionally difficult conversation, or even a fight, rather than spending months or years living in resentment of your partner.
14. Set and follow your boundaries
Along with communication comes boundaries. Boundaries are simply what you are and aren’t okay with. Maybe you’re okay with making dinner most nights, but you’re not okay with cleaning up after everyone. Maybe you enjoy chatting with your co-worker in the mornings, but their constant interruptions throughout the day are making it impossible to work.
Rather than letting these things go, which breeds resentment, communicate your needs. You can try this first politely, if you don’t like to stir things up. For example, rather than, “Please stop interrupting me!” try “You are so funny. I enjoy our morning chats, but I am so behind on work I’m going to have to stop talking to people during the day.” Then, once your office is clear, shut the door (even if it’s a metaphorical one).
Your higher purpose, or connection with a power beyond everyday life, makes the stressful days more tolerable. Even if you’re not a religious person, or consider yourself an atheist, these are ways to make a higher connection and create a more meaningful life for yourself.
15. Set life goals and intentions
It’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t see the bigger picture. Why do you work? Why are you raising kids? Why did you start this business?
Think about how you want to feel, and what things are important to you in life. It might be helping others, or traveling more, or living without debt.
Take some time to identify your intentions, values, and the “why” in your life. Then remind yourself of these things when you feel stressed or discouraged. If this doesn’t help, then maybe it’s time to make some changes so you do feel more connected to your purpose.
16. Explore work you love
If you dislike your job, you’re in good company. That doesn’t mean you have to stay put and complain for the next ten years.
It may not be feasible to walk out today, but you can certainly take steps to make a change. Maybe it’s as simple as transferring at your current job.
Or you might take additional training, go back to school, start a side hustle, or start updating your resume. If you’re working towards your goal, it can make it a little more tolerable to deal with everyday annoyances.
17. Find a fulfilling hobby
When your life revolves around one thing—your job, your partner, your children, then those things are going to become stressful. It doesn’t mean that you forget about them, or they’re not just as important to you. But it does mean you need a balance, and maybe something that’s just for you.
Think back to when you were a kid, or a younger adult, and remember the things that were fun. Did you like to play golf, color adult coloring sheets, or play Minecraft?
Maybe you don’t want to do that exact thing again, but think about why you enjoyed it, and find your new version of that.
18. Discover what’s meaningful
One reason many people find spirituality helpful is that it takes some of the pressure off of you. If there’s a bigger entity involved, like the universe, or the strength of nature, then you, as a single human, don’t have to be responsible for everything around you.
There are plenty of spiritual practices that don’t focus on organized religion. Examples include yoga, meditation, or the Law of Attraction. Science can be spiritual too.
The powerful force of evolution, or the way the moon impacts the ocean waves, is pretty inspiring. If you’ve been spiritual in the past, explore what you believe today, what brings you comfort, and what adds to meaning in your life.
19. Practice creativity
There’s nothing like making something new to bring a sense of satisfaction. It might be the perfect burger, or an oil painting. The result is the same. It increases your confidence, gives you a stronger sense of self, and activates the creative areas of your brain.
Find ways you can create something. If you feel frozen by the creative process, use structured creativity. This might include adult coloring sheets, paint by number kits, or model airplanes.
Explore projects that interest you, where you have something tangible to look at in the end.
20. Take small steps
You don’t have to practice all of these steps, or even multiple ones at once. Pick one to start, or one from each category. Once you get the hang of it, or find what helps you the most, add a similar practice.
21. Don’t settle for less than a great life
Most importantly, don’t settle. Life is too short to spend any more of it being unhappy. That’s not to say that life is always easy, of course.
There are flat tires, horrible jobs, and unfortunately, we sometimes lose people we love. But these things can be in contrast to the parts of life that are most enjoyable -- the time we get with loved ones, that day you made the perfect vase in pottery class, or when you finally landed the job you always wanted.
If there are parts of your life that are stealing your joy, find a way to change them. Maybe you can’t change everything overnight, but you can definitely start with small steps today.
Struggling with Trauma, Anxiety, or PTSD?
If you believe you may be struggling with an ongoing mental health issue, here are some resources that can help.
Find professional services. A good starting point is SAMHSA, which will help you connect to local therapists.
Take the PTSD Self-Assessment. This quiz will help you gather information you can take to your therapist. Start your self-assessment here.
Check out the Peace from PTSD Kit. I designed this kit based on scientific research and my own experiencing in helping clients heal from PTSD. Learn more here.
Jennie Lannette, LCSW, is a licensed, practicing therapist in Missouri, specializing in trauma, anxiety, and related mental health issues.