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What is self-care? What adding self-care to your routine looks like and helpful tips to get you started

What is self-care? What adding self-care to your routine looks like and helpful tips to get you started

If you’re wondering how to best take care of yourself, self-care may seem like the obvious answer. But exactly how self-care should be executed might not be clear. It’s a process that’s about more than looking good or feeling better than we did the day before. Self-care is about sustainability—on an emotional, physical, and psychological level.

By creating a balance in our lives through listening to our personal needs and goals, we can create our own successful self-care routine. With some commitment, these activities can also become healthy habits. But still, putting together all of these components might seem a tad overwhelming; that’s why we’ve composed this in-depth guide—to help you explore and understand self-care from an individualized perspective.

What Does Self-Care Really Mean?

Self-care is any activity that provides individualized, personal nourishment, whether physically or spiritually, when engaging in that activity. Self-care isn’t just one prescribed thing, like face masks or bath bombs, but rather a system of activities that, when regularly done, allow one to feel fulfilled and rejuvenated. 

Self-care can include all the subjective things that an individual needs in order to achieve and maintain optimum physical well-being, emotional health, mental health, and for some, spiritual health. It is most effective when someone is able to identify deficits or areas that need nourishment and engage in activities that allow that part of yourself to flourish.

The Importance of Self-Care

Self-care, quite literally, is what keeps you alive and able to function on a daily basis. It is essential to all aspects of our well-being, but it’s also indicative of a balanced lifestyle. When we’re able to practice self-care in the forms that both appeal to us, like our hobbies, and forms that don’t—like physical exercise, perhaps—it’s the perfect avenue for psychological growth and long-term physical health. 

At its core, self-care allows us to receive replenishment and nourishment while also reinforcing the fact that we are not infinitely energetic and are allowed to engage in activities that recharge. 

What Are the Benefits of Self-Care?

Self-care can benefit you in many ways. According to recent studies, self-care can: 

The benefits of self-care can vary from individual to individual and depend on the nature of the activities, how regularly one engages in the activities, and what conditions or health problems you might be dealing with. But any little bit helps.

How Do You Practice Self-Care?

The best way to incorporate self-care into your daily life will involve creating a routine—and sticking to it. According to psychological studies, some of the best ways to implement (and keep) your own self-care routine include: 

  • Creating an easy-to-follow, daily plan 
  • Taking the time required (up to 12 weeks) to make the self-care activities in your routine become habits
  • Finding peers or those in your community who enjoy some of the same activities 
  • Prioritizing your needs when necessary
  • Setting boundaries by saying “no” to avoid socially overbooking yourself

To those who are unfamiliar with taking their own needs into account consistently, self-care may seem selfish, or even feel strange. But the essence of self-care is based on one simple fact: We can’t show up for others in our life if we don’t first take care of ourselves.

This doesn’t mean you have to take on every effective self-care strategy at once, either. If you feel overwhelmed, just focus on sticking to one act of self-care, practicing it until it becomes a solid part of your routine. Then, add others that work for you. That way, if you feel overwhelmed by your new additions again, you already have one or two activities that you’re used to doing to support you. 

What Are the Five Key Areas of Self-Care?

The five keys of self-care are the areas of our lives that receive nourishment from performing self-care. Self-care allows the essential parts of our daily life to thrive, as it’s all about setting aside time to nourish all areas of our well-being, including the five keys, which include: 

  • Our social health
  • Our physical health
  • Our emotional health
  • Our mental health
  • Our spiritual health

Self-care ensures that our well-being is a priority, simply because it’s all about taking care of ourselves. When we approach our self-care practice, it’s often helpful to view each step or activity as part of a larger framework for success on multiple fronts.

Physical Self-Care Tips

Physical self-care methods might include: 

  • Conscientious eating: Eating mindfully means being fully attentive to the food you’re consuming — tuning into what you’re eating as well as what food you’re buying and how you’re preparing it. A good goal to start with is to make sure you’re eating a minimum of 1500 calories per day in order to make sure that your mind and body are operating at peak performance. Even better, make sure you have either a meal or a snack every three to four hours to keep your blood pressure and blood sugar stable and your body nourished.
  • Routine exercise: Consistent exercise and positive mental health are correlated — and it’s been shown to help one maintain emotional stability long-term. Exercise can take many forms, but it’s important to find a routine, type of activity, and level of intensity that is sustainable for you. Start by taking a daily walk, and see where that gets you.
  • Annual physical evaluations: Physical evaluations from your primary care physician, or other licensed professional, are a great way to ensure that you are aware of any underlying health conditions that might affect you on a day-to-day basis. Addressing and routinely checking in with your doctor should be part of your self-care regimen.
  • Hydration: Drinking plenty of water might sound like a simple tip, but dehydration is a chronic issue in American adults and children. And when we’re dehydrated, we often become stressed, fatigued, or anxious. A simple way to engage in self-care is to stay hydrated.
  • Stretching: Stretching isn’t just good for sore or stagnate muscles. When stress and anxiety take hold, our muscles tense up. By taking time to unwind and release that tension, we can take some of the stress out of our bodies.

Physical self-care is about all the little steps that are taken to add up to holistic well-being. However, it’s still okay to treat yourself when you’ve earned it, which might help motivate you to work towards your personal goals, according to research. Staying on top of your physical self-care routine might be a little easier if there’s occasionally a treat for you involved. 

Emotional and Mental Self-Care Strategies

Emotional and mental self-care involves tuning into and protecting one’s emotions, especially for empathetic individuals who tend to become overly involved in the affairs of others. Emotional self-care might entail: 

  • Getting therapy, counseling, or psychiatric care: Anyone can benefit from attending therapy or counseling, and doing so can help you preserve your emotional well-being. Even those without a mental health condition can benefit from venting or discussing personal matters with an experienced and professional third party. 
  • Journaling: Even a few pages of journaling a night can help reduce lingering stress and anxiety about the events of your day, or even what you’re feeling anxious about tomorrow. It serves as an outlet for venting about any negative emotions you’re experiencing. Create a journal prompt of things that you give yourself permission to feel, or perhaps things you forgive yourself for. 
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness has been proven to help reduce levels of cortisol—a potent stress hormone—in the body. Studies on mindfulness have also indicated that experienced practitioners can even start rewiring their brains to avoid their harmful thought patterns.
  • Nature therapy: Spending time outside, taking a walk, hiking, or going for a bike ride can act as a natural reset for our brains, restoring our body’s natural rhythms, including our sleep cycle and mood-regulating chemical production. Plus, having added Vitamin D from the sun can help ensure that our mood remains elevated, as some findings indicate a correlation between Vitamin D intake and lessened depressive symptoms. 
  • Cultivating gratitude: This process might seem unfamiliar, but it’s quite simple. Cultivating gratitude can involve taking into account the things in your life that you appreciate — for example, having consistent food, shelter, and clean water are often taken for granted by many. Identify areas of your life, your day, your week that you are grateful for and take time to reflect. Just being able to identify that your essential needs are available is a part of cultivating gratitude. 

What Is Spiritual Self-Care?

Spiritual self-care involves any activity or practice that aims to connect the believer with a higher power, or version of themselves, depending on the belief system they adhere to. Some common forms of spiritual self-care might include: 

  • Attending Sunday service, in the church of your choosing 
  • Practicing yoga
  • Performing a pilgrimage to a holy site 
  • Fasting
  • Praying
  • Attending a mission trip to a foreign country

A spiritual practice is perhaps the most subjective form of self-care. The purpose of spiritual self-care is to create and nurture a connection with something larger than oneself. This experience has been proven to be highly cathartic, with both physical and mental benefits being reported.  

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Self-Care for Stress Management

In order to effectively manage your stress, you must first look at the biggest areas of your life that provide the biggest amount of stress. Try making a list of stressors, and then rank them from most to least stress-inducing. From there, look at ways in which you can increase both the use of boundaries and the use of self-care and wellness behaviors to counteract feelings of stress. 

The good news is, the self-care tactics you use for stress management can be the same as the ones you use for regular self-care. Listen to what your body and mind need and choose a practice that soothes the part of yourself that is stressed or irritated.

Can Self-Care Help with Anxiety and Depression?

Self-care can absolutely help with anxiety and depression. As previously stated, self-care is crucial when attempting to manage anxiety, and is often recommended by therapists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals as a supplement to a personalized treatment plan. 

Self-care can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety by acting as a natural insulator between negative thoughts and emotions. Proper boundaries, a thriving social network (which may look different from person to person), and exercise—these all contribute to reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Self-Care Practices for Better Sleep

There are many different ways that you can practice sleep self-care, and one of the best recommendations is to make sure that you are choosing activities near bedtime that you both enjoy and that specifically help you relax and unwind, not that make you feel more energized. 

Disconnecting completely from technology at least 30 minutes prior to bed is a must. During that time, you could stretch, read a book, drink some tart cherry juice (known for helping with sleep), brew and drink a cup of tea, do a face mask, pet your dog, journal—the possibilities are endless and completely customizable to you and your situation.

How to Prioritize Self-Care in a Busy Life

One way to prioritize self-care in a busy life is to find self-care strategies that are both quick and effective. While Western culture might disagree, self-care is truly a requirement to human functioning. 

The first step to this is to reflect on your life and mood in the moment in order to identify your areas of depletion. Then, you can work to think of good self-care ideas, like activities that aid in replenishment and nourishment, that also fit into your schedule. 

A great way to fit self-care into a busy life is to think of things that you can do to care for yourself while also completing tasks, such as doing tasks alone or while drinking coffee or listening to music. Make your environment part of your self-care routine.

How to Create a Self-Care Sanctuary at Home

A great tip for creating a self-care sanctuary at home is to start exploring your senses. When you think about a place that is cozy, comforting, and relaxing, what do you think about? What are the smells, sights, colors, textures, and tastes that you associate with that space? 

Consider whether there is any space in your home that you can carve out just for you to be your self-care sanctuary. This can be a bedroom, unused room in the house, garage space, bathroom, or even shed. 

Integrating self-care into your daily life and routine is one of the best ways to give your life balance, both physically and emotionally. Make a choice to start caring for yourself and find practices that fill you up so that you can live the best life you can.

  • Clinical writer
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Alexandra “Alex” Cromer is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who has 4 years of experience partnering with adults, families, adolescents, and couples seeking help with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma-related disorders.

Christine Ridley, Resident in Counseling in Winston-Salem, NC

Christine Ridley is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in adolescent and adult anxiety, depression, mood and thought disorders, addictive behaviors, and co-dependency issues.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

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We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on May 22, 2022

    Author: Jason Crosby

  • Updated on June 10, 2023

    Author: Hannah DeWitt; Alexandra Cromer, LPC

    Reviewer: Christine Ridley, LCSW

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding updated definitions of self-care, lists of good self-care practices, why it’s important, what the key areas of self-care are, and physical, emotional, and spiritual self-care tips; added sections on how to use self-care for stress management and sleep issues, as well as how to practice self-care well in one’s home and integrate into a busy schedule; article was clinically reviewed to double confirm accuracy and enhance value.

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