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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Google is a reflection of what people are thinking about and desiring at any point in time. Case in point: In the spring of 2020, when early COVID-19 woes were at their peak, searches for “self-care routine” and “self-care” spiked. But self-care doesn’t only matter when there’s a deadly pandemic going on—it’s an important part of one’s overall health at any time.
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What is self-care?
Overall, self-care encompasses the habits and process of monitoring and managing your mental, social, physical, and spiritual health (Matarese, 2018).
Posts on social media may give the impression that “self-care” is a product of the wellness industry, but self-care is more than spa days, yoga classes, and other things you can buy (Seligson, 2020). Many self-care habits don’t require you to spend any money at all.
Self-care can be these things, but it’s also a more comprehensive range of habits that boost your health. These habits can encompass stress management, healthy eating, physical activity, and nurturing feelings of connection. It can even consist of small but powerful actions you can take every day to improve your health, like taking your prescription medications when you’re supposed to and getting enough sleep.
Why self-care is important
If you’re incorporating self-care into many areas of your life, it has the potential to improve all of them. Simple self-care habits like taking a walk and writing down your feelings can ease stress and anxiety (Parker-Pope, 2019).
We haven’t perfected studying self-care yet since there are many definitions, but research does prove some benefits of these practices. One study found that self-care can improve medical outcomes and decrease healthcare costs (Riegel, 2021).
Self-care habits can also strengthen your relationship with yourself. Saying no and setting boundaries can reaffirm your values and underscore your respect for yourself. You may also feel like you can live more in line with your true self and preferences, as saying no gets easier with practice (Romanelli, 2020).
Research suggests that some people are naturally more resilient than others in dealing with difficult circumstances, largely due to factors outside our control. But we may be able to amp up our capacity to overcome and recover from challenges by manipulating factors we can control. Developing your self-care abilities may improve your resilience (Bender, 2018).
Self-care: why taking care of mental health is important for your physical health
How to practice self-care
Since self-care is so expansive, there’s a lot to cover. In that way, it’s a lot like suddenly trying to live a “healthy lifestyle.” But you may find that you’re already good at practicing self-care in several areas. Focus on developing self-care habits and routines in the areas you know you need support or work.
You’ve heard about some self-care habits that protect and support your physical health a million times: get enough sleep, get more fruit and vegetables in your diet, and move your body regularly. But you can also practice physical self-care by taking your prescription medications as instructed, quitting smoking, and following specific lifestyle practices outlined by your healthcare professional for managing an acute or chronic health condition (Riegel, 2012).
Many habits for supporting physical health also offer mental health benefits, like getting physical movement, prioritizing sleep, and eating a nutrient-dense diet (NIMH, 2021). Other stress management techniques, like journaling, can improve mental health by decreasing reactivity to stressful situations, alleviating depression, and improving sleep quality (Herr, 2018). Seeing a mental health professional when you could use the support or treatment for a mental illness is also a form of self-care.
Nurturing your social connections has many benefits for your psychological and emotional health. How that looks for you may be different than how it looks for someone else. Whether online or in-person, support groups can provide this connection, as can walks or phone calls with loved ones (close friends or family members) and even spending time doing volunteer work (Seppälä, 2020).
For some people, supporting their spiritual health means religious activity (like prayer or going to church)—but that’s not the case for everyone. Some non-religious people like using a mantra throughout the day. Others connect with their spiritual side through nature. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, engaging in activities that support and align with them can help you feel fulfilled and connected to the world. It can also remind you of the good things around you and provide a sense of purpose (MHA, n.d.).
Journaling for mental health: benefits, prompts, and how to start
There’s a misconception that self-care is selfish, but that isn’t the case. Self-care practices aren’t done with the intent to hurt others or deny them something, but rather to improve your overall health. This myth may be weakening since the COVID pandemic illustrated how caring for yourself is also a way to care for those around you (Parker-Pope, 2021).
Saying no to people can be the hardest aspect of self-care, but even this isn’t selfish. Saying yes to everything can derail your accomplishments and lead to resentment in your relationships over time (Hinton, 2020). Saying no sometimes allows you to show up fully for your commitments, support your mental health, and build your self-esteem and confidence (Moore, 2021).
- Bender, A. & Ingram, R. (2018). Connecting attachment style to resilience: Contributions of self-care and self-efficacy. Personality and Individual Differences, 130, 18–20. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.03.038. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886918301648
- Herr, R., Barrech, A., Riedel, N., et al. (2018). Long-term effectiveness of stress management at work: Effects of the changes in perceived stress reactivity on mental health and sleep problems seven years later. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(2), 255. doi:10.3390/ijerph15020255. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/15/2/255
- Hinton, A. O., McReynolds, M. R., Martinez, D., et al. (2020). The power of saying no. EMBO Reports, 21(7), e50918. doi:10.15252/embr.202050918. Retrieved from https://www.embopress.org/doi/full/10.15252/embr.202050918
- Matarese, M., Lommi, M., De Marinis, M. G., & Riegel, B. (2018). A systematic review and integration of concept analyses of self-care and related concepts. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 50(3), 296–305. doi:10.1111/jnu.12385. Retrieved from https://sigmapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jnu.12385
- Mental Health America (MHA). (n.d.). Take care of your spirit. Retrieved on Mar. 31, 2022 from https://www.mhanational.org/take-care-your-spirit
- Moore, K. (2021). The power of saying no. Psychology Today. Retrieved on Apr. 1, 2022 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-matters-menninger/202111/the-power-saying-no
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2021). Caring for your mental health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/caring-for-your-mental-health
- Parker-Pope, T. (2019). For the holidays, the gift of self-care. The New York Times. Retrieved on Mar. 29, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/10/well/mind/self-care-buddhism-monk-meditation-stress-anxiety-calm-Haemin-Sunim.html
- Parker-Pope, T. (2021). Why self-care isn’t selfish. The New York Times. Retrieved on Apr. 1, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/06/well/live/why-self-care-isnt-selfish.html
- Riegel, B., Jaarsma, T., & Strömberg, A. (2012). A middle-range theory of self-care of chronic illness. Advances in Nursing Science, 35(3), 194–204. doi:10.1097/ans.0b013e318261b1ba. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/advancesinnursingscience/Abstract/2012/07000/A_Middle_Range_Theory_of_Self_Care_of_Chronic.3.aspx
- Riegel, B., Dunbar, S. B., Fitzsimons, D., et al. (2021). Self-care research: Where are we now? where are we going? International Journal of Nursing Studies, 116, 103402. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2019.103402. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0020748919302093
- Romanelli, A. (2020). Saying no to others is saying yes to yourself. Psychology Today. Retrieved on Mar. 29, 2022 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-other-side-relationships/202003/saying-no-others-is-saying-yes-yourself
- Seligson, H. (2020). What is self care now, anyway? The New York Times. Retrieved on Mar. 29, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/26/us/women-self-care-beauty-leigh-stein.html
- Seppälä, E. (2020, March 23). Social connection boosts health, even when you’re isolated. Psychology Today. Retrieved on Mar. 30, 2022 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/202003/social-connection-boosts-health-even-when-youre-isolated
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.