What Is Self-Care?

older adults practicing self-care with their dog
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Self-care is the practice of taking care of yourself to boost and restore your psychological, emotional, physical, and social well-being. There's no one-size-fits-all way to take care of yourself. Instead, self-care is anything you do to support your wellness and promote positive health outcomes.

How you choose to practice self-care will look different than someone else's. This may entail a plethora of activities including learning to cope with stress, boosting physical activity, eating nutritious foods, setting boundaries in your relationships, doing hobbies you enjoy, and spending time with your loved ones. The important thing is to find self-care habits that help keep you healthy and improve your quality of life.

Why Is Self-Care Important?

As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), self-care is what you can do on your own and in your community to “promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.” Because your mental and physical health are so closely related, self-care works on multiple fronts. Meaning, as you tend to your emotional and psychological needs, you improve your physical health—and vice versa.

Since self-care aims to promote your mental and physical health, there are many benefits to adopting a self-care routine. These include:

  • Easing symptoms of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression
  • Lowering your risk of getting sick
  • Promoting resilience
  • Improving your mood, energy, and overall quality of life
  • Preventing burnout
  • Reducing stress levels
  • Keeping you more connected to your family, friends, and community
  • Boosting health outcomes in recovery from surgery or serious health conditions

Self-care is important because it can help you live longer. This is clear in the research. For instance, research has found that regular exercise starting in adolescence and continuing during your adult life reduced the risk of death for any reason by 29% to 36%. Having a set self-care routine is critical for your overall health, so it's essential to know what you can do to develop a strategy that works for you.

How To Practice Self-Care

Self-care encompasses a wide range of activities and lifestyle choices. It might mean incorporating relaxation strategies, working on your sleep, improving your diet, getting exercise, and even simply setting aside time for activities you enjoy. What you decide to do may not be the same as someone else. A self-care routine, by definition, is tailored to your needs, whether those needs are emotional, psychological, or physical.  

Get Physical Activity

One of the key components of self-care involves getting enough physical activity. Not only is this good for your physical health, but it also boosts your emotional well-being. Several studies have found that higher levels of activity reduced depression symptoms and prevented depressive episodes from occurring.

Increasing your physical activity also helps with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, and panic disorder, among others. Even small amounts of exercise lower your stress hormone levels in the blood while improving your cardiovascular (heart and vessel) health. Self-care researchers have found that getting exercise has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of anxiety attacks.

If you’re trying to increase your level of activity, it’s best to start small and scale up as your fitness improves. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults should get at least 150 minutes a week—or, 30 minutes a day, five days a week—of moderate-intensity physical activity.

It's important to note that exercise routines and needs vary from person to person. While it can be challenging to start a new routine, find something that keeps your body moving and makes you feel good. Some ideas to increase your physical activity levels include:

  • Going on daily walks
  • Taking classes at the gym
  • Trying online workout programs or at-home videos
  • Working out with friends or an accountability buddy
  • Playing sports
  • Getting exercise outdoors, such as on a hike or at the beach
  • Checking out low-impact activities such as yoga or tai chi
  • Using the stairs more often
  • Parking your car further away
  • Joining an exercise group

To help you meet your exercise goals, it may also help to establish a daily routine and track your physical activity in a journal, app, or fitness watch.

Eat Nutritious Foods

It is an act of self-care to give your body the nutrients, vitamins, and fluids it needs. Self-care strategies focus on what and when you eat and drink because a healthy diet promotes both your physical and mental health. In fact, eating well has been found to improve sleep, lower stress hormone levels, and reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, all of which help with anxiety and depression, among other health concerns.

However, just like your exercise needs, your nutrition needs are also different. Eating plans are not one-size-fits-all. That's why it's important to find a combination of nutritious foods that you can eat and feel good for your body. Many nutritionists recommend an eating plan like the Mediterranean diet, which is high in omega-3s, healthy proteins, and nutrients from fresh ingredients. This diet plan emphasizes:

  • Fresh vegetables, leafy greens
  • Whole grains
  • Beans and nuts
  • Yogurt
  • Fish and seafood
  • Olive oil
  • Lean meats, poultry
  • Sufficient water intake

Your dietary needs will look different than someone else's, so following a strict Mediterranean diet may not work for you. However, the philosophy of the Mediterranean diet is to incorporate fresh foods with natural ingredients, which has been shown to reduce the risk of certain health conditions. That said, if you're looking to eat more nutritious meals, try fresh foods until you find the eating plan that works for you.

Additionally, some foods can harm your health. Research suggests that steering clear of the following foods can help improve health outcomes and your mood:

  • Saturated fats, which are often found in red meat, whole milk, and full-fat dairy products
  • Added sugars and salts
  • Processed foods

If you'd like to learn how to build an eating plan that's right for you, consider reaching out to your primary care provider for a referral to a nutritionist or dietician.

Avoid Harmful Substances

Self-care may also involve avoiding any substances that may be contributing to poor mental or physical health. Studies show that lowering substance use can improve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic stress. Some steps you can take include:

  • Limiting alcohol: If you think your alcohol intake may be affecting you, it might help to manage how much you're drinking. Experts currently recommend drinking no more than one standard drink a day if you were assigned female at birth, and no more than two drinks a day if you were assigned male at birth.
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking tobacco or vaping is associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety, and a higher risk of developing emphysema and cancer. Eliminating tobacco products can support both your psychological and physical well-being.
  • Cutting out coffee: The caffeine in coffee, black tea, and some sodas can make sleep difficult and affect your mood throughout the day. That said, reducing your coffee intake may help improve your mood.
  • Stopping drug use: The use of drugs that are not prescribed to you can affect your physical health and emotional wellness.

Looking for Support?

Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on substance use support and treatment in your area.

(800) 662-4357

Prioritize Sleep

Getting enough sleep is a cornerstone for both mental and physical health. Studies show that adequate rest has an immediate effect on your mood. Experts have found that getting less than six hours of sleep per night can make you 2.5 times as likely to experience frequent mental distress. Insufficient sleep is also closely linked to depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, among other mental health conditions.

Sleeping well not only reduces your risk of adverse health effects and mental health conditions but can also help you feel refreshed to take on daily tasks and cope with stressors.

Healthcare providers recommend that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. Generally, young children and adolescents will need more. It's also essential to set a proper bedtime routine and consistent sleep schedule each day. With adequate rest, your cognitive functioning and mood improve, and your body becomes less vulnerable to developing diseases and cancer.

Try a Relaxing Activity

Another key aspect of self-care is relaxation, or teaching yourself to slow down and unwind. Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, massage, and yoga can slow your heart rate and breathing and lower your blood pressure, which acts directly against your body’s stress response. Studies suggest that regular relaxation can reduce stress, improve sleep, and lower your risk of anxious thoughts and depressive episodes.

Many activities are relaxing and certain therapies can promote relaxation. It's essential to find the methods that are right for you. As you explore what relaxes you most, consider trying the following:

  • Progressive relaxation: This technique involves tensing certain muscles in your body and then releasing the tension.
  • Autogenic training: You perform mental exercises to focus on relaxation and your conscious or mindful experience of the relaxation.
  • Guided imagery: This involves imagining relaxing environments, objects, scenes, memories, and ideas to promote relaxation.  
  • Biofeedback: Through the use of devices and under the guidance of a therapist, you learn to recognize signs of tension in your body. With that knowledge, you’ll sense when stress levels are rising and can figure out ways to lower your stress.
  • Breathing exercises: Focuses on slow, deep breaths to help your mind come into a mindful or meditative state.
  • Complementary approaches: Massage therapy, yoga, and acupuncture have also been shown helpful against stress.
  • Other activities: You don’t necessarily need a class or a specific exercise. Participating in gentle, relaxing activities, such as taking a bath, gardening, or walking can also help.

Additional Strategies

There are a variety of self-care techniques you can incorporate throughout your day. Some people even find it helpful to change up their self-care strategies over time to cater to their own individualized needs.

Other self-care activities you can try include:

  • Setting goals for the future and making an action plan to build the life that you want
  • Creating boundaries with others
  • Challenging harmful or negative thought patterns
  • Not being afraid to say "no" when you have too much on your plate
  • Connecting with your faith or developing your spirituality
  • Practicing gratitude out loud or in a journal
  • Connecting with your loved ones
  • Expressing your feelings through art
  • Being kinder to yourself through affirmations
  • Learning about a topic or activity you're interested in
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Drinking enough water throughout the day
  • Playing with animals
  • Volunteering for a cause you care about
  • Taking a break from your phone or other devices
  • Asking for help when you need it
  • Getting support from a mental health professional

When To Seek Help From a Professional

If you’re struggling psychologically or emotionally, self-care alone may not be enough to help you manage your symptoms. That's why it’s important to recognize the signs that you need professional help. If you experience any of the following for two or more weeks, talk to your primary healthcare provider or a mental health professional for support:

  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Changes in appetite that lead to changes in weight
  • Inability to function or get out of bed due to a depressed mood
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Not being able to complete daily tasks and responsibilities

It’s important to remember that you’re far from alone if you feel like you're struggling. Talk to your healthcare provider, as they can connect you with a mental health professional. You may even consider looking into the following resources:

Looking for Support?

If you are experiencing a crisis, or know someone who is, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for free and confidential support 24/7. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources or call the number below to reach Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline.

(800) 662-4357

A Quick Review

Self-care is a set of strategies and lifestyle habits you can employ to promote your own emotional, psychological, social, and physical health and well-being. Being proactive about your self-care includes everything from improving diet and exercise, to promoting sleep and relaxation and setting goals for yourself. This work has been shown to help with anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as promote positive physical health outcomes.

Keep in mind: self-care is a deeply personal practice. There is no one "right" way to take care of yourself. Find the activities and strategies that you enjoy the most and make you feel healthy and whole.

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17 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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