Let’s clear up one common misconception from the get-go: Self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence or being selfish. Self-care means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day.
If you think you’ve been hearing more about self-care now, you’re right. One indicator: According to Google Trends, the number of searches for “self-care” has more than doubled since 2015. (1)
Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, an associate professor and chair of the department of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, says the need for self-care is obvious. “We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression,” she says. “Everybody feels it.”
Self-care is part of the answer to how we can all better cope with daily stressors, explains Kelsey Patel, a Los Angeles–based wellness expert and the author of the forthcoming book Burning Bright: Rituals, Reiki, and Self-Care to Heal Burnout, Anxiety, and Stress. It’s work stress. It’s the stress of trying to keep up with the pace of daily life, which technology has hastened more than ever (just think how many emails come flooding into your inbox each day). “People are feeling lonelier and less able to unwind and slow down, which makes them feel more anxious and overwhelmed by even the simplest tasks,” Patel says.
As self-care has become more mainstream, the term has been used so frequently that it’s hard to nail down exactly what it is. Here, we explore the trend, how we can define it, and what it can do for your long-term health.
What Is Self-Care, and Why Is It Critical for Your Well-Being?
Several organizations and researchers take a health-oriented approach when defining self-care. The World Health Organization defines self-care as: “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” (2)
According to this definition, self-care includes everything related to staying physically healthy — including hygiene, nutrition, and seeking medical care when needed. It’s all the steps an individual can take to manage stressors in his or her life and take care of his or her own health and well-being.
Common Questions & Answers
A study published in?BMC Palliative Care?in April 2018 took self-care to mean “the self-initiated behavior that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.” The study authors added that it’s about being healthy but also about incorporating coping strategies to deal with work stressors. (4) The researchers focused specifically on Australian nurses and doctors working in palliative care, which is a career that puts them at risk of burnout and fatigue as a result of caring for others all day.
Much of the current research surrounding self-care has focused on groups in similarly challenging careers. Dr. Gill Lopez has studied this side of self-care and says people who are self-sacrificial by nature may need to be cajoled to practice self-care, but she adds that it’s important for everyone else, too, and helps people live and work at their optimal performance.
As self-care has become more mainstream, the definitions have started to become more applicable to the general public and tend to focus on tuning in to one’s needs and meeting those needs. “Self-care is anything that you do for yourself that feels nourishing,” says?Marni Amsellem, PhD, a licensed psychologist based in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
“That can be something that’s relaxing or calming, or it can be something that is intellectual or spiritual or physical or practical or something you need to get done,” she says.
Self-care requires checking in with yourself and asking yourself how you’re doing and what your body’s asking for. Some people use it to deal with difficult news stories, others just to maintain their happiness day to day. Self-care does not mean the same thing for everyone. Different people will adopt different self-care practices, and even your own definition might change over time.?“What is self-care for one person will likely differ from someone else, and what’s self-care for you one day might not feel like self-care another day,” Dr. Amsellem says.
Whatever your definition of self-care is, engaging in it regularly could help you put your best foot forward. “When we are regularly taking care of ourselves, we are better able to react to the things that go on in our lives,” Amsellem says. “It’s something we do to maintain positive well-being.”
“When self-care is regularly practiced, the benefits are broad and have even been linked to positive health outcomes such as reduced stress,?improved immune system, increased productivity, and higher self-esteem,” says Brighid Courtney, of Boston, a client leader at the wellness technology company?Wellable?and a faculty member at the?Wellness Council of America (WELCOA).
Types of Self-Care
“It could be anything that floats your boat — anything that puts a smile on your face,” Gill Lopez says. “Anything that makes you feel cared for, even if it's you caring for yourself.”
There are a few different categories of self-care:
- Emotional self-care, such as self-talk, weekly bubble baths, saying “no” to things that cause unnecessary stress, giving yourself permission to take a pause, or setting up a weekly coffee date with a friend
- Physical self-care, such as prioritizing sleep, adopting an exercise routine you can stick with, choosing healthy and nourishing foods over highly processed ones
- Spiritual self-care, such as attending a religious service, spending time in nature, meditating, incorporating regular acts of kindness into your day, or keeping a gratitude journal
Additionally, Gill Lopez puts self-care into two further categories: temporary and enduring.
An example of temporary self-care is going to dinner with a friend. You’ll benefit from the social connection, but it won’t last for very long after you part ways.
Enduring self-care, on the other hand, has more permanent effects. Gill Lopez says an example of this is practicing mindfulness, because it leads to brain changes, she says. According to a study published in Psychiatry Research, eight weeks of mindfulness training led to changes in gray matter concentrations in the brain areas involved with learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. (5) “You reap the benefits of mindfulness whether you're [actively] doing it or not,” Gill Lopez says.
What Counts as Self-Care and What Doesn’t
There’s no way to say exactly what counts as self-care, because everyone’s definition is different.
The underlining rule is that it's something that brings you joy, Courtney says. And though there are plenty of examples of self-care that seem to tread a fine line between a health-enhancing behavior and self-indulgence, self-care doesn’t have to be about padding your calendar with luxurious experiences or activities that cost money (though it certainly can).
Consider a manicure or a massage or any other pampering activity. It might seem indulgent, but if the activity helps you de-stress and carve out time for yourself, it counts as self-care, Amsellem says. If weekly manicures or monthly spa days are beyond your means, there are plenty of other self-care practices you can adopt.
“Self-care does not have to cost anything — it’s just doing things you enjoy. And a lot of the things we enjoy or feel fulfilled from cost nothing,” Amsellem says. “Stepping outside and taking a deep breath, for example, might be the greatest act of self-care.”
Even if you can’t spend lots of time and money, Gill Lopez says you can still practice self-care several times a week by turning things you do every day into self-care practices.
Maybe you try being more mindful of your thoughts on your commute, or maybe you find ways to make daily tasks, like showering, more enjoyable. Pick a soap with a scent that you love and focus on the physical sensations of the shower. Gill Lopez says: What does your shower smell like? What does it sound like? How does the warm water feel on your skin? “For about 10 minutes in the shower, which I have to do anyway, instead of letting my monkey brain run wild, I’m right there,” she says.
Daily chores like making your bed in the morning are also examples of self-care — or can be. “This is where that individuality comes into play, because for some people there is no way making a bed feels like self-care — it may just feel like a chore,” Amsellem says. But if it helps you claim your day and gives you a sense of accomplishment early on, you’ll have that with you even if the rest of the day gets derailed, Amsellem says.
The simple act of making your bed in the morning likely isn’t sufficient to account for all your self-care, she says. You may need to routinely devote time and energy to other self-care practices, she adds. “But if there are some days when you feel out of control, on those days, starting the day off doing what you wanted to do for yourself might be one of the biggest forms of self-care you engage in that day.”
And sometimes when all of our other self-care plans get thrown out of whack (you worked through your yoga class, your friend canceled your coffee date — we’ve all been there), it’s those small practices of self-care that provide just enough calm to help us get through the day and wake up in a better mood tomorrow.
The Effects: How Self-Care Benefits Your Health and Well-Being
At the moment, there’s limited clinical evidence documenting the long-term health benefits of self-care. But experts suspect they’re there.
Gill Lopez has led self-care workshops for students, professionals, and community members at national conferences, in school districts, and on campus at Fairfield University. Most workshops are two to three hours, and she leads about 15 to 20 per year. She says after her workshops, participants report psychological, emotional, spiritual, and professional improvements. They say they’re more in tune with their own emotions and can more easily identify when they’re feeling anxious or unbalanced. This self-awareness helps people perform better in their jobs, enables them to be more mindful, and helps them combat burnout, she explains.
More long-term research on the specific health benefits associated with self-care practices is needed, but many common self-care practices have been linked to longevity and other positive health outcomes, says Ellen K. Baker, PhD, a psychologist based in Washington, DC. There's a lot of research, for example, showing that things like exercise, yoga, and mindfulness are good for mental and physical health, she says.
A article published in January 2020 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)?notes that longevity in the 21st century depends on abiding by healthy practices — such as exercising, not smoking,?and following a healthy diet — and also embracing a positive lifestyle all around. (6) Paying attention to your well-being involves asking yourself big questions (such as: What brings me satisfaction?), and then finding ways to get there, according to that report.
The following self-care practices have been well-researched and linked to a longer life:
- Exercise People who exercised between two and eight hours per week throughout their lives reduced their risk of dying by 29 to 36 percent, according to a March 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open. (7)
- Finding purpose According to the researchers behind a May 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open, having a strong life purpose was associated with decreased mortality rates. (8)
- Diet Eating a diet filled with five servings of fruits and vegetables per day was associated with a lower risk of mortality, especially from heart-related issues, according to a July 2014 study published in The BMJ. (9)
- Sleep A study published in September 2017 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found too-little sleep (less than seven hours per night) was linked with higher mortality rates, though too-much sleep wasn’t healthy either. (10)
- Getting outside According to a 2019 study published in Lancet Planet Health, spending time in green space is associated with a lower mortality rate. (11)
Note that these studies didn’t specifically focus on self-care (in that they didn’t necessarily follow individuals who labeled these behaviors as self-care), but they suggest that these healthy-living practices — which qualify as self-care if they bring you joy — are supported indirectly by research.
How to Start a Self-Care Routine
To get started with a self-care routine, the experts we spoke with suggest:
- Determine which activities bring you joy, replenish your energy, and restore your balance.
- Start small by choosing one behavior you’d like to incorporate into your routine in the next week.
- Build up to practicing that behavior every day for one week.
- Reflect on how you feel.
- Add in additional practices when ready.
Practicing self-care doesn’t need to be a heavy lift right out of the gate. Here are a few ideas to ease you into your self-care journey:
- Start each day by paying attention to your breath for five minutes and setting intentions for the day.
- Eat breakfast.
- Reflect on what you’re grateful for each night.
- Put your phone on airplane mode for a half hour each night and release yourself from the flurry of notifications.
- Call a friend just to say hello.
- Take up a relaxing hobby.
- Pick a bedtime and stick to it.
The bottom line: Self-care can have a positive effect on your health and outlook, but it requires you to make time. “Self-care is a choice that each individual can make to proactively take care of their well-being,” Courtney says. And it tends to be well-worth the time and any money you spend. “We need to remove the stigma that being kind to and taking care of ourselves is self-indulgent or selfish,” Courtney says. “The most important relationship you have is with yourself.”
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Self-Care. Google Trends.
- What Do We Mean by Self-Care? World Health Organization.
- Godfrey CM, Harrison MB, Lysaght R, et al. The Experience of Self-Care: A Systematic Review. JBI Library of Systematic Reviews.?2010.
- Mills J, Wand T, Fraser JA. Exploring the Meaning and Practice of Self-Care Among Palliative Care Nurses and Doctors: A Qualitative Study. BMC Palliative Care. April 18, 2018.
- Holzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density. Psychiatry Research. January 30, 2012.
- Pizza PA. A Prescription for Longevity in the 21st Century: Renewing Purpose, Building and Sustaining Social Engagement, and Embracing a Positive Lifestyle. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). January 9, 2020.
- Saint-Maurice PF, Coughlan D, Kelly SP, et al. Association of Leisure-Time Physical Activity Across the Adult Life Course With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Network Open. March 8, 2019.
- Alimujiang A, Wiensch A, Boss J, et al. Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. JAMA Network Open. May 24, 2019.
- Wang X, Ouyang Y, Liu J, et al. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. The BMJ. July 29, 2014.
- Yin J, Jin X, Shan Z, et al. Relationship of Sleep Duration With All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Journal of the American Heart Association. September 2017.
- Rojas-Rueda D, Nieuwenhuijsen MJ, Gascon M, et al. Green Spaces and Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. Lancet Planet Health. November 2019.