Self-care has many different definitions. It simply depends on who you ask. But what usually doesn’t differ is that self-care is about nourishing ourselves—and it’s absolutely vital.
As psychotherapist Emily Griffiths, LPC, said, “The opposite of self-care is self-neglect.” And “neglecting our emotional and physical health leads to increased anxiety, depression, and physical illness.”
She noted that self-care is about knowing our limits and not depleting our nervous system. “When we lose sight of our self-care practices, we can experience burn-out,” which “sets ourselves up for getting sick, overwhelmed, and exhausted.”
Psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, defines self-care as “the surprisingly difficult—for many of us—process of stepping aside from the busyness of life, evaluating how we’re doing emotionally, physically, and mentally, and then taking steps to meet any unmet needs.”
Psychotherapist Ashley Thorn, LMFT, defines self-care as doing “healthy things, in any aspect of your life, that ‘fill your cup.’” These are things that make you feel focused, calm, happy and true to yourself, she said.
Similarly, Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, a perinatal mental health and relationship expert, views self-care as “any activity or choice that allows a person to replenish, rejuvenate or reserve energy.” It is about prioritizing our needs so we can be “fully present when caring for or connecting with others.”
Psychotherapist Ariella Cook-Shonkoff emphasized that self-care doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. “It can be as simple as starting the day with some stretching or making a choice not to go out one night because you are sick.”
Small and simple are especially key when you’re in a busy season of life, such as being a new parent. Brunner is the cofounder of the website and workshop series Baby Proofed Parents, which delivers sanity-saving and relationship-strengthening tools to expectant and new parents. She encourages parents to find self-care when and where you can. “[L]ook for small opportunities to refuel your gas tanks.”
These small opportunities might be reading a magazine in the bathroom for a few minutes while your spouse is with the baby. It might be getting out of the house for an hour and wandering around Target. It might be playing nine holes of golf. It might be watching a movie on the couch while eating takeout.
“Self-care is representative of two of the most important pillars of psychological health: the relationship you have with yourself and the relationships you have with others,” said Griffiths, who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression and trauma in Austin, Texas.
Below, therapists reveal their favorite self-care tips—from specific, soothing actions to significant shifts in perspective.
Schedule self-care like it’s a meeting or appointment. We usually prioritize everything and everyone else over our own self-care, and there’s always something to do, whether at home or at work. Which is why it’s vital to think of self-care as any important activity, said Cook-Shonkoff, a marriage and family therapist and registered art therapist who specializes in treating low self-esteem in kids, teens, and adults in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif.
“When possible, communicate your plan to your partner, roommate, friend, or family member, as they might be a good support.”
Check in with yourself regularly. Both Thorn and Griffiths stressed the importance of having honest conversations throughout the day about what you truly need and trying to meet those needs. “This in and of itself is self-care,” Thorn said.
How are you feeling? Is there tension anywhere? Are you feeling depleted? Is anything bothering you?
Sometimes, the answer is saying no, engaging in a meaningful project, pulling away from a toxic relationship or taking a break and doing something that relaxes you when you’re stressed out, Thorn said. Sometimes, it’s getting more sleep, taking time to be alone or contemplating a career change, Griffiths said.
Use your commute. Howes is all about self-care that doesn’t add significant amounts of time to your daily routine. Which is why he suggested taking advantage of your commute, something so many of us have to do anyway. Instead of filling that time with stressful news or mindless music, he said, come up with three things you’re grateful for, practice progressive relaxation, or set goals for your day. “Your commute will likely go better, as will the rest of your day.”
Do 5-5-5 breathing. Brunner suggested practicing this kind of deep breathing four or five times in a row in the mornings and evenings. This is especially powerful when you’re stressed out or rushing around, which is when we tend to hyperventilate, she said.
Specifically, this involves breathing in for five seconds, holding for five seconds, and then breathing out for five seconds.
Shift your mindset. Howes noted that seeing our day as stressful, awful and overwhelming can be detrimental to our health. “Try to get in touch with the reasons you joined this relationship or accepted this job in the first place, and try to view the obstacles as opportunities for growth instead of harbingers of the death of the relationship or job,” he said. That is, maybe your job has many challenges, but you love to problem solve.
Invert your body. “We spend so much of our time upright, rushing around with tense shoulders,” Brunner said. She suggested spending 15 minutes lying on your back on the floor with your calves on the sofa. “You’re hydrating and calming your brain at the same time by letting things flow in reverse for a while.”
Look for opportunities in traffic, boredom and sleepless nights. As Howes said, these are all miserable experiences. However, we can use them to engage in self-care. For instance, when you’re stuck in traffic, call a close friend to catch up. When you’re bored, make a plan for the future. When you can’t sleep, practice a meditation you just learned.
“Many of us spend more time and energy complaining about what is than using our resources to make a positive change,” Howes said. How can you turn an irritating experience into a time for self-care?
Adopt a delicious philosophy. We tend to fill our days with time commitments that aren’t fulfilling, foods that don’t taste good, and friendships that are draining, said Brunner, co-author of the forthcoming book Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads: How to Support Your Partner Through Birth, Breastfeeding & Beyond. Instead, she encourages her clients “to be more selective in how they fill their homes, time and stomachs.” Choose foods, friends and activities that are delicious to you and say no to anything that makes you feel awful, she said.
Ask for help. Many of us don’t want to burden others, and we’re used to solving problems on our own. However, Howes pointed out that some people really enjoy helping others and collaborating tends to strengthen the relationship. Plus, we can learn a whole lot from our helpers.
For instance, last month Howes was overwhelmed with preparing for a big presentation. He was getting tripped up by all the tech stuff (like PowerPoint). Thankfully, his wife, a PowerPoint pro, and other friends stepped in. “Suddenly, 20+ hours of difficult work with questionable results turned into a couple of hours of work and a higher level of expertise. All I had to do was look around at the people I know and ask for help.”
Get creative. Cook-Shonkoff once heard about the following self-care practice: Every weekday, a man would walk up the steps to his home, and touch the branches of a certain tree in his yard. He’d imagine leaving all his worries from that day inside the tree. This way when he went inside his house, he’d be ready to give his family his undivided attention. The next day he’d gather his worries from the same tree—and find “that they didn’t seem as heavy as the day before.” How can you get creative about your self-care routine?
Seek therapy. Howes believes that therapy is the ultimate form of self-care, because of the profound lasting effects that come from insight and behavior change. Many people avoid therapy “because they feel like therapy is a selfish indulgence they don’t deserve.” If you hold this belief, maybe you can view therapy as something that helps you to help others even more, as you’re working through your issues, he said.
Howes has found that people who have a hard time with practicing self-care tend to have a sinking self-worth. “They deeply believe other people are more important than they are and devote time to others out of devaluation of themselves.”
These beliefs often originate from our childhoods. It can be tremendously helpful to write your own autobiography to see just how powerful that impact has been. And, as Howes emphasized, “It also helps you see yourself as part of an ongoing journey—your story is still being written.”
What do you want to write?