When you think of self-care, bubble baths, massages, your favorite foods, and binge-watching Netflix all day might come to mind. While those things can be occasional ingredients of self-care, it is really about much more than just finding ways to pamper yourself and relax.
Self-care also entails much less glamorous but no less important items, like setting boundaries, learning to say “no,” feeding your body nutritious food, exercising, getting enough sleep, practicing gratitude, utilizing stress relief techniques, limiting media consumption, and more. Self-care means taking the time to do things that are going to help ensure your quality of life and improve your health — physical and mental.
When it comes to your mental health, self-care can specifically help you manage stress, lower your risk of mental illness and brain decline, elevate your frame of mind, increase your life span, and improve your quality of life in virtually every area. Even small acts of self-care worked into your daily life can have a big impact.
Self-Care and Mental Health
We all know and provide ourselves with the basic minimum necessities of nutrition, hydration, and hygiene — enough to sustain life. But not many of us consider taking care of our mental well-being to be a basic necessity as well. Establishing personal habits of self-care is important to help you stay mentally healthy. Self-care is not only for people who have mental health issues. It’s for anyone with a brain, in other words, all of us. It can be a way to maintain mental health and manage or prevent mental illness.
It is important to take time to do things for your well-being to refresh and recharge so you can feel and perform at your best. What actually constitutes self-care is going to be different for every person. Your self-care choices will depend on what works best for you, what you enjoy, and your energy levels, personality, and other factors. What’s restorative for you might not appeal at all to someone else. That’s OK. And self-care can change with your stage of life.
Incorporating self-care behaviors into your daily or weekly routine is not only vital for your mental health, research suggests practicing self-care activities can also make you more confident, creative, and productive. Prioritizing self-care has also been shown to help a person experience more joy, make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.
Self-Care and Mental Illness
Self-care relies on increased self-awareness, which can benefit all of us and especially people with a mental illnesses. Practicing self-awareness can help you recognize patterns in your life, including events, behaviors, and emotions, that trigger or worsen mental issues. Awareness can also help you recognize what activities are necessary to maintain wellbeing, ease negative symptoms, restore balance, and help you relax. I do not mean to imply that self-care is the cure for mental or physical illnesses. It’s not. But self-care can help people manage conditions like mental or chronic illnesses.
Whether you’re dealing with a mental or physical health issue or not, many people find it difficult to practice self-care when it is needed the most. You know the scenario, I’m sure. You’re already feeling stressed, stretched too thin with way too much to do, or you already feel depressed, hopeless, or are in pain, so you skip the things you know help you feel better. Studies show that many people fail to provide adequate self-care in the midst of a flare-up of symptoms which only makes it worse.
Five Types of Self-Care
Self-care is about taking care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Because all these things are intricately connected and one part of your health affects every other, it’s important to find an optimal balance and routine that works for you and addresses each of these areas. At times you might need to make more effort in one specific area in order to restore equilibrium and deal with a particular stressor in your life. And all these areas overlap and influence one another. Improvement in one area will spill over into another area of your life. The same goes for deficits.
It’s no secret that you need to take care of your body if you want it to run efficiently and stay healthy, but many of us, for one reason or another, don’t do that. There’s a strong, undeniable connection between your body and your mind. In fact, science has shown that there really is no boundary between the two. What affects one affects the other. When you take care of your body, your brain will benefit, and you’ll think and feel better.
Physical self-care includes all the things that you assume it would, like diet, sleep, and exercise. It also includes things that might not be so obvious, like staying current on doctor’s and dentist’s appointments, taking medication if required, and noticing and attending to your body’s needs as they change.
Socialization is another overlooked aspect of self-care. When life gets hectic, it can be challenging to make time for friends and family. Not only that, our society is structured so that we are more isolated than ever. Oftentimes, people don’t live near parents, grandparents, or extended family anymore. For many of us, to be included as part of a community takes intentional effort.
Humans are social animals who need contact with one another. When interacting with other people, your brain releases neurochemicals that help keep you healthy and happy. Research shows that loneliness can adversely impact you as much as high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking.
Unlike exercise, there is no recommended number of hours you should spend socializing each week. Everyone is going to have different social needs. The key here is to figure out what your needs are and meet them. Pets, talking on the phone, and chatting online can also count, but don’t let them completely substitute for face-to-face interaction.
The things running through your mind greatly influence your psychological well-being. Probably more than you realize, what you think and say to yourself strongly influences your experience of this life, your mindset, and your health. Mental self-care includes doing things that keep your mind healthy and happy. This can include socializing, reading, traveling, learning a new hobby, going to counseling, or whatever works for you.
Mental self-care also involves specific practices that you know can help your mind stay balanced, strong, and healthy. Practicing mindfulness, self-compassion, and gratitude, for example, are proven to help maintain better mental health. Getting comfortable with saying “No” and setting boundaries are also mental self-care practices.
Research shows that a lifestyle including religion or spirituality is generally a healthier, happier lifestyle. Nurturing your spirit, however, doesn’t have to involve religion. It can be anything that helps you develop a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, or connection with the world, universe, or higher power. Whether it’s meditating, chanting, praying, spending time in nature, or volunteering, spirituality is going to look different in every person. It is whatever you find fulfilling.
It’s important to learn mental health skills to increase your emotional intelligence, deal with uncomfortable emotions, and resolve conflict in the least destructive ways possible. Emotional self-care includes activities that help you acknowledge and express your feelings regularly and safely. You may want to talk to a partner, a close friend, or a professional about how you feel, practice mindfulness, or complete activities that help you reflect and process your emotions.
How to Practice Self-Care
Here are some tips to help you get started with self-care:
Move your body
Research shows that regular exercise increases serotonin levels in the body significantly, improving your mood and energy. While it’s recommended that you get 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily, that may not be possible. I recommend that you focus on getting whatever amount of exercise you can. Think “move” — just move your body vacuuming, gardening, going up and down the stairs, dancing, or taking a walk. Small amounts of exercise — even ten minutes at a time, add up. So, don’t be discouraged if you can’t “exercise” for 30 minutes.
Eat healthier and stay hydrated
What you eat directly impacts what goes on in your head. A healthy diet and plenty of water can improve your energy, mood, and focus throughout the day. Limiting processed food and sugary drinks can also help. You don’t have to overhaul your whole diet at once. That often does not work. Try making one small improvement at a time, like adding one serving of veggies a day, cutting out soft drinks, not eating anything after dinner, or substituting a piece of fruit for a sugary snack. When you have mastered the one change, add another one.
Make sleep a priority
Every aspect of your life is impacted by sleep, but it hits your brain the hardest. Your brain’s entire electrical and chemical systems are influenced by your sleep — or lack of it. Sleep deprivation can have serious short and long-term consequences. Not getting enough sleep can literally make you sick, fat, and stupid. Sleeping too little on a regular basis has been linked to weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, early death, and a higher risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis. Blue light from electronic devices and screens can make it harder to fall asleep. So, reduce blue light exposure from your phone or computer before bedtime.
Research has proven many significant benefits of practicing gratitude for mental and physical health. Studies show that consciously cultivating gratitude can increase happiness levels by an average of 25 percent and improve overall health by, for example, increasing the quantity and quality of sleep. Beneficial outcomes can be achieved by such simple practices as praying, writing in a gratitude journal, placing a thankful phone call, making a mental gratitude list, or writing a thank-you letter.
Make the effort to reach out to friends or family members regularly who can provide emotional support and practical help. Being around and with other people helps keep your brain happy and healthy. Your brain wants to be connected and included and feels calmer and happier when it is. Chatting or chilling with friends or family has measurable brain benefits. Studies show that people with larger social networks and daily interaction with others have decreased risk for cognitive decline.
Smile and laugh more often
Science has discovered that when you smile your brain releases mood-boosting dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine works on the reward-pleasure circuits in the brain. Serotonin produces an anti-anxiety effect and helps relieve stress and improve mood. Endorphins relieve pain and elevate mood. Even a fake smile can trick your brain into thinking it’s happy. A good laugh causes a similar chemical reaction in your brain that can instantly raise your spirits, reduce pain and stress, and strengthen your immune system.
Find ways to relax
Our hectic modern lifestyles produce chronic stress which shows up as mental and physical health problems. Instead of thinking of rest and relaxation as downtime, think of them as essential ingredients of health and productivity. Your brain not only needs frequent breaks during the day, but it needs larger chunks of time away from work, school, and the stress of your life periodically to revitalize and renew. By depriving your brain of rest, you diminish your ability to think creatively and strategically handle complex problems. So, build breaks, like meditation, yoga, getting a massage, taking a nap, reading a book, or walking in nature into your day.
Some people believe self-care is selfish. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s an essential part of giving — to yourself. It is mental health care. Self-care is going to look different for everyone, and it is important to find what you need and enjoy. It may take trial and error to discover what works best for you.
I would encourage you to develop a plan including a set of daily activities you deliberately take part in to improve your health and well-being. Then, begin incorporating the list into your daily life. Start small with one or two things. There is really no right or wrong here as long as it is healthy and helps you recharge and refresh.