Strategies for Self-Care That Really Work

Strategies for Self-Care That Really Work

How to focus on activities that help your emotional well-being and cut out the ones that don’t

Photo: thenakedsnail/Getty Images

The term “self-care,” once found mostly in the revolutionary texts of writers like Audre Lorde (who described it as “an act of political warfare”) and the reference materials for psychiatrists in training, is now ubiquitous in conversations about mental health. More than ever, people are putting a conscious, curated effort into the once simple task of maintaining their own well-being.

At its best, self-care can be a useful tool for navigating the modern world, helping people relieve stress, make healthy lifestyle choices, and prioritize their own happiness. At its worst, self-care is a marketing buzzword used to package things like face masks and TV binges as quick-fix solutions to complex problems. That can come with a cost, distracting people from activities that actually promote mental health and creating unrealistic expectations for things that don’t. “The danger here is that people lose the value and the true meaning of self-care,” says Jackie O’Brien, who oversees case management at CAST Centers, a Los Angeles–based mental health and substance abuse treatment facility. Here’s how to avoid getting sucked into unhelpful ideas about what self-care should be and instead cultivate self-care habits that work.

With all the cultural focus on wellness that’s happening right now, it can be tempting to approach self-care as something performative, not because you think it will make you feel good.

Think long term

“There is definitely a right and wrong way to go about self-care,” says Amanda Porter, an Ohio-based psychiatric nurse practitioner. Unfortunately, Porter says, she sees a lot of people abuse the term when they are really shirking responsibilities.

“If something makes you feel good now but will make you feel bad later,” Porter adds, “then it’s not true self-care.”

Self-indulgence can be, and most often is, harmless. Buying beauty products you can’t afford, avoiding replying to a difficult text, blowing off a deadline to nap instead — all, in their own way, can help you relax in the moment. But they’re also quick fixes that can make life harder down the road. To figure out whether something is truly self-care, Porter says, ask yourself: Will this make me happier, calmer, more mentally healthy in the long run? If not, then it isn’t self-care.

Focus on easy, repeatable behaviors

It’s easy to overlook the psychologically nourishing power of little things. “Self-care doesn’t need to be expensive or involve grand gestures of solitude,” says Toronto-based counselor Annina Schmid. “Actions as simple as drinking some water, opening a window, and pausing to reflect on a gut feeling can all be considered self-care.”

“When it comes to building a successful self-care routine,” Schmid says, “I would encourage people to think about when they last felt really good about themselves or relaxed and how that happened. What would it take to do that again?”

To help you focus your answer, Schmid recommends exploring any activity that meets four criteria:

  • First, it should be simple. A five-minute meditation in the midst of a stressful day will do.
  • Second, it should be sustainable. Maybe that last tattoo you got helped you heal from a difficult time, but eventually you’ll run out of either money or skin. Something like a journal is a more sustainable creative outlet.
  • Third, it should be inexpensive. If running helps you decompress, that’s great. But don’t think you need to join the fanciest gym in town if it’s going to add financial headaches to your life.
  • Finally, it should be replicable. Beautiful experiences like concerts or vacations may make us feel good, but you can’t fly off to a fantasy world after a bad day. Find something you can easily do on a daily or regular basis, like meeting a friend for coffee.

Above all, focus on simplicity: You want to frame your conception of self-care as something that’s always accessible when you need it, rather than something unattainable that you have to pursue.

Take your wants into account

With all the cultural focus on wellness that’s happening right now, it can be tempting to approach self-care as something performative — taking a trendy fitness class or ordering a green juice as a way of presenting an identity to the worl — not because you think it will make you feel good.

O’Brien says even she falls into this trap. “My after-work routine consistently includes a [fitness] class, and if I’m feeling anxious, I will usually hit a meditation studio,” she says. But she sometimes feels compelled to stick to that routine even when she’s not up to it, and the sense of guilt can leave her feeling drained. “I often find that I put mindless pressure on myself to show up, and I end up going home and getting in bed,” she says. “I constantly find myself in a battle between isolating or showing up.”

Nothing in life is completely stress-free, and it’s normal to think of exercise as an obligation rather than a source of genuine pleasure. But when a task starts to feel like too much of a burden — like the energy you expend to complete it outweighs the benefit you get from it — it’s time to reassess.

Above all, focus on simplicity: You want to frame your conception of self-care as something that’s always accessible when you need it.

Remember to socialize

We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic so widespread that experts are calling it a public health crisis. Research has shown that feeling disconnected can increase the risk of a host of mental and physical health issues, from dementia to heart attack. On the flip side, studies have found that social support can slow cognitive decline, provide a buffer against the harmful effects of stress, and even lower the risk of death following serious health issues.

All of which is to say that being around other people is a critical part of taking care of yourself. “As a psychologist, I always promote self-care, but I emphasize a balance of activities,” says Pennsylvania-based psychologist Jesse D. Matthews. “The goal of self-care is not only time to yourself, but time to engage in activities that meet our various needs and are thus rejuvenating.”

Self-care doesn’t necessarily mean being alone; in fact, sometimes it demands that you aren’t. So many of the activities we think of as restorative — canceling plans for a night on the couch, an online shopping spree, a spa treatment — are solitary, and while it’s healthy to take some time to yourself, it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t always come at the expense of in-person connection. A group dinner, a book club, or even a catch-up phone call or a walk around the neighborhood with a friend can all be forms of self-care. You’re in charge of your own well-being, but true self-care requires other people, too.