If you’re looking to reduce stress, ease anxiety, form healthy habits, manage illness, or boost your overall well-being, self-care is essential. Although self-care has become a lifestyle trend (with an industry worth $11 billion), behind the profit and the hype is an invaluable practice with huge benefits — that doesn’t have to cost a single cent.

The preciousness of good health is at the forefront of everyone’s mind at the present, particularly due to the corona pandemic, stress-inducing political issues, the climate crisis, and much more. But when learning how to self-care, where do you begin? What are the steps needed to start looking after yourself in a balanced way?

Fortunately, if you’re looking for self-care tips, and guidance on how to integrate self-care into your daily routine, look no further. This article will explain exactly what self-care is, why self-care is important, the different areas to apply self-care, and finally, a few tips to create your own self-care routine.

What is self-care? The myth and the reality

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Self-care isn’t a one-off exercise, but a range of practices. It’s as much a toolkit as it is a philosophy. You don’t have to be experiencing poor health to benefit from self-care; it covers all areas of wellbeing, from physical health, to stress reduction and positive lifestyle choices. Good health isn’t isolated, but part of a holistic system. For example, your diet affects your energy levels, but if you’re stressed, you’re might crave comfort food.

Unfortunately, self-care has become heavily commercialized, and its original intention has been buried under images of luxury and indulgence. The concept of self-care has been sculpted by social media and the wellness industry. A common portrayal is pampering, relaxing, switching off from the day-to-day grind… and investing in luxury products.

This creates a misconception of self-care — just look at the Instagram #selfcare hashtag, used 18 million times, and you’ll see images of health spas, beauty routines, and candles costing over $300. This isn’t the meaning of self-care. Although any self-care routine makes room for guilt-free indulgence, it’s a practice that requires focus and structure.

So what’s the true definition of self-care? In simple terms, self-care is the ability to look after your own health. It’s preventative, in that it promotes a healthy lifestyle to reduce the chance of illness, and a way to manage the symptoms of illness once they’ve arrived. The World Health Organization’s definition of self-care is:

What people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.) socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.) and self-medication.’

As the definition implies, what counts as “care” is varied, and not always the easy option. Sometimes what you need is the opposite of indulgence. Occasionally, self-care is setting boundaries, kicking an unhealthy habit, or taking time to confront unresolved trauma. Candles are negotiable.

Why is it important?

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A recent report by the American Psychological Association (APA), Stress in America, found worrying levels of stress, anxiety, and depression in the U.S. population. The Covid pandemic came at a time when mental health was already in crisis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their report states: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”

More and more people are struggling with mental health. The majority of Americans are experiencing high levels of stress. Add that to 40 million people who suffer from anxiety and 6 million who experience depression. Plus, the physical health of the population is declining, with an obesity rate of 42.2% — the first time this number has passed the 40% mark.

Poor mental and physical health isn’t exclusive to the U.S. A study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (IRCR) found that 1 in 2 people have experienced a negative impact on their mental health due to the pandemic. Taking all of this into consideration, self-care has never been more important.

For most people, self-care is a way of navigating life’s ups and downs. It alleviates stress, improves emotional regulation, builds resilience, and improves the overall quality of life. However, self-care isn’t a replacement for professional support. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, the help of a therapist or other mental health services might be necessary.

What are the different areas of self-care?

Now you’re itching to start applying some self-care practices, it helps to know the main areas of self-care. As mentioned, self-care is holistic. Some of us care for ourselves in certain areas of life, but neglect others. For example, you might spend a lot of time looking after your body through exercise and eating well, but don’t take time to regulate, understand or process your emotions.

As a result, an effective self-care routine addresses many areas. Keep in mind it’s natural to not be completely on top of all areas at once. And these categories aren’t concrete or definitive, but provide an overview of how to approach your self-care practice. The main areas are:

  • Physical self-care: As the saying goes, healthy body, healthy mind. Looking after your physical health is one of the fastest and most effective ways to boost well-being. This includes your diet, sleep hygiene, exercise, and also ways of soothing the body, such as massage or relaxation.
  • Mental self-care: The mind is a tool to be exercised, too. This category includes stimulating your mind by learning new skills, reading, problem-solving, or being conscious of the media you consume.
  • Emotional self-care: This category takes care of matters of the heart, by practicing and allowing difficult emotions through mindfulness, to cultivating positive emotions such as compassion, joy, and flow. This includes the expression and regulation of emotions.
  • Social self-care: As social creatures, we require intimate relationships to thrive — some studies suggest social connection is the most effective path to happiness. Under this category includes cultivating intimate relationships, becoming part of a community, learning how to set boundaries, and the ability to let go of relationships that are unhealthy.
  • Spiritual self-care: This doesn’t necessarily require a religious practice, but instead focuses on the deeper themes of life, including meaning, purpose, and connection to the Earth and wider universe. Practices such as meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, compassion, time in nature, and service all fall into this category.

What are some examples?

The above categories are an overview of the areas of self-care — but what about specific examples of self-care in action? Self-care is very much dependent on your situation, and how you’re feeling. It’s a practice of trial-and-error. The below examples show how varied self-care is:

  • Exploring causes of stress and creating an action plan to reduce it.
  • Taking time to discover new tools for emotional regulation.
  • Noticing where you turn to short-term fixes, such as alcohol or comfort food, to ease feelings of discomfort, and introducing healthier habits.
  • Saying no and setting healthy boundaries in your personal and professional life.
  • Creating a healthier work-life balance.
  • Starting a meditation routine.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating healthily.
  • Improving sleep hygiene and aiming for 7 or 8 hours sleep per night.
  • Finding ways to switch off — such as watching Netflix, running a bath, or doing whatever feels right in the moment.
  • Planning a digital detox without social media, email, or screen-time.
  • Encouraging yourself to tackle important but anxiety-inducing activities, such as paying bills or organizing health check-ups.
  • Making sure your finances are in order.
  • Setting aside me-time.

The 5 steps to create a self-care plan

how do you self care

With all this in mind, how do you create a self-care plan? By now, you should have a clearer understanding of what self-care is. With the above examples and  areas of self-care as a guide, below are 5 steps to create your own self-care plan: 

Step 1: Assess the different areas of self-care

Begin with where you’re at. Use the above categories to create a practical journal exercise. How content are you with each of the above areas? Are there any in need of TLC? Are there any you feel you are flourishing in? Take time to write an honest overview, exploring the areas that are working well, and those that aren’t working so well.

An important step at this point is to create a vision that inspires you to take action. Ask yourself: what would my life be like if I was able to look after myself better? What goals excite you? Tap into the energy of those images and use them as inspiration.

Step 2: Explore all the obstacles to self-care

Kurt Lewin, the “founder of social psychology,” is best known for his theories on behavioral change. Lewin’s force field analysis is a framework that identifies two forces in all situations: helping forces that drive the movement towards a goal, and hindering forces that block movement towards a goal. He discovered the most effective approach was to remove barriers to goals, rather than push people towards them.

Using Lewin’s insight, explore all obstacles that block areas of self-care. Obstacles can be in the physical world — such as a lack of running shoes that stops you from running — or in the emotional world — such as the fear of failure, high expectations, and perfectionism make your goals feel unattainable. 

Note major obstacles. Then, explore ways you can overcome them. For example, buy a pair of running shoes, or learn self-development tools, such as cognitive reframing, to challenge and overcome limiting beliefs.

Step 3: Write a list of intentions and goals for each self-care area

Next, explore goals and intentions to add to each life area. Goals can be one-off events or ongoing. The categories aren’t rigid. Certain practices will have a positive impact on multiple areas, so you can set goals accordingly. If you notice a self-care area which is off-balance, what practical steps can you take?

For example, if you want to boost physical, social, and spiritual self-care, you might encourage a group of friends to take a camping trip. As well as fostering closer relationships, you’re exercising and connecting to the natural world.

Intentions are less dependent outcomes — think of them as the vision, determination, and energy behind what you’re trying to achieve. Intentions often shape goals. For example, you might set an intention to begin to create a more caring, loving relationship with yourself.

Step 4: Write a list of habits to add to your routine

An effective self-care plan is integrated into your day-to-day routine. That means adding healthy habits. What small actions can you take to improve self-care in your schedule? Begin by making sure you have time blocked off in your schedule! This is often overlooked, but setting aside time, and defending it, is an act of self-care in itself.

What pockets of time can you make for relaxation, meditation, or me-time? Is there a way you can ease the demands of the day-to-day, but re-assessing commitments? Are there small changes you can make to your diet or exercise routine?

This might sound like a lot to implement, so make sure to make the process gradual, perhaps adding one small task each week over a longer period of time.

Step 5: Assess where you’re at regularly

Having worked through these exercises, bring everything together in one place. You might set aside a specific self-care journal, or create a Google Doc which contains your intentions, goals, and reflections. Allow this to be a way of documenting your progress, your successes, your setbacks, and everything you learn along the way.

Maintaining self-care requires ongoing attentiveness and flexibility. There will be times where one area of life takes the focus. Setbacks or unavoidable, and part of the ongoing process. Occasionally other areas of life will demand attention, and you’ll slip up — that’s okay. Notice when this happens and re-focus on healthy habits. And remember your self-care plan isn’t set in stone!

In conclusion

Self-care isn’t a trend or something to dip into now and again. It’s not luxurious indulgence or consumerism, but a powerful toolkit to boost your overall health and wellbeing. By setting aside time to promote healthy habits and routines, you’ll be better placed to handle life’s ups and downs, prevent or manage illness, and generally develop a more self-supportive, self-compassionate frame of mind.

Audre Lorde once said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Looking after yourself might not be political warfare, but it does require determination and dedication. For its full benefits, self-care has to become a priority. And the beauty is, this has a positive impact on others, too.

“A key component to self-care that is often overlooked is providing care and kindness to someone else,” psychologist Dr. Shelley Sommerfeldt told Refinery29. “The research on altruism and volunteer work shows that people who give back to others and their communities, have improved health, social connection, and a greater sense of purpose in their life.”

So remember: you deserve it. And the bonus is, the better you self-care, the better you’re able to care for others.