A Beginner’s Guide To Self-Care
What Self-Care Is, What It’s Not, Why You Need It, & How You Can Get Started Practicing It Today
Globally, chronic stress (caused by the rigors of everyday life) has reached epidemic proportions. Three out of four adults now experience at least one somatic symptom of stress . That is, their chronic stress has a noticeable physical effect on their body, like causing fatigue, nausea, muscle soreness, insomnia, or anorexia .
The most basic, simple step you can take to minimize the stress in your life is to practice self-care. Self-care is proven to diminish the somatic symptoms of stress while also reducing the negative thoughts that cause anxiety [3, 4]. What’s more, practicing self-care is nearly guaranteed to have a positive impact on your physical and emotional health, make you a more patient, attentive caregiver/friend, and make you more productive at work.
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is so much more than just taking a minute to relax (though it involves that, too)! At the risk of sounding reductive, self-care is taking care of yourself. This includes relaxing, eating right, following a healthy sleep schedule, and making time for socializing, exercising, and other activities that you find soothing and enjoy . The best self-care also involves prioritizing your own “hierarchy of needs” and practicing self-compassion and self-calming behaviors [6, 7].
Why Practice Self-Care (And Why Do People Neglect It)?
People neglect self-care because, when you consider other responsibilities like working, and taking care of family, taking care of yourself first often feels indulgent and selfish . That’s because society views self-sacrifice (putting others above yourself) and over-exertion as signs that someone is dedicated, a morally upstanding person, and a valuable asset to their friends, family, and employer [9, 10]. That’s why the vast majority of adults ascribe greater meaning and value to activities requiring them to experience more significant pain and put forth more considerable effort . This “distress effect” is also why almost one-quarter of working adults work so much/so hard that they report feeling persistent burnout, and an additional 44% sometimes work to the point of mental, physical exhaustion, or both .
The thing is, self-care is actually a critical part of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being, and people who neglect it suffer significantly because of it. What’s more, the best self-care also makes you better able to handle all of your other responsibilities, making your social and professional contributions better.
The Physical Benefits of Self-Care
Chronic stress causes a considerable amount of physical problems. Tension can cause musculoskeletal pain and headaches, respiratory distress, heartburn, stomach pain, and appetite loss . What’s more, elevated levels of stress hormones increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke, or impaired immune responses that lead to chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and insomnia .
Self-care reduces physical tension and lowers stress hormone levels. Consequently, the best self-care doesn’t just make you feel relaxed; it also makes you physically healthier and improves your long-term health outlook.
The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Self-Care
Chronic stress leads to depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and a number of other mental health conditions . People who neglect self-care tend to feel sadness and loneliness frequently and have little sense of self-worth and self-confidence [14, 8]. The best self-care practices require self-compassion, which ultimately boosts feelings of self-worth and self-confidence and helps people minimize and manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, the best self-care strategies increase happiness and community connectivity and support, which together help build up emotional resilience — that is, they make people better able to handle stress and crisis in healthy ways .
The Social and Professional Benefits of Self-Care
Chronic stress reduces motivation, productivity, empathy, and resilience and also causes irritability and disorganization [16, 8]. For both part-time and full-time workers, the best self-care strategies increase productivity and diminish burnout . More specifically, self-care reduces the number of sick days people need (since it boosts the immune system) and also increases your ability to focus and encourages creativity and critical thinking skills . The best self-care practices also make you a better caretaker and friend, as they make you more attentive, empathetic, and better able to navigate difficult situations and recognize the “good times” [19, 16].
What Are Common Misconceptions About Self-Care?
Self-care increases anxiousness for a small portion of people . This is because they become overly focused on doing self-care “right.” As a result, they approach self-care by trying to do it a certain way instead of trying to make themselves feel better. Self-care then becomes a burden.
This outcome is not entirely surprising, as the average adult practicing a performative kind of self-care spends almost $200 per month to do so . In these cases, the controlling effect self-care has on chronic stress is limited. What’s more, given that financial/money-management concerns are the number two cause of chronic stress, practicing self-care by making a lot of products and purchases can contribute to people’s chronic stress symptoms .
All that being said, self-care does not have to be a source of financial stress; it is absolutely possible to practice the best self-care without emptying your bank account!
How Can You Practice the Best Self Care?
The best self-care for you will fit your unique lifestyle, needs, and stressors . Moreover, the best self-care does not function as an excuse for perpetuating unhealthy coping behaviors . For example, someone who has unhealthy spending habits when they’re stressed shouldn’t practice self-care by buying going on a shopping spree any more than someone who tends to stress-eat should call it self-care when they’re binging.
For many people, the best self-care is guided by their hierarchy of needs. That is, their self-care strategies aim to fulfill all of their basic needs before incorporating luxuries . This is because, often, chronic stress is made worse by deficiencies in people’s basic needs. Consequently, the most effective, best self-care targets problematic deficiencies rather than just treating the symptoms of the stress they cause. That said, the most commonly recommended, best self-care strategies include:
For Fulfilling “Deficit” Needs:
These are the needs that are, hierarchically speaking, “more important.” That’s because you tend to feel a loss when they’re unfulfilled .
- Food – eat better (healthier, more regularly).
- Sleep – get enough (good) sleep; practice healthy sleep routines .
- Safety – practice self-calming behaviors and commit to exercise to minimize the physical, emotional, social, and professional risks of chronic stress.
- Love – practice gratitude.
- Belonging – make time to socialize and connect with people.
- Self-Esteem – practice self-compassion.
For Fulfilling “Being” Needs –
These are “luxury” needs — things that are not essential to your survival, but that can improve your quality of life and your sense of self-actualization .
- Happiness/joy – practice mindfulness.
- Comfort – create a home-spa experience or building relaxing spaces in your home .
- Pleasure – do more enjoyable things, more frequently.
Incorporating even one of these easy self-care practices into your routine will have a near-immediate impact on your quality of life. So long as you are mindful about it, the benefits of self-care far outweigh the risks of doing it “wrong” enough to increase your stress. The single most significant advantage of self-care is it’s potential to refuel your emotional cup, so you have enough time, energy, and motivation to divide among and pour into your day-to-day responsibilities. After all, you cannot pour from an empty cup!