Self-care for mental health
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/16/2023
What is self-care?
“Self-care” is an umbrella term that covers the activities, habits, and rituals we engage in to promote our overall health. Many people think of self-care as a luxury, but it’s at the core of our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
A lot of us go through life reacting to our health only when something goes wrong. Self-care is part of an intentional, proactive approach.
Why is self-care important?
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wisely says, “It is far better to prevent disease than to treat people after they get sick.”1 But preventive health care is effective only if it’s affordable and accessible.
Self-care is one form of preventive care that’s available to everyone. You don’t need fancy equipment, a formal education, or a ton of money to use simple self-care practices in your daily life. These activities are adaptable to a wide variety of lifestyles and circumstances.
Practicing self-care can strengthen the foundation of your physical, mental, and emotional health. It helps you handle life’s highs and lows, giving you a baseline of healthy tools and techniques for coping with challenges.
Self-care vs. self-help
To some, the term “self-care” may sound a lot like “self-help.” Over the past few decades, the self-help trend has made grand promises about health and happiness, but for many people it has never delivered.
Self-help focuses on improving your life, often through sheer willpower, while self-care is about adopting simple practices to protect your health and strengthen your ability to respond to stress. Self-care focuses on self-compassion, not self-improvement. It’s about loving ourselves enough to make our physical, mental, and emotional health a priority.
Self-care vs. self-indulgence
Another common misconception about self-care is that it’s an excuse for self-indulgence. Some companies, for example, incorrectly use the term “self-care” to promote expensive luxuries. But you don’t need the latest workout gear, a weekly massage, or a spendy vacation to take care of yourself.
“Self-care” is also sometimes used to describe indulgent behavior that isn’t healthy in the long run. Eating nothing but ice cream all day isn’t self-care, and neither is blowing your bank account on a shopping spree. Those are both forms of self-sabotage—the opposite of self-care.
How to take care of yourself
There are many ways to care for your body, mind, and spirit. They can be divided into four general categories.
How we take care of our bodies affects not just our physical health, but our emotional and mental health as well. Our minds are physical parts of our bodies, and we can’t care for our mental health without caring for our physical health.
Physical self-care is often the baseline for healthy functioning. In order to care for ourselves, we need to:
- Eat well
- Sleep well
- Exercise regularly
- Practice good hygiene
- Take any necessary medications
- Stretch and move
- Tend to any pain, injury, or illness
Our brains need both stimulation and rest to function properly. Getting both on a regular basis helps our decision-making, alertness, problem-solving, and more.
Mental self-care includes both exercise and awareness. You can practice it by:
Emotional self-care allows us to express our emotions in healthy, intentional ways. It gives us tools to process and engage both the mental and physical experiences of emotion. This type of self-care can include:
- Practicing mindfulness
- Deep breathing
- Establishing healthy boundaries
- Confiding in a trusted friend or family member
- Seeking professional help
Spiritual self-care can include religious practices, but you don’t have to be religious to take care of yourself spiritually. Broadly speaking, spiritual self-care allows you to reflect on and participate in the interconnectedness of the world.
If you’re part of a faith tradition, you can practice spiritual self-care through your community’s traditional practices, such as prayer, meditation, or song. You can also try forms of spiritual self-care that may not be tied to a specific religion, such as:
- Keeping a gratitude journal
- Making a pilgrimage to a beautiful or meaningful place
- Spending time outdoors
- Dancing, playing music, or creating art
- Cooking an old family recipe
- Setting up a sacred space in your home
- Watching the sun rise or set
How to get started
Self-care looks different for everyone. What one person finds helpful, another won’t. Feel free to experiment with your approach and find what works best for you.
Identify your self-care goals and be honest about any challenges or limitations you may be facing. For example, an hour of yoga every morning may seem like a fantastic form of self-care, but if you already wake up early to get your kids to school, it may not be realistic.
Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Too often, the idea of self-care is reduced to bubble baths and wine. Be cautious not to mistake harmful numbing activities, like binge drinking or watching too much TV, for true self-care. If you feel burned out at the end of every day, self-care may look less like a spa visit and more like learning how to say no and establish healthy boundaries. It may involve activities that make you feel more instead of less, like getting your heart rate up with a walk or other form of movement.
- Create a safe environment to access and process your emotions. Good starting points include journaling or setting up a weekly phone call with a friend. If therapy is an option for you, support from a mental health professional can also make a big difference. Browse our directory to find a therapist near you.
- Prioritize the basics of physical health. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
- Self-care for parents may feel impossible, particularly if your children are very young. But your well-being as a parent contributes directly to your children’s well-being. Try to build intentional moments for yourself into your day. Even just a few minutes of journaling or movement can help clear your head.
- Whether you’re leading a small group in your community or hosting a book club with friends, you can use simple exercises to promote self-care in group settings. Consider starting every meeting with some breathing exercises. Set clear start and stop times to respect everyone’s time and energy.
Mental health and self-care
Self-care can help set you on the path toward better mental well-being. If you’re struggling with your mental health, self-care offers you tools to help redirect unhelpful thoughts, which can help you choose healthier reactions to stressful situations. Here are a few common struggles and potential self-care responses:
- Anxiety: Certain daily practices, such as yoga, meditation, and relaxation training, may help you manage your anxiety symptoms. Meditation and yoga can help your mind and body stay present instead of getting caught up in worries about the past or future, and relaxation training can help you release any tension you’re holding in your body.
- Depression: Movement is essential to self-care for depression. Workouts can feel daunting, but there are other ways to be active, like taking a walk, kneading bread dough, or dancing. Connecting with others is also important: a weekly call or dinner with a friend can help you feel less alone.
- Burnout: In 2020, Gallup reported that 76% of employees had experienced burnout that year.2 Self-care can’t address structural problems in the workplace, it can help you manage typical stressors while you’re on the job. It can also serve as a warning sign that your workplace may be too toxic. If your self-care routines are no longer helping, it may be time to start looking for a healthier work environment elsewhere.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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