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Self-care for mental health: How to get started

Reviewed by therapist.com team

A woman relaxing with a cup of tea.

What Is Self-Care?

Many people think of self-care as a luxury, but it is actually at the core of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Self-care is an umbrella term that covers the activities, habits, and rituals we undertake to promote our overall health.

The key to self-care is intentionality. Many people go through life only reacting to their health when things go wrong. Instead of being reactive to our minds and bodies, self-care allows us to be proactive in our approach to our physical and mental health.

Why Is Self-Care Important?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “it is far better to prevent disease than to treat people after they get sick.” However, preventive healthcare is only effective if it is affordable and accessible.

Self-care is one form of preventive healthcare that is available to everyone. You don’t need fancy equipment or a formal education to use simple self-care practices in your daily life. Because self-care starts with the self, it’s easily adaptable to a wide variety of lifestyles and circumstances.

By practicing self-care, you can strengthen the foundation of your physical, mental, and emotional health. Self-care helps you withstand the highs and lows of life. It gives you a baseline of healthy tools and techniques so you can overcome whatever challenges life throws at you.

Self-Care vs. Self-Help

To some, the term “self-care” may sound suspiciously like “self-help.” The self-help craze of the past 30 or 40 years promised health and happiness, but for many, these tactics and techniques never delivered.

Self-care is not self-help in disguise. Self-help focuses on a person’s ability to improve their life based on sheer willpower. Self-care is about adopting simple practices to protect one’s health and strengthen the ability to respond to stress in a healthy way.

Self-care is focused on self-compassion, not self-improvement. It is 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 is an excuse for self-indulgence. Indeed, some companies incorrectly use the term “self-care” to promote expensive luxuries. But you don’t need the latest yoga pants or a weekly massage to take care of yourself.

Additionally, self-care can be used as an excuse to indulge in behavior that isn’t loving toward ourselves in the long run. Eating nothing but ice cream for every meal isn’t self-care, and neither is blowing your bank account on a shopping spree. Those are both forms of self-sabotage, the polar opposite of self-care.

How to Take Care of Yourself: 4 Types of Self-Care

1. Physical Self-Care

How we take care of our bodies directly affects not just our physical health, but our emotional and mental health as well. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that our minds are physical parts of our body. We cannot care for our mental health without caring for our physical health too.

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

2. Mental Self-Care

Our brains need regular stimulation, as well as rest, to function properly. Providing both on a regular basis helps with decision-making, alertness, problem solving, and more.

Mental self-care involves both exercise and awareness. You can practice mental self-care by:

    • Reading a book
    • Going for a walk
    • Meditating
    • Doing a puzzle
    • Coloring
    • Taking breaks from screens

3. Emotional Self-Care

There’s a reason we refer to our emotions as “feelings.” Our emotions are both physical and mental responses to the world. As our minds process the meaning of our emotions, our bodies feel them—through elevated heart rates, stomachs full of butterflies, wet tears, dry throats, and more.

Emotional self-care allows us to express our emotions in healthy, intentional ways. It gives us the tools we need to process and engage both the mental and physical experiences of emotion. Types of emotional self-care include:

    • Journaling
    • Practicing mindfulness
    • Deep breathing
    • Taking a bubble bath
    • Establishing healthy boundaries
    • Confiding in a trusted friend or family member
    • Seeking professional help

4. Spiritual Self-Care

Spiritual self-care can include religious practices, but you don’t have to be religious to take care of yourself spiritually. In general, spiritual self-care allows a person to reflect on and participate in the interconnectedness of the world.

You can engage in spiritual self-care through the traditional practices of your faith, such as prayer, meditation, or song. You can also try other 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 destination of beauty or meaning
    • Spending time outdoors
    • Creating art
    • Making an old family recipe
    • Setting up a sacred space in your home
    • Watching the sun rise or set

How to Get Started with Self-Care

Self-care looks different for everyone. What one person finds helpful, another person may find harmful. Feel free to experiment with your approach to self-care so you can 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, spending an hour every morning doing yoga may seem like a fantastic form of self-care, but if you already have to wake up early to get your kids ready for school, it may not be realistic.

Here are some general starting points to help you start practicing self-care:

    • Too often, the idea of self-care is reduced to bubble baths and wine. Be careful not to mistake harmful numbing activities, like binge drinking or watching too much TV, for true self-care. If you feel burned out by the end of every day, self-care may look less like a spa day 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 going for a walk outdoors or getting your heart rate up with exercise.
    • Self-care also involves creating a safe environment to access and process your emotions. Good starting points may include journaling or setting up a weekly phone call with a trusted friend.
    • Although it can be easy to neglect our health when we get caught up in work or school responsibilities, self-care involves prioritizing the basics of physical health. You can go a long way in protecting your overall health by making sure you’re getting enough sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
    • Self-care for parents may feel impossible, particularly if your children are still very young. However, 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 short moments of journaling or exercise can help clear your head.
    • Did you know self-care can also be a group activity? Whether you’re leading a small group at your local church or a book club with friends, there are simple exercises you can take 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 & Self-Care

Self-care can be an on-ramp toward better mental well-being. If you’re struggling with your mental health, self-care can give you the tools you need to redirect unhelpful thoughts, which can help you choose healthier reactions to stressful situations. Here are some examples of self-care strategies to improve your mental well-being:

    • Anxiety: One self-care tip for anxiety is to engage in daily practices that help you better manage your anxiety symptoms, such as yoga, mediation, and relaxation training. Mediation and yoga can help your mind and body stay present instead of getting caught up in anxious worries about the past or future, whereas relaxation training can help release any tension you are holding in your body.
    • Depression: An important aspect of self-care for depression involves engaging your body in movement. Exercise can be a daunting task, but there are other ways to get your body moving, like going for a walk, kneading bread dough, or dancing to a song. Connecting with others is also important. Having a weekly phone call or dinner with a friend can help you feel less alone.
    • Burnout: According to Gallup, 76% of employees experienced burnout in 2020. While self-care can’t address structural problems in the workplace, it can help you weather typical stressors at work. Self-care 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 somewhere else.

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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