Let’s clear up one common misconception from the get-go: Self-care is not synonymous with self-indulgence or being selfish. Self-care means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day.
If you think you’ve been hearing more about self-care now, you’re right. One indicator: According to Google Trends, the number of searches for “self-care” has more than doubled since 2015.
Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, an associate professor and chair of the department of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, says the need for self-care is obvious. “We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression,” she says. “Everybody feels it.”
It’s the stress of trying to keep up with the pace of daily life, which technology has hastened more than ever (just think how many emails come flooding into your inbox each day). “People are feeling lonelier and less able to unwind and slow down, which makes them feel more anxious and overwhelmed by even the simplest tasks,”
Several organizations and researchers take a health-oriented approach when defining self-care. The World Health Organization defines self-care as: “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.”
According to this definition, self-care includes everything related to staying physically healthy — including hygiene, nutrition, and seeking medical care when needed. It’s all the steps an individual can take to manage stressors in his or her life and take care of his or her own health and well-being. Some researchers have adopted a similarly clinical approach. A 2010 study published in JBI Library of Systematic Reviews defined self-care as "the set of activities in which one engages throughout life on a daily basis,” focusing on promoting health, preventing illness, and managing issues that come up.
A study published in BMC Palliative Care in April 2018 took self-care to mean “the self-initiated behavior that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.” The study authors added that it’s about being healthy but also about incorporating coping strategies to deal with work stressors.
In 2019 researchers published a self-care framework in The BMJ to specifically point out that in addition to self-care being the activities individuals do on their own to promote physical and emotional health, it also includes the ways that individuals interact with clinicians and healthcare systems to tend to physical and emotional health. That means self-care includes things like getting a vaccine, scheduling cancer screenings, or taking prescription medications on schedule — but healthcare providers and organizations play a role, too, in how well individuals engage in these self-care practices. In other words: There are a lot of people and factors that bear on any one individual’s ability to engage in self-care.
As self-care has become more mainstream, the definitions have started to become more applicable to the general public and tend to focus on tuning in to one’s needs and meeting those needs. “Self-care is anything that you do for yourself that feels nourishing,” says Marni Amsellem, PhD, a licensed psychologist based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
“That can be something that’s relaxing or calming, or it can be something that is intellectual or spiritual or physical or practical or something you need to get done,” she says.
The International Self-Care Foundation also includes health literacy as a pillar of self-care, meaning that any steps you take toward better understanding health information you need to make appropriate decisions about your health and well-being counts as self-care, too.
Self-care is all the steps you take to tend to your physical and emotional health in the ways you are best able to do so.
Self-care requires checking in with yourself and asking yourself how you’re doing and what your body’s asking for. Some people use it to deal with difficult news stories, others just to maintain their happiness day to day. Self-care does not mean the same thing for everyone. Different people will adopt different self-care practices, and even your own definition might change over time. “What is self-care for one person will likely differ from someone else, and what’s self-care for you one day might not feel like self-care another day,” Dr. Amsellem says.
Engaging in self-care regularly could help you put your best foot forward. “When we are regularly taking care of ourselves, we are better able to react to the things that go on in our lives,” Amsellem says. “It’s something we do to maintain positive well-being.”
“When self-care is regularly practiced, the benefits are broad and have even been linked to positive health outcomes such as reduced stress, improved immune system, increased productivity, and higher self-esteem,” says Brighid Courtney, of Boston, a client leader at the wellness technology company.
There’s no way to say exactly what counts as self-care, because everyone’s definition is their own and unique.
The underlying rule is that it's something that brings you more sustained joy in the long run, Courtney says. And though there are plenty of examples of self-care that seem to tread a fine line between a health-enhancing behavior and self-indulgence, self-care doesn’t have to be about padding your calendar with luxurious experiences or activities that cost money (though it certainly can).
Consider a manicure or a massage or any other pampering activity. It might seem indulgent, but if the activity helps you de-stress and carve out time for yourself, it counts as self-care, Amsellem says. If weekly manicures or monthly spa days are beyond your means, there are plenty of other self-care practices you can adopt.
“Self-care does not have to cost anything — it’s just doing things you enjoy. And a lot of the things we enjoy or feel fulfilled from cost nothing,” Amsellem says. “Stepping outside and taking a deep breath, for example, might be the greatest act of self-care.”
Even if you can’t spend lots of time and money, Gill Lopez says you can still practice self-care several times a week by turning things you do every day into self-care practices.
Maybe you try being more mindful of your thoughts on your commute, or maybe you find ways to make daily tasks, like showering, more enjoyable. Pick a soap with a scent that you love and focus on the physical sensations of the shower. Gill Lopez says: What does your shower smell like? What does it sound like? How does the warm water feel on your skin? “For about 10 minutes in the shower, which I have to do anyway, instead of letting my monkey brain run wild, I’m right there,” she says.
Daily chores like making your bed in the morning are also examples of self-care — or can be. “This is where that individuality comes into play, because for some people there is no way making a bed feels like self-care — it may just feel like a chore,” Amsellem says. But if it helps you claim your day and gives you a sense of accomplishment early on, you’ll have that with you even if the rest of the day gets derailed, Amsellem says.
The simple act of making your bed in the morning likely isn’t sufficient to account for all your self-care, she says. You may need to routinely devote time and energy to other self-care practices, she adds. “But if there are some days when you feel out of control, on those days, starting the day off doing what you wanted to do for yourself might be one of the biggest forms of self-care you engage in that day.”
And sometimes when all of our other self-care plans get thrown out of whack (you worked through your yoga class, your friend canceled your coffee date — we’ve all been there), it’s those small practices of self-care that provide just enough calm to help us get through the day and wake up in a better mood tomorrow.