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The term “self-care” has become a pop culture buzzword, used to describe everything from bubble baths and vacations to indulgences like eating a delectable dessert or making a frivolous purchase. But self-care isn’t a reward, a coping strategy, or a right you have to earn, and effective self-care typically isn’t glamorous. Instead, self-care is about meeting your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and embracing healthy habits that protect against stress. In other words, self-care is a preventive measure.
Far from being selfish or indulgent, taking care of yourself is good for you and those around you. It allows you to show up as your best self when loved ones, friends, and co-workers need you most.
The World Health Organization (WHO) 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.” Try to think of it as a tool for promoting wellness in all areas of your life. Self-care practices need not be expensive or luxurious—they can be as simple as:
Human beings have many different needs. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow recognized this when he developed his “hierarchy of needs,” which holds that people need to fulfill their physiological needs first, then their safety needs, then the need for love and belonging, then esteem, and finally, self-actualization.
It’s important to keep these different needs in mind when you make a self-care plan. Here are a few fundamental examples of self-care:
Life is busy, and sometimes it’s tough to just get through the day. You may be wondering if self-care really needs to be a priority. The short answer—yes. Here are a few benefits of self-care.
Self-care builds resilience against stress. We can’t control many of the stressors in our lives, so we must find ways to move through them with our health and wellness intact. How well we do that depends on how we practice caring for ourselves.
Because taking care of yourself lowers stress, it acts as a protective factor against burnout. For people in caretaking or relational professions—teachers, mental health professionals, health care workers, caregivers—self-care can reduce compassion fatigue and increase satisfaction.
Research shows that self-care practices can ease anxiety, stress, and depression and boost feelings of happiness and well-being. These mental health concerns affect a significant part of the population, making self-care an important prevention strategy.
You probably already know that burnout and fatigue can lower productivity at work. In industries that deal with human health and safety, fatigue could even lead to errors that pose a safety risk. While many of the factors that drive burnout are in employers’ control, practicing self-care can help you do your best work.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of self-care is that it improves our lives. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice health and happiness to be successful. Each of us only has one life to live, and we all deserve goodness, peace, joy, and well-being.
If you neglect taking care of yourself, stress can take a toll. Here are a few signs you may need to start prioritizing self-care. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s a good place to start.
If you’ve let self-care slide, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that it’s hard to prioritize our own needs in a culture that pushes us to go, go, go. It’s never too late to learn how to practice self-care.
Start by deciding which of your needs are most urgent. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy? You may choose to tackle basics like sleeping more and eating better at first, or you may choose to prioritize relationships and a sense of meaning. Ask yourself a few questions to identify which needs you’ll attend to first.
Once you’ve done this assessment, it’s time to lay out your self-care plan. Start by writing down your goal, intention, or vision. What would your life look like if your needs were met in certain areas? How would you feel and act? What would you experience? In other words, start with the end in mind.
Next, draft some concrete action steps. Start small so you don’t feel overwhelmed. For example, maybe you commit to drinking two more glasses of water per day or taking a daily 10-minute walk over lunch.
If self-care becomes just another item on your to-do list that you don’t have time for, it defeats the purpose. Try these strategies to integrate self-care habits more seamlessly into your day.
Once you’ve successfully incorporated a few self-care practices, consider how to add new ones. Keep in mind that it’s more effective to introduce new habits slowly than doing a major overhaul all at once.
Friends and loved ones who are on their own self-care journeys can offer support and self-care tips that worked for them. You might also seek the help of a mental health provider, such as a coach or therapist. Your workplace may have wellness resources that can help, too.
Here’s a list of self-care ideas to help you get started. These ideas are inexpensive and don’t require special skills. You can use any combination depending on what areas of your life need improvement, or come up with a list of your own.
Now that you know the importance of self-care, remember that you also deserve to take care of yourself. Your needs are valid, from the basics like healthy food and sleep to higher-order needs like finding meaning and purpose, nurturing relationships, and challenging your brain. None of them are frivolous; you deserve to explore each one.
Self-care doesn’t have to be expensive or take over your to-do list. Small steps can make a big difference, so start slow and give yourself permission to fine-tune your self-care plan over time. You deserve to lead a healthy, happy life—manageable changes to your habits can put it within reach.