Self-Care: Why Taking Care of Yourself Is a Non-negotiable

Self-Care: Why Taking Care of Yourself Is a Non-negotiable

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.

What is self-care?

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:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating balanced meals
  • Staying hydrated
  • Keeping your mind active
  • Engaging in a meaningful spiritual practice

Types of self-care

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:

Physical self-care

  • Eating balanced meals
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Exercise
  • Routine visits to health care providers such as a primary care physician or dentist 

Emotional self-care

  • Acknowledging and allowing your feelings
  • Sharing your emotions with a trusted friend or professional
  • Doing activities that create positive feelings

Social self-care

  • Nurturing friendships
  • Spending time with family
  • Getting involved in the community

Mental health self-care

  • Keeping your brain active by engaging in interesting or stimulating activities
  • Noticing and challenging negative thoughts
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Accessing mental health care 

Spiritual self-care

  • Developing a meaningful spiritual practice (meditation, gratitude journal, prayer, etc.)
  • Focusing on personal meaning and fulfillment

Why is self-care important?

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.

Stress reduction

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.

Improved mental health

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. 

Better work performance

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. 

Better quality of life

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. 

Signs that you need to prioritize self-care

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.

Physical signs

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches, stomachaches, or tight muscles
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Racing heart or restlessness

Behavioral signs

  • Nervous habits like nail biting
  • Using food, alcohol, or other substances to cope with emotions
  • Grinding teeth at night
  • Procrastination

Emotional signs

  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you’re stretched too thin
  • Crying or getting angry easily
  • Feeling nervous or edgy
  • Feeling powerless
  • Helplessness

Cognitive signs

  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Poor concentration
  • Indecisiveness
  • Constant worry
  • Forgetfulness 

Spiritual signs

  • Emptiness or loss of meaning
  • Trouble forgiving others
  • Loss of direction in life

Relational signs

  • Isolation
  • Resentment or distrust
  • Being critical or overly controlling toward others
  • Loneliness
  • Lashing out
  • Clamming up

How to create a self-care plan

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.

  1. Do you already practice any forms of self-care? Which needs are those addressing? How effective are your existing strategies?
  2. How is your work-life balance?
  3. Do you take regular breaks from work during the day?
  4. How much sleep are you getting? Is this amount of sleep working for or against you?
  5. What’s your diet like?
  6. How often do you exercise? How is this amount or type of exercise working for you?
  7. How are you attending to your emotional needs? 
  8. How are your relationships with friends and loved ones? Do these relationships need investment or nurturing?
  9. Is a spiritual practice important to you? If so, do you engage in spiritual practices that feel fulfilling? 

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.

“Fitting in” your new habits

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.

  1. Link your new habits to existing ones. Maybe you always have a morning cup of coffee so you decide to drink one glass of water before your morning cup from now on. Maybe you want to be kinder to yourself, so you post notes of affirmation next to your toothbrush, where you’ll automatically see them twice a day. Now you don’t have to “make time” for new habits.
  2. Re-evaluate your current coping strategies—you know, those activities you turn to when you’re feeling stressed. Are they truly refreshing you? Does your nightly television binge actually make you feel less burnt out? Does grabbing a drive-through milkshake ease your insecurity, disappointment, or worry beyond the first few sips? 
  3. Consider replacing these coping mechanisms with self-care ideas that will meaningfully improve your quality of life. Maybe instead of watching three episodes of your favorite show, you limit yourself to one episode and then go for a walk. Or instead of comforting yourself with junk food, you call a good friend. Notice how you feel before and after these strategies and try to replace the strategies that don’t serve you with ones that do.
  4. Tweak your new self-care plan as much as you need or want. It may need some adjusting to accomplish what you want it to, and that’s OK. Self-care is a practice and not an assignment, and no one is grading you.

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.

Self-care ideas to help you get started

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. 

  • Setting boundaries with people
  • Asking others for help
  • Talking with a trusted friend or loved one
  • Getting physical and mental health check-ups
  • Taking prescribed medications on schedule
  • Grabbing some alone time
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Taking a class that interests you
  • Picking up a new hobby
  • Taking a break from social media or the news

You deserve this

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.