An act of political warfare. That was how activist and writer Audre Lorde defined the term “self-care” in her 1988 collection of essays titled “A Burst of Light”. As we all know, though, the phrase has taken on a wholly different meaning in today’s world. Type the hashtag #selfcare in on Instagram, and thousands of (heavily filtered) images of fluffy bathrobes, fancy jade rollers, and colorful bubble baths pop up. To that end, many have leveled criticisms about self-care simply being a caricature for self-indulgence – with descriptors like “useless”, “superficial”, and “woo-woo” thrown into the mix.
But is it really (useless, that is)? Hardly. A growing body of scientific evidence highlights and supports self-care practices' benefits on physical and mental health (1). Okay, so it works. But, here comes the hard part. How, exactly, should you practice self-care? Is it all about lounging around, treating yourself, and applying a ton of face masks?
What’s the definition of self-care?
For that, we’ll need to look toward the definition of self-care: "The practice of taking action to preserve or improve one's health".
Think about what this implies for a second. That’s right; ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to do self-care. It can mean breathing in the scents of your favorite aromatherapy candles, slathering on your favorite body oil after a warm bath, or wearing brightly colored makeup to lift your spirits. Your approach to self-care will (and should) differ from your friends’, colleagues’, and loved ones’.
Why is self-care important?
As alluded to previously, the practice of self-care can bring about plenty of physical and mental health benefits. But what, precisely? There are three main things: 1) improved well-being (i.e., reduced risk in mental disorders and emotional disturbances), 2) lower morbidity (i.e., chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure), and 3) lower mortality (2). In other words, simply making time for self-care can help you be healthier, happier, and live for longer. Now, who wouldn’t want that?
Practical self-care ideas
While soaking in a bubble bath may be someone’s idea of self-care, you know it wouldn’t work for you. By the time the tub’s filled, your kids would have found a reason to call for you. Or, even if you’ve made it to the water, you’d be deathly afraid of the four-legged family member accidentally coming in – and slurping up all that soapy “goodness” (promptly warranting an emergency trip to the vet). A nightmare.
Well, not to worry. There are plenty of other practical self-care ideas you could try.
#1: Cultivate healthy lifestyle habits
Does self-care necessitate spending money? Absolutely not – as the following self-care ideas revolving around healthy lifestyle habits would illustrate:
- Get your sweat on: Exercise is a known mental health booster (3). And perhaps better yet, according to a 2019 study published in JAMA Network Open, people who exercise between two and eight hours per week throughout their lives reduced their risk of dying by 29 to 36% (4).
- Eat your fruits and vegetables: A 2014 study published in The BMJ shows that eating a diet filled with five servings of fruits and vegetables per day is associated with a lower risk of mortality – especially from heart-related issues (5).
- Prioritize snooze time: In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers found a link between too-little sleep (fewer than seven hours nightly) and higher mortality rates (6). Sleep deprivation adversely impacts emotional well-being, too (e.g., increased incidence of negative moods like anger and irritability) (7).
For all those with packed schedules, one of the best self-care ideas out there is meditation – a practice available to all capable of reducing stress, increasing calmness, promoting clarity, and enhancing happiness in just a few minutes (as shown by numerous scientific studies) (8).
Still, getting started can be unclear: Should you sit on the floor? Light incense? And how long is long enough? Here’s some guidance:
1. Choose a spot: You don’t necessarily need to go into a separate room – but it would help if you chose a space with minimal potential for distractions and mind wandering (i.e., the bustling living room wouldn’t be a good fit). And as for how to sit, well, that's up to you. On the floor, chair, or cushion – just make sure you’re comfortable.
2. Sink into the experience: While many meditation techniques are available, one of the easiest for beginners is the “body scan”. Close your eyes. Then, mentally scan every body part – from head to toe. Notice how each part feels (e.g., tightness). Each scan should take about 20 seconds. Don’t worry if you get distracted. Acknowledge your thoughts, then return to the body area where you just left off.
3. Practice, practice, practice: The more consistent you are with meditation, the less frequently your mind will wander during your sessions – and the better you’ll get at returning to the present moment. So, to reap the most benefits from meditation, consider setting aside 5 to 10 minutes a day to meditate (e.g., in-between work meetings or before you jump in the shower).
#3: Practice mindfulness
Wait … mindfulness? Didn’t we just talk about it in the previous section? Though the words “meditation” and “mindfulness” are often used interchangeably, they’re (actually) distinct concepts.
Meditation is a way to train your mind to step out of distractions – and to "arrive" in the present moment. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a quality of being, it’s the experience of being open and aware in the present moment, without automatic criticism, reflexive judgment, or mind wandering.
Despite their differences, the health benefits of both (i.e., meditation and mindfulness) look surprisingly similar. For instance, improved emotional regulation, reduced stress, enhanced cognitive functions, and better physical health (e.g., improvements in rheumatoid arthritis and lower back pain) (9).
One good thing about mindfulness? You can easily incorporate it in every moment of your daily life; your ultimate “goal” is to simply stay in the present moment more:
- Mealtimes: Resist the urge to scroll through social media or watch TV while you eat. Instead, choose to be present with your food – pay attention to the flavors and textures of each bite you’re taking.
- Social interactions: Give your partner, children, or colleague your full, undivided attention when you’re spending time with them. Stay present during your conversations (instead of daydreaming about what you’re going to do later, for example).
- Skincare routine: Do you hurriedly slap on consecutive skincare products on your face? Well, why not incorporate mindfulness into your skincare regimen? It won't take up too much of your time; plus, your products may work better!
Make time for self-care
One thing’s clear. Self-care isn’t optional. But the overlapping work, familial, and social demands can make it feel like it is. So, if you leave self-care to chance, you can bet it won’t happen. That’s why it’s so important for you to come up with a plan. Block time on your calendar – even just for a few minutes – to fully immerse yourself in this health-benefiting practice. It’s good for you (and the people around you).