Self-Care: What Is It and How Is It Done?

Individual Therapy Bethesda, MD

“Self-care” has taken on serious “buzz-word” status over the past few years. News and magazine articles, pop psychology websites, and self-help books almost always give it a nod, being sure to emphasize how important it is to living a healthy and balanced life. With so much coverage from so many different angles, one might ask if self-care, as a concept and practice, is worth the hype.

The answer? A resounding yes.

Let’s break this down.

What is self-care?

Self-care is taking the space and time to recharge and refuel in whatever way works best for you. Operationalized, it can be as simple as pausing to take a breath or as elaborate as cooking a full course meal just for yourself (or to feed others, if that brings you joy). Self-care is about establishing boundaries, protecting the space and time to reflect about your life, learning about yourself on an intimate level, giving yourself the permission to feel joy and peace, and honoring both your struggles and your success. Self-care allows you to be vulnerable and honest with yourself so that you can engage with others in a genuine and authentic way. It can be done in the company of other people, but is often most impactful (especially for introverts) when done in solitude. Self-care practices also do not have to require a lot of time; in fact, it is the small, quick, and consistent things that we do on a daily basis that keep us recharged and excited about moving forward.

Let’s also be clear about what self-care is not. It is not giving in to indulgent “guilty pleasures” just for the sake of it, it’s not something that you should aim to do “every once-in-a-while” (rather, it should be a consistent and ongoing practice), it is not checking out of your life or your obligations completely, and it is not selfish. Self-care also is not the same for everybody—what rejuvenates you can be totally different than what rejuvenates someone else.

Why is self-care important?

 The research is clear that self-care is vital to psychological and emotional well-being. It serves to decrease stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. It provides the opportunity to reflect and check in with yourself to ensure that you remain mindful of your needs, thus significantly mitigating the risk of burnout. Practicing self-care also improves productivity as it creates space to refuel and allows for sharper focus when returning to the task(s) at hand. By practicing self-care, you also bolster your level of self-compassion, which is critical in the quest to live a balanced and authentic life.

Okay, so how do I practice self-care?

First, figure out what forms of self-care work best for you (more on that below). Creating a self-care toolbox is an excellent way to achieve this. The toolbox is essentially a ready-made list of options that you know are hugely helpful to you when you need self-care the most, but may not have the mental or emotional space and energy to identify what you need on the fly. Having the list available also helps hold one accountable to practicing self-care.

Second, commit to engaging in self-care on a regular basis. Scheduling self-care activities in your calendar is one option, although you may opt for an “accountability buddy” (i.e., someone who practices self-care with you or will hold you to following through on your own self-care practices). I recommend setting aside at least 15-30 minutes each day for your own self-care. You are a priority!

Third, accept that taking the space for yourself is important and will actually make you more productive in the end. This is often a huge mental leap for people who consider self-care an indulgence and a waste of time. But when practiced consistently and meaningfully, self-care will significantly improve mental clarity, emotional openness, and overall energy levels.

Got it—now talk to me about my self-care options.

 There are many, many options for self-care. Here are some things that I think are central to any self-care practice. Then we’ll get into other idiosyncratic possibilities.

  1. Protect the space and time to process your feelings, good or bad, happy or sad. Learn to sit with the hard feelings, in particular (e.g., stress, anxiety, sadness, worry), without rushing through them or brushing them off as inconsequential. Identifying what’s happening for you on an emotional level is a key step in learning how to handle various life circumstances.
  2. Prioritize your health and well-being by engaging in regular exercise, eating well, and getting enough sleep.
  3. Journal—I’m a huge fun of regular journaling (i.e., processing your day with major thoughts and reflections) as well as gratitude journaling. There are so many benefits to gratitude journaling and it can also double as a space to reflect on various meaningful experiences throughout the day, similar to a standard journal.
  4. Learn how to say no to low-priority opportunities. Establishing boundaries around your time can significantly mitigate stress, anxiety, and overall irritability that often accompanies feeling overwhelmed.
  5. Practice mindfulness, which entails fully attending to what is happening in the present moment without judgement. Stay rooted in the moment and check in with what you’re feeling, thinking, and doing. Being present makes a significant difference in quality of life.

If you put those top five things into practice, you’re already doing well! Now see below for other self-care ideas that may be particularly meaningful for you:

  1. Go to therapy.
  2. Go for a run outside.
  3. Play with a puppy or a baby.
  4. Go for a walk around the neighborhood.
  5. Cry.
  6. Take a long, hot shower in the dark with candles lit.
  7. Call a close friend or family member just to chat.
  8. Take a nap.
  9. Grab a meal with friends.
  10. Go out for a drive to somewhere new.
  11. Plan a vacation.
  12. Set up a date night with your partner (maybe make it a surprise!).
  13. Laugh, even if you aren’t particularly happy.
  14. Nurture something (plants, flowers, animals, etc.).
  15. Decorate your space with photos or affirmations that are meaningful to you.
  16. Read a fiction book (or non-fiction if you find that relaxing).
  17. Plan short- and long-term goals.
  18. Buy yourself a present.
  19. Pray.
  20. Take a bubble bath.
  21. Take a coffee/tea break.
  22. Eat a meal in silence.
  23. Put on some fun music and dance.
  24. Color with crayons or colored pencils.
  25. Watch a sunset.

Do you practice other forms of self-care that aren’t listed here? Let me know in the comments!

Shy Porter, MS, LCMFT provides individual therapy, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call or email Shy today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.

Phone: MD: 240-752-7650
4905 Del Ray Avenue, Suite 301
Bethesda, MD 20814