You may have read about self-care, and you may be on board with the benefits it can offer — even if it requires some extra effort.
“Self-care means really listening to your body, taking moments to check in, intentionally tuning in to the thoughts going on in your mind, and challenging your behaviors and belief systems if things feel out of alignment in your life,” says Kelsey Patel, a Los Angeles–based wellness coach and Reiki instructor, and the author of the book Burning Bright: Rituals, Reiki, and Self-Care to Heal Burnout, Anxiety, and Stress.
You may feel up for the challenge, but recognizing the need for self-care is one thing. Actually adopting a self-care practice that can improve your life, particularly when there’s so much going on in the world that’s outside of your control, is another. Here’s how to do it.
How to Start a Self-Care Routine You'll Follow
First, Understand What Is Self-Care and What Isn’t
Much of the research on self-care doesn’t come from mental health fields, but from nursing. It’s long been seen as a way to preserve overall health and prevent or manage chronic disease.
An article published in October 2021 in the International Journal of Nursing Sciences points out that the concept of self-care is vague, because so many different definitions exist. The authors define self-care as the ability to care for oneself through awareness, self-control, and self-reliance in order to achieve, maintain, or promote optimal health and well-being.
In practice, self-care is multifaceted. “The way I define self-care is the intentional, proactive pursuit of integrated wellness that balances mind, body, and spirit personally and professionally,” says Paula Gill Lopez, PhD, an associate professor and the chair of the department of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, whose research focuses on self-care.
It’s about more than taking care of your physical health. “Just eating healthy isn’t enough anymore,” Patel says. “Things are moving so fast around us that we need space to self-care and slow down to rest from all the busyness in our lives.”
Just because a behavior is “good for you” doesn’t make it self-care. “I recommend finding something you look forward to for self-care,” says Stephanie Freitag, PhD, a psychologist at Westchester Childhood and Adult Psychological Services in Purchase, New York, and an adjunct professor at Emory School of Medicine.
That might be something that supports physical health, like a certain type of exercise, or something that’s purely for joy, like a massage or regular dinners with friends.
The common denominator of self-care practices is that you get some enjoyment out of the activity, adds Marni Amsellem, PhD, a licensed psychologist based in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Your perspective plays a role in determining what types of behaviors constitute self-care for you. For instance, let's say you're new to running and you set a goal of running 10 miles per week. The act of running itself may not be enjoyable and you may struggle through every minute of it as you’re getting started.
But if you get satisfaction from meeting your goals, it could still be worthwhile. If that practice allows you to say: Look at what I did today; I’m working toward my goal and that feels good — then that counts even if in the moment it doesn’t feel like self-care, Dr. Amsellem says.
Dr. Freitag points out that certain not-so-fun activities count as self-care, like prioritizing annual checkups and keeping the house clean. Again, these things might not bring joy in the moment — not for everyone, anyway — but they go a long way in boosting overall well-being and peace of mind.
In short, self-care refers to all the steps you take to tend to your physical and emotional health in the ways you are best able to do so.
“Good self-care involves doing the things that will help you operate at an optimal level,” says Shauna Pollard, PhD, a psychologist based in Rockville, Maryland. The activities you make part of your self-care routine should strike a balance between the activities that provide enjoyment once they're done and the ones that bring immediate joy, she says.
A 5-Step Approach for Creating (and Getting Into) a Self-Care Routine
Follow these five steps to adopt a sustainable self-care practice.
- Find what makes you feel centered. Gill Lopez, who leads self-care workshops for students, professional groups, and community groups, says she exposes participants to different types of self-care because one size doesn’t fit all. “I go through all different kinds of things that might appeal to people in hopes that they'll find something they can do on a regular basis,” Gill Lopez says. Start by writing down as many things as you can think of that bring you joy, whether it’s the color purple, receiving back rubs, springtime, certain smells, or music.
- Brainstorm how you can incorporate those things into your daily life. It could be in the background (such as filling your space with the colors and smells you enjoy) or it could take up a more prominent space in your daily routine (such as designating a set amount of time in your day for a certain activity), Gill Lopez says. Starting small may make the habit easier to get into, so try adding just one new self-care practice at a time.
- Set goals for incorporating self-care behaviors every day. Once you decide what self-care practices you’d like to incorporate into your life, come up with goals for how often and when. Make your goal realistic and measurable, Gill Lopez writes in an article published in National Association of School Psychologists Communiqué in 2017. For instance, if you’re trying to unplug from electronic devices in order to be more present, start with a short amount of time, like 20 minutes during dinner. When you successfully stick to that for a week, you can set a more challenging goal.
- Find support. To keep your self-care practices sustainable, Freitag recommends relying on your support system. Find people who engage in the same self-care activities so you can do them together sometimes.
- Adjust and tweak your approach as you go. It’s okay if there are bumps along the way. “We're talking about a practice, we're talking about trial and error, and we're also talking about our needs changing over time,” says Ellen K. Baker, PhD, a psychologist based in Washington, DC. “What might be self-care in one period might be less so in another period.” Some examples of easy-to-adopt self-care practices include: reading a book to your toddler (or yourself) every night; taking a 10-minute walk outside; going to sleep earlier; powering down your devices in the evening; cooking with more nutritious ingredients; and surrounding yourself with things that make you happy.
Overcoming Barriers to Self-Care
If you have trouble getting started with a self-care routine, it might be worth exploring where that roadblock is coming from. “If there is a stuckness or a difficulty getting started or sustaining some kind of a self-care program, I'd look at what might be going on,” Baker says. Some people can unravel that mystery through independent journaling, but you may need to visit a therapist to get to the root of the issue. Baker says a therapist will be particularly helpful if the question you keep running into is, “Am I worth it?”
Prioritizing self-care can be especially challenging amid constant negative headlines, political infighting, and international crises. “Feeling overwhelmed or helpless are emotional experiences that can come from taking in constant cycles of bad news,” Dr. Pollard says.
Although it’s important to stay informed enough to keep yourself and your family safe, Pollard recommends disengaging from the news if you notice increased feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, or sadness. “You can limit the time you spend consuming the news. Avoid doom scrolling or allowing your technology to constantly interrupt you with the latest headline,” she says.
This alone is a form of self-care, but it also makes room for other activities you enjoy.
Research also shows that self-care is especially important in hard times. A study published in December 2021 in the journal BMJ Open found that engaging in various self-care activities during the COVID-19 lockdown was associated with improved well-being, even though the perceived stress of these lockdowns made it harder to engage in self-care.
Ultimately, Patel says self-care shouldn’t be a chore. “More self-care equals more self-awareness, which equals more self-love, which will ripple out onto others you interact with every day in the form of compassion, gratitude, and deeper kindness,” she says.
“If you take the time for even just a few minutes of daily self-care, you will be able to show up to the world from a place of inner peace, and things will likely feel much easier.” That, she says, should be all the justification you need to get started now.
Additional reporting by Christine Byrne.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Lopez PG. Self-Care: The Missing Link in Best Practice, Part I: The Ethical Mandate for Self-Care. National Association of School Psychologists Communiqué. January 1, 2017.
- Elkin L, et al. Relationship Between Self-Care Activities, Stress and Well-Being During COVID-19 Lockdown: A Cross-Cultural Mediation Model. BMJ Open. December 2021.