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If you’re busy (and who isn’t?) slowing down to take care of yourself may seem like a waste of time. But self-care practices can have a powerful impact on your mental, physical, and emotional health.
What exactly are self-care practices?
Self-care is often misunderstood. It is cast as a “nice to have,” somehow a “woman thing,” or a luxury, like a spa treatment. But self-care practices are any actions you take to improve your mental, physical, or emotional well-being. Everybody needs them to function at their best.
Simply put, self-care practices are intentional steps to take care of yourself. Self care practices put deposits into your wellness “bank account.” Consistent deposits give you more internal resources to draw upon during stressful times.
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.”
Self-care looks different for everyone. Some people thrive on social connections while others need lots of alone time. Some people love a vigorous workout, and others would rather a slow, mindful yoga class. There are those who find cleaning therapeutic, and others who find it draining.
Your self-care practices, then, will look different than everyone else’s. So how do you figure out what works for you? You can start by asking yourself these questions:
- When I feel overwhelmed, what’s the first thing I want to do?
- When do I feel my best?
- What makes me smile?
- What do I daydream about doing?
- What do I want to do that I never get to do?
- How do I want to feel?
The importance of self-care for your mental health and well-being
Self-care is critical to your mental health. When we feel stressed, the body’s alarm bells — known as the sympathetic nervous system — go off. They send a message to the brain letting it know that you’ll need more energy to either fight or flee.
Unfortunately, when constantly triggered by low-level chronic stress, it becomes difficult to relax.
Stress puts people at higher risk of developing depression, anxiety, heart disease, and other health issues. That’s because when under stress, our bodies divert important resources to dealing with the threat. That means that we have less available for other processes, like healing and sleep.
Fortunately, when we practice self-care, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows us to relax and counteract the effects of long-term stress.
Besides moderating the stress response, self-care practices can reduce inflammation. Self-care is linked to better health, helps develop mental fitness, and makes instances of physical and mental illness easier to cope with.
How can you practice self-care every day?
Despite “self-care” being the most-searched term of 2020, taking care of yourself isn’t a trend or something you can dabble in. For the biggest impact, you should make self-care a daily practice.
The National Wellness Institute identifies six primary dimensions of wellness. They are mental, physical, emotional, occupational, social, and spiritual. Ideally, you can do something to promote wellness in each of these areas every day.
Of course, there are times when you may need to focus on one area over the others. For example, if you’re under the weather, it makes sense to focus on your physical wellness and skip a coffee date with a friend (social).
If you’re short on time, the idea of tackling several different areas of wellness all at once may seem daunting. The trick to creating a self care practice that you’ll stick with is self-awareness and creating a routine that works for you.
How to start a self-care routine
Many people have started — and stopped — one-self care practice or another. But we all also have things that we wouldn’t dream of missing. Grab your planner and follow the following steps:
- Look at your schedule. What activities are you already doing that are fun, energizing, or health-focused? Highlight any massages, physical therapy, sports, doctor’s appointments, or trips to the gym.
- Revisit your answers to the earlier questions and look at the six dimensions of wellness. What do you wish you had time for? How do you want to feel? Which areas of your life receive the most attention? The least?
- Begin to look for areas where you can schedule your self-care. While scheduling rest doesn’t sound particularly relaxing, it’s one of the best ways to make sure it actually happens. Look for areas where you can “revitalize” something you’re already doing. For example, if you walk your dog every day, try leaving your phone at home for a mini-digital detox.
You don’t need huge, uninterrupted blocks of “me-time” in your schedule to cultivate self-care. Don’t let being “busy” stop you from making time for yourself!
Here’s a list of over 50 self-care ideas that take anywhere from a whole day to just one minute to practice:
50+ self-care practices for your mind, body, and soul that fit into any schedule
One minute or less:
- Take your vitamins. This is easily overlooked, but over time can make a big difference in how you feel. Vitamins can reduce fatigue and support your immune system.
- Drink a glass of water. The effects of dehydration can look like fatigue or anxiety. A glass of water might be all you need to perk you back up.
- Practice mindful breathing. Meditation doesn't have to take a huge amount of time. Try watching your breath for a whole minute (about seven deep breaths). Note how you feel before and after.
- Clear a spot. We often think more clearly when our spaces are more orderly. Declutter your nightstand, desk, kitchen counter, or your sofa.
- Create a mantra for yourself. If you set an intention earlier for how you want to feel, try turning it into a mantra or affirmation. It could be as simple as “I’m doing my best” or “I am at peace.”
- Get — or give — a hug. Physical affection reduces our stress levels and makes us feel more connected.
- Give up on something you feel like you ought to do. The things we “should” do are mental clutter. Sometimes it feels good to complete them, but if they’re someone else’s idea of what you should do, let it go.
- Accept an offer of help. Turning down help can become an automatic reaction, even if we crave support. The next time someone offers their assistance, even in something small, surprise yourself by saying yes.
Five to 10 minutes:
- Write it down. Journaling can be very therapeutic. Take a couple of minutes to just record how you feel, anything you’re worried about, or even your dreams. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Set a timer and clear your mind.
- Give yourself an extra five minutes between meetings. Take the time to decompress, take notes, or prepare for your next meeting. Your brain will thank you.
- Water your plants. Caring for plants keeps us in the present and in touch with nature. Research shows that plants boost productivity, creativity, mindfulness, and reduce stress.
- Simplify your choices. Decide on one meal that you want to streamline. Pick a yummy, nutritious option and eat it every day. For example, replace breakfast with a nutrient-dense smoothie or prep a week of healthy lunches.
- Remind yourself of a special memory. Flip through a digital vacation album, or print and frame a photo that makes you smile.
- Outsource something. Make a call or book a service appointment online for help with a task you dread, like cleaning or lawn care. Use the newfound time as you please.
- Enjoy being still. Sit or lie down for five minutes (try not to fall asleep). You can do a simple body awareness scan, or just close your eyes and practice deep breathing.
- Treat yourself. Go shopping! Buy something you’ve always wanted online, order your favorite lunch, or book a spa day. You could even make an out-of-the-way stop just to pick up that thing you love.
- Fix or replace something. Is there something that’s not working well? Rid your mind of the annoyance by fixing it or replacing it. It will make you smile every time you use it with ease.
- Pay yourself first. Taking good care of your finances is self-love. Set up a savings or investment account and put a small amount into it before you pay any of your other obligations.
- Do a mini digital detox. Try going tech-free for five minutes once a day. Meditate, stand and stretch, or color.
- Make a list of things that make you happy. They can be big (like a vacation), abstract (like a color), or small (like a particular brand of chocolate). Keep the list handy and add to it. It will inspire you to notice and appreciate the things you love.
- Make a gratitude list. Consciously practicing gratitude overpowers negative emotions and keeps depression at bay.
- Call a friend. Yes — no one uses the phone anymore. That’s why it’s extra-special to actually hear a loved one’s voice on the line. Choose someone you haven’t chatted with in a while and just ask, “ How are you doing?”
15 to 20 minutes:
- Take a walk. The fresh air and movement will help rejuvenate and refocus you.
- Play with your kids. They’ll love it, and you’ll get to relive the nostalgia of the things you did when you were little as you bond with your kids.
- Play with your pets. Pets love unconditionally (well, except cats). Give them some one-on-one attention and belly scratches.
- Take a shower. There are few things in life that don’t seem better after a quick shower. Rinse the day off, or enjoy the hot water while you use all the fancy products you normally skip.
- Take a power nap. Fatigue can affect your focus, mood, and productivity. Pair a cup of coffee with a short nap to wake up feeling recharged.
- Read a book for fun. Whether it’s a fiction book or just a topic you find interesting, reading is a great way to destress while engaging your mind.
- Curate your social media. Unfollow or mute negative people. Depending on the app, you can block certain terms and topics, or even delete some platforms altogether.
- Cross something off your list. Take a few minutes to handle a lingering task. You’ll feel better, more productive, and get a boost of momentum from your accomplishment.
- Plan a vacation. Daydream about where you want to go. Even if it’s not in your means just yet, have fun picking out the accommodations, activities, and even your wardrobe. The anticipation of a trip is proven to be the best part of the experience.
- Move your body. You don’t need to go to a ninety-minute yoga class to reap the benefits. Roll out your mat for a few simple poses (don’t forget savasana) or just stretch and breathe.
- Take a small step towards doing something you really want to do. Even if you can’t complete it in 15 minutes, research the first step, enroll in a class, or begin reading a book on the topic.
One to two hours:
- Go to therapy. Working with a professional is an excellent way to support your mental health and reduce burnout. You deserve (at least) one hour a week to focus on yourself.
- Try a new health or wellness trend that you’ve never tried before. Make an appointment for acupuncture, a chiropractor, cryotherapy, float sessions, or even a touchless spa.
- Go to bed earlier. Have an extra hour to yourself? Get some rest. A 2019 study showed that just one extra hour of sleep improved cognitive performance, fatigue, mood, and focus.
- Become an expert on you. Try setting up an at-home taste testing of all your favorite snacks and take notes on why you love them.
- Uplevel your appearance. Spend some time getting a professional manicure, haircut, shave, or shop for some new clothes.
- Go to a fitness class. Most exercise classes are between 45 and 90 minutes. You can spin, stretch, box, play a sport, or lift weights. You’ll leave feeling exhausted (in all the good ways) and accomplished.
- Turn off your phone one hour before bed. Setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep starts early. The blue light on your phone (and all the drama on social media) can prevent you from getting enough sleep. Disconnect at a certain time every night and do something relaxing.
- Meet with a nutritionist. Feeling sluggish, unfocused, or achy? Your diet may be to blame. Find out which foods and veggies are the best for you. Spend an hour optimizing your diet for what’s important to you and how you want to feel.
- Plan time to do nothing. Give yourself the gift of a few minutes or even a whole hour back in your day. Look at your planner and see if you can do this on a regular basis.
- Watch something funny. Whether a favorite sitcom or a comedy special, watching something that makes you laugh is a great way to release stress.
- Clean up! An hour is enough time to make a significant difference in almost any space. Set a timer and put on some fun music or a tv show you want to catch up on.
Half a day:
- Do something touristy in your city. Visit someplace that you never get to go. Take photos and stop to read all the signs. You’ll remember why you love living where you live.
- Pick up something you used to love again. Is there something that used to light you up or relax you? Even if you’re rusty, spend an hour getting back into it.
- Visit somewhere scenic. Go to a park or scenic overlook and enjoy being in nature. Take a friend with you and plan a picnic.
- Have an at-home spa day. Give yourself a massage, facial, and pedicure. Soak in a bubble bath or take a really long shower. Complete the experience with the fluffiest robe you can find.
- Play a sport. Join a local tournament or meet with friends to play casually. If schedules don’t match up, take your kids or partner out for a game of dodgeball.
- Work from a new location. Enjoy a change of scenery. Pack a lunch and your laptop and work from a cafe, diner, hotel room, or even the beach (WiFi permitting).
- Take a mental health day. Feeling drained? Don’t wait for vacation or the flu to come around before you take a day to yourself.
- Do some inner work. Your brain actually works harder when you’re not focusing. Inner work makes you a better leader and improves your ability to learn and produce when you’re back at your desk.
- Give back. Take a day to support a cause that’s close to your heart. Volunteer or organize a fundraising effort.
Investments for the long-term (and today)
Making a regular habit of self-care has payoffs in the near- and long-term. Today, you will feel better, have more energy and optimism, and be a better colleague, parent, and friend.
For the long-haul, a regular habit of valuing yourself and showing that value by taking care of yourself will help you have the endurance and resilience to keep learning, adapting, and persevering over a lifetime.
Start trying out some of these self-care tips. It’s less important what self-care practices you do than that you start learning how to take care of yourself.
BetterUp Staff Writer