Self-care: What it Means and How to Put it Into Practice

To say the last couple of months has been hard for our family is an understatement. We experienced the deaths of two immediate family members in the span of just a few weeks.

Going through what we have been through recently has had me thinking more and more about the idea of self-care. I talk about it and encourage it often with clients, but it has really come to the surface for me personally and for the people I love in the last several weeks. In times of difficulty and struggle it is really easy for basic self-care to fall by the wayside and seem really challenging to accomplish.

During this difficult time, I noticed for myself that my appetite was thrown off, I wasn’t moving and as active as I normally am, and I wasn’t sleeping well. All of this led to me not feeling good in my body, and only worsened the grief and overall difficulty of the very real and unavoidable circumstances we were in. I noticed the same things in family members, not eating regularly and struggling with sleep, etc.

This is obviously an extreme scenario that people don’t face on a regular basis, thank God. But many of us lack awareness and skills around basic self-care in our everyday lives, let alone when things get stressful or difficult. We simply haven’t been taught what it means to take care of ourselves in healthy, basic ways and that has an impact on our mental and physical health.

In response to us not knowing how to implement positive behaviors around self-care, we often find self-destructive ways to cope. Excessive drinking, shopping or overspending on things we don’t need are some common examples. Even the act of going on a diet can be a way of coping and trying to assert control over our lives. All of these behaviors are simply distractions that don’t really help in the long run and can make things worse.

Figuring out what true self-care means to you and incorporating it into your own life can have the opposite effect, making you feel better and more empowered to live your life more fully.

What is Basic Self-Care?

The term self-care has become somewhat of an overused cliche. Sometimes when we think of self-care we think about pampering ourselves, like with manicures or massages. Basic self-care, though, is different. It is about doing the everyday foundational things needed to take care of our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

Our bodies have fundamental needs and when we aren’t meeting them they let us know. Things like feeding yourself regularly, drinking water throughout the day, getting enough sleep, to name just a few, are all forms of basic self-care. This concept of caring for ourselves is often looked at as selfish or as this “extra” thing, but true self-care is not at all selfish and really is a necessity. To be able to function and live in a meaningful and mentally and physically healthy way caring for ourselves is a must. Here are some examples of what basic physical and mental self-care can look like.

Physical Self-care

  • Eating at regular intervals throughout the day, usually 3 meals and maybe a snack or two (yes, despite what you think or have heard, this is “normal” eating)
  • Taking the time and effort to plan what you will eat
  • Going on walks or moving your body in ways that are enjoyable to you on a regular basis
  • Getting enough sleep to feel rested and restored consistently
  • Showering/bathing and brushing your teeth and hair each day. (Might sound silly, but it is not uncommon for these very basic things to seem difficult during times of stress or depression.)
  • Getting regular medical and dental check ups
  • Taking time off of work or being active when you are sick or injured
  • Taking a nap or resting when you feel exhausted (instead of continuing to push yourself past the point of exhaustion)

Mental/Emotional Self-Care

  • Regularly praying and/or meditating daily
  • Practicing a hobby you really enjoy
  • Writing in a journal and making time for self-reflection
  • Talking with and connecting with friends and family
  • Making time to have fun, play, and relax
  • Spending time in nature
  • Setting boundaries for yourself, like saying no sometimes
  • Practicing self-compassion (versus being self-critical)

Self-care can look different from one person to the next and there is no one right or perfect way to practice it.

Why is Self-Care Important?

Self-care can be looked at similarly to putting gas in your car. A car can only go so far until it runs out of fuel, and it doesn’t run at its full performance level when it is running on fumes. The same is true for your mind and body.

Self-care habits are the fuel that our minds and bodies need in order to function fully. When we run ourselves ragged and don’t incorporate these basic self-care habits, we run the risk of burnout and developing and worsening anxiety and depression as well as contributing to physical health issues.

The ways in which we care for ourselves are intertwined. One impacts the other. Specifically, as it relates to food and eating, think about it, if your stress level is through the roof and you are sleep deprived, it only makes sense that nourishing yourself and making health supporting choices around food would be more difficult. We can’t expect our bodies and minds to work effectively if we aren’t regularly doing the fundamental things required to take care of them.

Granted, this isn’t always easy, especially in times of stress or grieving, but it is during those times that we may need to be even more intentional about doing the very basic things we need to do to care for ourselves.

How to Put It Into Practice

It can seem daunting in our already over scheduled, high-stress lives to consider devoting time to caring for ourselves. It is critical, though, to implement and practice self-care in our everyday lives to support our mental and physical health so that when things get stressful or we go through difficult times, like my family and I have recently, we can notice when things are off and move back in the direction of caring for ourselves well.

Self-care doesn’t have to be perfect or one more thing to put pressure on ourselves about but making it a priority is well worth some practice and attention.

Here are some questions to consider in regards to your own self-care patterns and what areas might need some attention.

  • How much sleep do you get on average?
  • Do you feel rested?
  • What time do you usually go to bed and wake up?
  • Do you go long periods without eating and skip meals often?
  • Would you describe your usual eating pattern as chaotic?
  • How often do you get outdoors?
  • How are you at setting limits with people – especially friends and family?
  • Are you a perfectionist?
  • Do you feel guilty if you are not “productive”?
  • What do you do to relax?
  • Do you have any spiritual practices?
  • How often do you drink alcohol and how much do you drink when you do?
  • How often do you move your body in enjoyable ways?

Wrap Up

I encourage you to take some time to reflect on your own self-care. What self-care practice (or maybe two) can you commit to incorporating today? So often clients reach out to me with the goal of weight loss or better health or wanting information about the new “it” diet. But what I see time and time again is that many people simply aren’t doing these basic life-giving, necessary things to care for themselves on a regular basis.

I’ll say it again, taking care of ourselves and making self-care a priority isn’t selfish, instead it is an act of love not only for ourselves, but also for the people who care about us and want us to be around as long possible.