Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/20/2022
Self-care is a term that has been adopted by a lot of businesses, apps, influencers and other profit-focused individuals over the years, and all for the purpose of making money with the appearance of giving you tools or techniques to indulge in something good for yourself.
But the shopping sprees, no-phone days and other suggestions popularly recognized as forms of self-care aren’t necessarily good for you. In fact,they may not even deliver a lot of lasting joy.
True self-care involves a lot of factors — some of which may work for others yet not for you.
The tricky thing about self-care is that it has to be tuned to your own needs and desires, so while your friend may get everything he needs from a day at the gym, you might require time at the spa, the library or just an extra nap here and there.
To understand how to find your own best self-care options, it’s important to understand what self-care actually is. Let’s dig in.
Self-care for your mental health is about preserving normal mental function: good cognitive abilities, healthy coping mechanisms, appropriate responses to stress and more. It’s the stuff we all want.
It’s also a preventative care technique to protect yourself from losing these normal behaviors and functions and falling victim to mental illness.
Mental illness is a medical condition that affects your mood, behavior and/or thoughts in a negative way, and hinders your ability to live your life in a normal way as a result.
It can affect your self-perceptions, work and relationships. Likewise, imbalances in your career, relationships, or your view of yourself can also be potential triggers for mental illness.
While science doesn’t fully explain mental health and mental illness, we do know some basics. For instance, we know that brain chemistry is involved in mental health, and that’s something you have little control over, but are greatly impacted by.
When something goes wrong, your whole life, or important parts of your life can be hindered, preventing you from enjoying your experiences and relationships.
Self-care, therefore, can be seen as a self-explanatory process; it’s taking care of your mental health, yourself.
This does not mean that you do everything yourself, but rather that you take responsibility for certain practices, behaviors and habits that can benefit your mental health.
To be frank, self-care for mental health looks like getting the help you need, plain and simple.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental health care is about more than ridding yourself of a mental illness. Instead, it’s about maintaining your mental health, playing a role in your own recovery from mental illness, and generally doing good things for yourself and your stability.
That means taking time to do things to improve your mental and physical health, which can include basics like eating, sleeping and exercising well. It can also mean taking into account your emotions.
When you practice self-care, you are embracing the idea that you are worth taking care of.
It’s important to note that self-care isn’t about selfishness or narcissism. Rather, it’s about self-respect and self love. You’re not spoiling yourself; you’re taking care of you the way you’d take care of another loved one.
The NIMH lays out a few basic tips for getting started with proper self-care, which may be helpful to those not used to the concept. (No matter how often you’ve heard ‘self-care’ as a term.)
It’s important to take self-care seriously. As mentioned above, self-care is not only about buying yourself the latest and greatest tech (if you need or want it), or spending a day at the spa (though those things aren’t prohibited, either).
Instead, self-care is about doing what’s right and good for your health and happiness in the long term.
Many of us are guilty of self neglect, so here are some great ways to practice a little self-care today:
The NIMH says 30 minutes of walking every day boosts mood and improves health, and while the steps on your fitness tracker might be short of your extra-active friend’s accomplishments, those small steps can build up over time.
Best of all, you don’t need to do it all in one go; you can break your exercise time up throughout the day.
A balanced diet and lots of water helps improve focus, energy and mood, which can help you perform throughout the day and feel more accomplished and satisfied as a result.
For real: A good sleep schedule that you prioritize and adhere to religiously does wonders for your mental health — not to mention your physical health, too.
Proper sleep hygiene is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, as well.
We’re talking mostly about meditation and breathing exercises here, but anything from journaling to working on a puzzle is good for you as long as it allows you to relax both mentally and physically.
Remember those mental activities we mentioned? That includes the mental activity of framing your life in a positive way.
That may mean identifying negative and unhelpful thoughts (and if you need help with that, a mental health provider can offer support).
It also means remembering to be grateful, whether you do this in a journal or by saying sincere thanks to those who support you.
While you’re at the thank-you part of positivity, don’t forget to communicate with and interact with friends and family.
Mental health can cause us to retreat — and staying in touch with friends or reaching out to others when you need support is key to sustained mental health.
Just remember to be the same friend in kind when you can.
Your emotional health is worth protecting. So whether you consider yourself well or not, you should spend time taking care of yourself every day, even if that means just a few minutes of exercise, or the minimum number of hours you need to sleep.
An effective self-care plan doesn't have to be complicated; it's mostly about attending to your needs when you see warning signs of growing problems.
That may mean texting more friends or scheduling a night out when you've neglected your social connections, or walking around the neighborhood to take that phone call to squeeze in some more physical activity.
Self-care might also mean getting mental health advice from a trained professional if you feel like you're starting to need support. Whether you're already in need of that support or just asking questions, it might be a good time to look at our mental health resources guide for information about other self-care activities like deep breathing exercises.
If you need support now, consider telepsychiatry and online therapy for immediate help.