by Heather Corinna
More and more, we've found many of our users and readers express that they don't know how to do self-care and take care of themselves when they're hurting or struggling, or feel like self-care isn't a valid Thing To Be Doing. We'd deeply disagree, especially since we see how people tend to feel and wind up when they aren't doing self-care. We also know that self-care is a big part of not just getting through your life intact, it's also something that helps people learn to take care of themselves, literally: to develop the independence, autonomy and resilience that is part and parcel of growing into a person who can, earnestly, take care of themselves.
What's self-care? A wide range of behaviors and practices which can support emotional well-being and our overall health and also are used to manage stress. If you're in your teens or twenties, you don't need me to define what stress is: you probably know what it is better than anybody. Self-care means ways, often simple ways, we can or do take care of ourselves, for ourselves (though the people around you and your relationships certainly benefit) both as a general part of living life every day, but also, and often particularly, when we're stressed, depressed, experiencing anxiety or going through something rough or otherwise challenging.
What things are or are not self-care for you is going to depend a whole lot on you: on who you are as a person, what your interests are, what's available to you for self-care, and what you need based on how you're feeling, what's going on in your life, and what you tend to find, over time and through trial and error, works best for you. One person's self-care can be another person's stressor, so there are no rules here. Instead, there are just a wide range of options you can pick from, a la carte, combine and refine to develop your own self-care toolbox.
If all of what we've listed here looks easy to you, and are things you often do for yourself, that's great. Go you! But for some of us, knowing what can even be self-care and learning to care for ourselves as a practice, especially when we're stressed and struggling, is challenging. As someone who spent most of their childhood, teens and adult life just scraping by with a ton of challenges, and also giving a lot to others on top of that, it's been a lifelong learning process for me to learn some of even the most basic self-care. I still have to remind myself to do it a lot, especially at the times when I tend to need it the most. If that sounds like you, it can help to keep a notebook or journal of your own self-care, so you can get in the habit of really doing some every day, and learn to see the patterns of where you totally forget to take care of yourself.
If self-care is pretty new to you, don't make doing self-care yet another thing to stress yourself out with. "Oh NOES! I am a terrible person who forgot to do self-care today! I am full of fail!" Thinking like that is, as is hopefully obvious, the opposite of self-care. As you're learning to take care of you, and exploring what does and does work for you in that respect, baby steps are just fine: this isn't a race to be won or a quota you have to fill.
Big breath, now let it all the way out. Okay. Caring for yourself is hopefully something you can come to with kindness and gentleness towards yourself and learning to do these things, and is something to learn to do without pressure or worry. This is just for you, and just for you to make your life easier, and to help you feel better.
A few brief words about selfishness: You might be thinking that some, or even all, of the things on this list look selfish. That's probably because they are. But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with doing them, that it's not okay to do them and take care of yourself, or that only you benefit from self-care. Taking care of ourselves, being selfish in that respect, is essential to our health and well-being. Self-care and self-indulgence aren't the same things (but we feel like the latter is also okay, too). And if and when we don't take care of ourselves, and either neglect self-care, or set our lives up so that we only look to others to care for us, we can't be self-reliant and independent, we don't tend to do very well, especially through some of the harder parts of life, and it's also nigh unto impossible to have healthy relationships, too. So, this stuff? It's for you, and your life. Your life that is about you, but also your life that includes other people and relationships with them which are far richer and more multi-dimensional than someone being your caretaker or nursemaid.
Some self-care ideas and standbys:
- Movement or exercise (the kind you enjoy and feels good, not something solely with the aim of weight loss or changing appearance or which you only do because you feel you should: think dancing like your pants are on fire vs. situps, or a mellow bike ride on a nice day rather than a trainer yelling at you in an air-conditioned gym)
- Cooking or baking; eating things that are good for you, but also tasty
- Doing something creative, like making music, writing, cooking, painting: you don't have to be an expert at it, you just need to pick something where you enjoy the process
- Baths or showers (singing like you were at karaoke in the shower is often a good touch: pick a song that's a guilty pleasure for bonus happymaking points)
- Getting outside/out of doors
- Meditation or prayer
- Watching a favorite movie, reading a good book (or a crappy one if that makes you feel better), listening to music
- Slowing your breathing
- Visiting a museum
- Getting a haircut or getting your hair washed
- Talking to friends or family you know you can trust and who are good to you
- Hanging out with friends, family or other community for a distraction
- Turning off your phone ringer. Better yet, leaving the phone behind for a while, period.
- Leaving love letters to yourself on the mirror with post-it notes
- Gardening, growing or planting something
- Take a day trip somewhere, by car, bus or bike: you can even be like a tourist in your own town or city, checking out things you wouldn't as a resident, but visitors usually want to see or do
- Masturbation (Partnered sex tends to be a poor choice when we need self-care, since a) it's not just about ourselves and can add stress and b) tends to be a particularly bad fit when not with a partner well-known to us and in a sexual relationship that's going very well. And, of course, if sex is stressing you out, as with any of these things were they stressors, it'd be a truly poor choice for self-care.)
- Counseling or support groups
- Change up your transportation if it's stressful: if you drive, see about public transit, walking, biking or skating. If public transit is making you anxious, look into carpooling
- Clean up, spruce up or rearrange your room or apartment
- Spending as much time as you want at the library or a bookstore
- Sitting somewhere comfortable and relaxing. Seriously, just plain sitting.
- Watch silly videos online. Like this one. Or this. Or this. Or this. And most certainly these or these. Or, you can watch some music videos from the 80's, which we thought were awesome, but you'll probably find painfully hilarious.
- Visualizing something awesome
- Making sure to leave school or work on time, rather than overworking or overachieving
- Create a new tumblr feed or blog about something that is fun for you, and is a way to play and relax (once when I needed some extra self-care charge, I made one called Something Small and Beautiful which was about nothing but small, simple things that made me happy)
- Playing with toys, or do something else playful and child-like, like futzing with playdough, spending time playing on a playground, coloring in a coloring book (we strongly endorse Unicorns are Jerks) or with chalk on a sidewalk, or reading a favorite book from when you were a child.
- Letting yourself cry, especially if you're a bottler
- Doing something simple or small that gets you closer to a goal or dream
- Scrapbooking (it's so not just for grannies anymore)
- Saying nice things about yourself to yourself
- Taking time to do something deeply silly or really frivolous
- Playing with pets
- Learning to do something you have always wanted to do: try something new
- Window shopping, or cruising through Pinterest
- Finding somewhere you can yell your head off and yelling like there's no tomorrow
- Making a playlist of songs you know either cheer you up, soothe you or help you feel the things you're feeling
- Having a picnic: can even be all by yourself
- Manicures or pedicures
- Make a space for yourself in your room that's dedicated to self-care
- Taking a minute to recognize and acknowledge your strengths, talents or achievements
- Saying no to someone or something: setting a limit
- Helping other people in small ways that feel good, not stressful
- Doing a face masque (extra bonus, this also ticks the "do something silly" box because everyone looks a fool with a face masque on)
- Going to bed early or letting yourself sleep in for a change
- Forgiving other people or letting go of anger or upset you have with someone, or more than one someone
- Dressing in clothing that makes you feel comfortable, handsome, beautiful, sexy or all of the above!
- Having a pillow fight
- Massage (self-massage or a massage from someone else)
- Disappearing in the good way: leave your cell at home, unplug from the net, and go get yourself lost and quiet, all by yourself, somewhere you feel safe where no demands will be made of you
- Taking yourself out to dinner or lunch
- Insisting on self-care time and space with others as needed; insisting on self-care to yourself
When I do well with self-care for myself, I find one reason why is because I'm mixing up the kinds of self-care I'm doing, rather than only caring for one part of myself, or caring for myself in only one way. Your mileage may vary, but I find it works well to think about something I can do -- in a day, or even within the whole of a week -- with my body, a thing I can do for my body, a way I can be playful, a way I can really sit with and feel all my feelings, something I can do that's creative, something I can do to get outside, and something I can do socially. Of course, sometimes you can do something that combines a few of these -- like taking a photo walk with a camera, where you get to get outside, move your body and do something creative. Or, if it helps you to pare this down even more, see if you can't, in a day, do one thing for your body, one thing for your head, and one thing for your heart or spirit.
When we're freaking out, stressed out, or otherwise challenged and at loose ends, one of the ways we can do self-care is to simplify or relax our lives in some ways that we're able. It's probably obvious that when our proverbial load feels to heavy, lightening it tends to help.
Some ways you can lighten your burden and travel through life more lightly:
- Do only one thing at a time when you can, rather than multitasking
- If a courseload at school feels too tough to manage, see if you can't drop one of your classes, take an incomplete or audit instead
- Get rid of stuff you don't need: sometimes clearing your space can help you clear your heart and head
- If you're being super strict or rigorous about something you don't absolutely have to be -- like eating, exercise or a training schedule, studying -- see if you can't relax those things at least some. It's mighty stressful living with a drill sargeant
- Taking things off your to-do list or out of your life you really don't need to be doing, can delegate to someone else, or can set aside and do later
- Do what you can to take steps to move away from or leave from relationships that have gotten very stale, rarely make you happy, or which are controlling, manipulative, abusive or otherwise dysfunctional. Even if you aren't able to, or don't yet feel able to, leave them full-stop just yet, see if you can't start taking some steps to get there. And by all means, don't go to those relationships, or hang with those people, when you need self-care
- Spend less time online, unless you limit yourself to sites and spaces you know are 100% good for your emotional well-being. (If nothing else, at least stop reading blog or article comments.)
- Reassess your goals: if you're reaching for too much all at once, pare back, sticking with one or two goals at a time.
- Try to stop overspending, whether it's money you spend more of than you've got, time or energy. Get a realistic sense of what you've got in these kinds of areas and what your limits are, and try and stay within them.
- Pick a bedtime you usually stick to, and walk away from anything that you can that can pose new stresses an hour or two before: the internet, phone calls, television, talks with people who are stressing you out, homework, et cetera
- Ask for help. I know it's hard, believe me. But just do it anyway. Sooner, rather than later.
On top of the things you can do, there are also some things we know tend to increase or encourage anxiety, depression, or just plain feeling lousy, that you should try and avoid or limit -- that you should try NOT to do -- to best care for yourself.
Some self-care frenemies:
- Trying to stop or shut down hard or uncomfortable thoughts or feelings: not only does that not tend to work, and can even make those feelings or thoughts stronger, letting those thoughts or feelings out is really the way to go to best process and sort through them. You need to let those thoughts and feelings be what they are and accept them.
- Booze, sugar, caffeine and other things you can put into your body, like junk food, that aren't good for you: when you want to nourish yourself, you've got to nourish yourself. Stimulating, empty or toxic stuff doesn't do that, and also often increases things like anxiety or depression, especially in the long run, so limiting those things when you need self-care is the way to go.
- Validating fears: In other words, you are terrified of a thing, and want to find others who are also terrified, in order to basically make your fears seem more reasonable and not be alone in them. That's all fine well; and good, except for the part where then you end up not just soaking in your own panic or angst, but the panic and angst of everyone else, which most typically will only exponentially increase yours, rather than dialing it down.
- Obsessive Googling: Dr. Google is not your friend when you're freaking out. Neither is Yahoo! Answers (which I've started to call Boohoo! Answers, based on how users seem to be feeling when they come to us for help after going there first and how I feel after talking people off a ledge all day who went there then came to me for help after) or other random crowdsourcing sites, medical sites or apps where you punch in a bunch of symptoms and it tells you you might have cancer when, in fact, you just have a bad head cold. If you're going to go to the web when you're in a bad way, pick places you know, for sure, have a history of doing right by you when you're feeling like crap or needing sound information and support. This isn't the time to take chances.
- Lazing about: Especially with depression, it can feel like all you should do is what you want to do, which is to lie down and never get up. But while getting enough rest is important, so is getting enough activity. Avoiding sleep or going without sleep is equally problematic. If you're having big troubles with sleep or activity in either direction, a visit to a healthcare provider is a good place to start to get help with that. Messed-up sleep -- way too much or too little -- really, really does a number on a person.
- Isolation: It can feel really scary and vulnerable to be in a bad way around other people, especially if you are introverted or have any kind of social anxiety. But totally isolating for long periods of time isn't a sound answer either. See if you can't at least find some ways of being around other people -- even if you're not directly interacting with them -- when you're stressed. On the flip side, do remember the SELF part of self-care: never allowing yourself to be alone, and to care for yourself, by yourself, at all, isn't sage, either.
- Stimulating fears or anxieties with things you know trigger those -- like continuing to engage in sex if it's freaking you out, watching movies about things you know scare you or make you upset, etc. One way of treating anxiety does involve exposure, but that is usually done with the help and care of a therapist, and with very specific instructions. DIYing that is rarely a good idea, and only tends to increase your discomfort and trigger more anxiety.
- Negative or unsupportive people and, perhaps obviously, abusive, controlling or otherwise big-time unsafe people. P.S. You count. In other words, beating yourself up about things, talking trash about yourself to yourself, and engaging in other kinds of self-harm makes you the negative or unsupportive person. Be kind to you when you're in a bad way.
We don't usually leave comments open on articles, but for this one, we have them enabled so that our readers can pitch in and add self-care things that have worked for them and that they really like that aren't on the list. So, if you have some self-care you don't see here you'd like to toss up so others can get more ideas for themselves, post away!
written 19 Aug 2013 . updated 11 Mar 2014