Perhaps it’s an antidote to our current age of anxiety, but the self-care movement is having a moment. Everywhere you look, therapists, life coaches, yoga teachers, and others are emphasizing its health benefits. But what is self-care, really?
On social media, where the term is often associated with images of lavish desserts and rose-petal bubble baths, self-care may seem to be about self-indulgence. Perhaps you prefer to view it as a periodic escape from reality: an afternoon at the spa or a Saturday morning spent binge-watching TV.
In fact, the term has roots in medical care but gained more of a following with 1960s political activists, who championed personal wellness to balance the stress they experienced as a result of their work.
In recent years, however, the notion of self-care has struck a chord with a wider audience. In addition to the aspirational, consumer-centric way the phenomenon is often served up in the media — think pricey face masks or luxurious beach vacations — its appeal no doubt owes much to our need for respite from the always-on, hyperconnected environment in which we live.
“People in our culture are waking up to the fact that they have been living incredibly stressful lives,” says Minneapolis-based integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Joy and The Chemistry of Calm. He notes that modern lifestyles conflict with the ways humans are naturally wired to live and thrive, which creates significant physical, mental, and emotional discord.
“It’s not in our nature to be sedentary. It’s not in our nature to sleep six hours or less per night. And it’s not in our nature to eat a lot of really high-calorie foods for long periods of time,” he observes. “Self-care is largely about following the dictate of our evolution; it’s about doing the kinds of things our bodies really want us to do.”
So, while a bubble bath may indeed deliver short-term relief, it’s committing to consistent, personalized, healthful actions that will ultimately help you navigate life’s stressors and make choices that support the life you want to live.
Self-care is quite literally about caring for yourself.
In order to care for yourself, it helps to identify what activities will address your deepest needs — in other words, what makes you healthy and happy. The goal of your personal self-care practice will depend on where you’re starting and which areas of your life you’re hoping to nurture. But, no matter where you are now, turning inward is a good place to begin.
“Self-care starts with self-awareness,” explains Seattle-based productivity and mindfulness coach Sarah Steckler. “The more self-aware you are about your needs, about your emotions, and about what’s coming up, the more able you are to respond versus react to things.”
That means you’re probably not going to find your best self-care ideas on Instagram. Instead, says Emmons, “it means paying attention to how you’re spending the bulk of your waking hours, whom you’re spending them with, whether the work you do is satisfying on the whole or just outright stressful, and the choices you make with regard to money.”
It also means paying attention to how you feel after you eat, and whether choosing healthier foods makes a difference. It means noticing your energy levels when you get more or less sleep or when you move your body more or less during the day.
Embracing added structure in your life — going to bed and waking at regular times, for instance — is often a good place to start. These actions anchor you throughout the day and provide regular opportunities to notice how you feel, says Sarah Kucera, DC, founder of Sage Center for Yoga and Healing Arts in Kansas City, Mo., and author of The Ayurvedic Self-Care Handbook.
“It isn’t about being rigid,” Kucera explains. But it is about discipline.
“There’s a crossover where self-care and self-discipline are the same things,” she argues. “Like in the discomfort of getting up in the morning when you want to lie in bed a little bit longer, but then you realize how good you feel because you didn’t lie in bed longer.”
The most effective self-care strategies will emerge from an ongoing process of exploration. Journaling, for example, can help you recognize areas in your life that could use some attention.
“A lot of people resist journaling, but I encourage people to try it anyway,” says Steckler. “When you tap into your stream of consciousness through freewriting, when you actually turn your thoughts into something tangible on paper, you tap into the possibility of a solution.”
Emmons recommends setting aside a few uninterrupted hours as a “mini retreat” to identify self-care needs. “Give yourself a chance to respond to a few good questions,” he suggests. “Anything that can take you to a deeper, more reflective place.”
These questions might include: What kinds of foods do I find most nourishing? Which relationships really feed my soul? How do my finances support my well-being? What kind of movement feels good for my body? What do I like to do for fun?
Even if practicing self-care is a wholly new concept for you, chances are you already have some helpful tools in your toolbox, Emmons says. “Most of us are actually doing quite a few good things for ourselves already. It’s really just a question of which side of ourselves we are paying most attention to.”