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What Is Self-Care – Definition, Tips & Ideas for a Healthy Life

By Mary McCoy

joggingOverworked and underpaid. Too busy and too tired. These phrases are the mantra of an American society that, according to the Institute of Medicine, has the dubious distinction of falling behind nearly every other affluent country in terms of life expectancy, rate of injury and illness, and overall health. The dismal figures regarding our health impact not just our happiness, but our financial bottom line.

While the macro-level reality may not change without a concerted effort from policymakers and entire communities of people, there are actions you can personally take to safeguard your and your family’s mental, physical, and emotional health through the practice of self-care. Chances are, self-care isn’t quite what you think it is.

What Is Self-Care?

Self-care is a very active and powerful choice to engage in the activities that are required to gain or maintain an optimal level of overall health. And in this case, overall health includes not just the physical, but the psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual components of an individual’s well-being.

Back in the 1980s, the term “self-care” was coined by healthcare professionals to encourage patients and clients to engage in healthy lifestyle choices and stress management. These professionals saw that a holistic approach to healthcare offers individuals the opportunity to maximize their healthcare outcomes. In the beginning, the recommendations were fairly obvious instructions that most of us are familiar with: Prescriptions for self-care included direction to exercise, eat well, practice good hygiene, and avoid hazards such as smoking and drinking. Over time, as professionals integrated more holistic approaches to healthcare in their practices, self-care recommendations began to include components of mental and spiritual well-being such as therapy, life coaching, prayer and meditation, and social engagement.

Most people understand that stress is more manageable when they’re feeling happy, healthy, loved, and at peace. However, understanding what is good for you doesn’t necessarily translate into actual behaviors. There are a number of recommendations for each component of an individual’s health; be aware, however, that self-care is a highly personal endeavor, so each suggestion may not necessarily resonate with you.

1. Physical Self-Care
Taking care of your body is what self-care concepts are based upon. Self-care for the body includes those activities that doctors usually recommend to patients, such as sticking to guidelines for body fat percentages and caloric intake, drinking enough water, sleeping at least seven hours per night, and exercising regularly. For a nation that is experiencing a prescription narcotic epidemic, it may also mean addressing chronic pain issues comprehensively and at their source, rather than just popping pills.

2. Psychological Self-Care
Taking care of the mind is just as important as taking care of the body, even if the recommended activities for psychological self-care vary between individuals. For those who have a mental health disorder, psychological self-care may mean taking medications and using therapy as prescribed by a psychiatrist. It also may require learning how to combat negative self-talk and addressing the emotions and psychological triggers that lead to feelings of defeat in relationships or the workplace.

3. Emotional Self-Care
Emotional self-care is highly related to psychological self-care because there is overlap between the psyche and the emotions. For people who are experiencing a great deal of stress or grief and bereavement, emotional self-care may involve taking the time to properly grieve the loss of a relationship or loved one. It may mean journaling about anger or talking about paralyzing feelings with a friend or counselor. Certainly, it means addressing any depression that makes it difficult to leave the house. Many adults do not have a strong understanding of their emotional lives, but emotions deeply impact relationships, careers, and physical self-care.

4. Social Self-Care
If all a person ever does is work, it’s difficult to practice social self-care. Social self-care involves just having fun with the people you love. It may mean going out to coffee with a best friend or planning a fabulous date night with your spouse. It means talking effectively through conflict, and addressing the emotional needs of the people you love.

The time for social self-care is now, because you never know how long you have with the ones you love. Furthermore, socializing helps create positive health outcomes.

5. Spiritual Self-Care
Even if you don’t practice a faith, it’s possible to practice spiritual self-care. Spirituality is about both faith and meaning in life. Providing spiritual self-care may mean spending time in prayer or meditation, or going on a long walk to contemplate purpose and meaning. It may involve making time for communal worship in a religious setting. Regardless of how you find meaning and purpose in life, spirituality can build social support and ease psychological and emotional distress.

meditation

Americans Are Not Practicing Self-Care

A good self-care plan can ameliorate and prevent ailments of all varieties. Upon reviewing the leading health indicators set by public health officials, however, the following statistics convey that Americans are not particularly good at safeguarding their overall health:

  • Mental Health. One in four Americans have a mental health disorder, of which 1 in 17 have a severe mental illness. Many of these disorders go untreated.
  • Eating Habits. Fewer than one in three adults eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Exercise. 81.6% of Americans do not participate in an adequate amount of exercise.
  • Obesity. More than one-third of Americans are obese.
  • Oral Health. Fewer than one-half of all Americans saw a dentist in the last year to protect their oral health.
  • Substance Abuse. 22 million Americans struggled with drugs and excessive alcohol use in the last year, and one in five Americans continue to use tobacco products.
  • Infant Mortality. America is a leader among industrialized nations in infant mortality rates.
  • Depression and Suicide. Suicide is a leading cause of death for Americans of all ages.

An active engagement in even the most basic self-care recommendations, like exercising and eating healthy, would improve the overall well-being of our population. However, if the American people continue to crowd out self-care with other time commitments, or if we feel guilty for taking time for ourselves, then we are misunderstanding what self-care is, as well as the overall positive impact it can have on individuals, families, and entire communities of people.

What Are the Benefits of Self-Care?

The benefits of proactive self-care are numerous, measurable, and significant. You can see that it’s challenging to delineate these benefits in the many different areas of overall health, since self-care truly does impact an individual’s overarching well-being.

1. Physical Health
If you follow some of the basics of self-care, such as exercising, eating right, and reducing or eliminating alcohol or tobacco products, you can accomplish the following:

  • Likely enjoy a longer and higher-quality life
  • Reduce your risk of certain diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and coronary artery disease
  • Boost your overall energy
  • Enjoy better sleep
  • Ease pain and stiffness in your body
  • Reduce the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures later in life

And if you’re really on-board with the concept, the spiritual and emotional self-care you provide for yourself can also improve your physical health by reducing the stress that can lead to heart and vascular disease, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems.

2. Psychological Health
According to the CDC, stress can be useful for short periods of time to help individuals achieve important goals. Over a longer period of time, however, some of the feelings that accompany stress – such as fear, powerlessness, nightmares, anger, headaches, and back pain – can turn into a mental health disorder. Self-care, both physical and psychosocial, can reduce the risk of mental health problems over time.

3. Emotional Health
Psychological and emotional health overlap to some degree, but emotional health is about more than just the absence of a mental health problem. The term encompasses the feelings that accompany people who are well-rounded and content. Such people are able to laugh easily, bounce back from adversity, retain a sense of meaning and purpose, flex with the challenges they face, and maintain a healthy self-esteem. Individuals who are consistently stressed out are much less likely to deal with stressors effectively, and thus less likely to enjoy emotional health than those people who have provided themselves with the self-care needed to manage stress.

4. Interpersonal or Social Health
As reported by the National Institutes of Health, many studies show that individuals with solid social ties have far lower mortality rates than those with lower-quality relationships. The measure of social health isn’t determined by the quantity of friendships, but by the quality of social ties. People with poor social ties generally feel that they have few, if any, people they trust and few people they can call upon for help if they’re ever in need. And unfortunately, people with poor social ties are more likely to experience ongoing stress, which can further reduce the quality of their relationships. Self-care that values relationships and stress management can improve overall health outcomes by building social support.

5. Spiritual Health
Spirituality is not necessarily the practice of a religious faith, although the religious faithful certainly practice spirituality. Spirituality is defined as any avenue through which a person finds meaning, hope, comfort, and inner peace. Although it’s not entirely clear how spirituality is tied to physical health, research indicates that spiritual vitality positively impacts health outcomes.

sleeping

How Do I Know What Self-Care Means to Me?

If you’re not sure where to start with self-care, stick to the basics at first. These are the things that your doctor would tell you to do if you asked about self-care during an appointment. You don’t yet need any compelling self-insight to know what is best for you, no matter who you are.

While these activities are intended to help manage your physical health, they can impact other areas of your life, as well. Exercise, if you’re able. Eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies every day, rather than filling your body with junk food. Sleep eight hours per night. Drink water. Address any issues you’re having with ongoing pain or physical discomfort by seeing your physician.

These recommendations remain true and applicable to your life, no matter who you are. However, they are just the beginning of a life-changing and life-maintaining self-care plan. In order to really begin the hard work of self-care beyond maintenance of the physical body, it’s important to have an understanding of who you are, what you enjoy, and that you feel your life has purpose and meaning.

Self-Assessment

No two people are quite the same, so the activities and behaviors that work for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa. You alone have the ability to know what you need and enjoy in relationships, spirituality, and inner psychology. However, many adults haven’t the slightest idea of what they really enjoy doing, beyond what they must accomplish in each given day.

Ask yourself the following questions to begin homing in on the self-care practices that can make a difference in your life:

  • What do I most enjoy doing with my time? (Your answer shouldn’t include work or chores.)
  • What activities make my heart feel at rest and at peace?
  • When do I feel the most full of life and well-being?
  • When do I feel the tension release from my neck, shoulders, and jaw? What am I doing when this tension goes away?
  • Which people provide me with energy, strength, and hope, and how much time do I spend with them compared to the people who drain my sense of well-being with negativity and guilt?
  • When do I feel my life is full of purpose and meaning?

If you don’t know how to answer these questions, that’s okay. It’s not uncommon for adults to actually have no idea what they enjoy and when they feel best. Many people become so involved in their work and family lives that they forget to pause and consider who they really are and what they actually enjoy doing.

If you’ve tried completing this brief self-assessment and still don’t know how to provide self-care, try enlisting a trusted family member or friend to provide you with insight into the things you most enjoy. And if that doesn’t work, go see a counselor or social worker for a few sessions to address these questions. It’s possible, after you home in on the behaviors that enhance your life and happiness, to set goals that actually lead to engaging in these behaviors.

How Can I Make Time For Self-Care?

The next question that usually arises after a preliminary discussion of self-care is “How?” Let’s face it: Americans don’t just say they’re overworked – they actually are overworked. Americans work in ways that make them sick, both in their habits and in the amount of time they spend working versus playing. And even those who aren’t technically employed, such as stay-at-home parents, find that their schedules are full of kid activities and chores that can hedge self-care out of their lives.

Even if this cultural impulse to work continuously while never stopping to consider overall health persists, there are several ways that you can work self-care into your day:

  • Add It to the Calendar. If you’re a workaholic, put at least one thing you enjoy doing for yourself on your calendar every week. Like goal-setting, you’re much more likely to actually participate in self-care if you write it down as something that needs to happen.
  • Confide in Your Spouse or Partner. You can even make the goal for self-care a family goal, since it’s likely that your partner is similarly depleted. Try to find one way that the two of you can support each other in self-care activities every week.
  • Ask Your Boss for Flexibility. See if there is any flexible time available at work for occasional telecommute options or for the opportunity to take a long lunch break for a massage as long as the time is made up the next day.
  • Bring Your Children With You. Children are often cited as reasons individuals don’t practice self-care. However, your children can be part of the solution. Bring them to a farmers’ market to select healthy produce, or take them to the park with you so you can all run around together.
  • Infuse Self-Care Into Your Day. It’s not always possible to get away for a vacation or for an entire day of relaxation. However, five minutes of deep breathing in your car or t’ai chi during your lunch break can also be effective in mitigating stress.

visiting the doctor

Final Word

Self-care isn’t something that you can just put off until you have more time. It is an active choice to participate in the activities that are known to increase your overall physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being. Take some time to truly consider how to integrate both basic self-care and highly personal self-care into your daily life. You will likely find that you feel much better in both body and mind.

How have you seen self-care bring positive outcomes to your life?

Mary McCoy
Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.

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  • Meghan

    Great timing for this post! Thanks!

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