In our increasingly busy and frenetic world, there are endless suggestions for optimizing your limited free time to fit ever more into each day. But doing too much too fast is a surefire liveway to burn out, as more and more of us are discovering.
According to American Psychological Association’s 2017 Stress in America survey, 3 out of 4 Americans report experiencing stress in the past month, with common symptoms including sleep problems, fatigue, anxiety, and irritability. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 8 in 10 Americans report feeling “frequently” or “sometimes” stressed on a daily basis. A Time magazine report on the Gallup poll went so far as to call Americans “some of the most stressed-out people in the world.”
If you’re feeling stressed, frazzled, and overwhelmed, one way you can combat it is to practice self-care — activities that nourish and bolster your physical, mental, and emotional health. Self-care doesn’t have to involve pricey splurges like spa treatments or professional massages. There are plenty of ways to enjoy some self-care that are low-cost or even free.
How to Practice Self-Care (7 Major Types)
Self-care can be divided into seven different categories: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual, relational, and safety/security. If that sounds like a lot to tackle, don’t worry. Many of these categories can overlap or be combined, and some only need your attention intermittently.
So don’t feel overwhelmed. Self-care doesn’t have to be complicated — or expensive.
1. Physical Self-Care
Physical self-care can be both the easiest and hardest category to tackle. For many people, taking care of their physical selves brings to mind brutal sweat sessions in the gym or plowing through mountains of kale salad when what you really want is a juicy hamburger.
But caring for yourself physically doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of deprivation. Try to reframe this category as a way of opening up all kinds of possibilities for your future self. Instead of shuddering at the thought of kale, for instance, think about how fun discovering and testing new, healthier recipes can be. If you hate the treadmill, perhaps something more fun like going for a run with your dog will make you excited to sweat.
There’s no way around it — exercise is an essential part of a happy, healthy life. The scientific data linking exercise with lower rates of depression and increased happiness is irrefutable. Unfortunately, exercise is one of the first things to fall by the wayside when we’re busy.
The good news is there are plenty of cheap or even free ways to exercise without a gym, from doing yoga in your living room to running. Even if it’s just going for a long walk around the neighborhood with a friend every evening or hiking with your family on the weekends, making it a priority to move your body is an important form of self-care.
Pro tip: If you’re struggling with the same workout routine every day, try the Aaptiv app. They have thousands of different workouts to choose from and add more than 30 new ones every week.
Getting enough quality sleep is essential to staying happy and healthy. Instead of staying up late watching TV or playing on your phone, take care of yourself by making sleep a priority. You don’t have to buy a fancy mattress or expensive sound machine — just a few simple tweaks to ensure your bedroom is set up properly can help you get better shut-eye.
Store your smartphone and any other electronics in a different room and avoid looking at screens immediately before bedtime. Make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark, and use a lamp or other soft light source as you get ready for bed. Even if you suffer from insomnia, taking these steps will help you get on the path to a better night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, people often conflate self-care with a “treat yo self” mentality, which can lead to choices that do them more harm than good. For example, if you’ve just finished a hard workout and are looking for a way to reward yourself, you might be tempted to eat a big meal or overdo it on sugary desserts. But that counteracts any physical benefits you just gained from working out.
Think about food as a way to care for yourself instead of an indulgent reward. Check out these ways to eat healthy on a budget to get started.
Drinking a daily soda or running up a big bar tab every weekend is the opposite of self-care. There are plenty of ways to treat yourself to a yummy beverage that are better for you. For example, you can learn to make gourmet coffee at home or cultivate a green tea habit. Even if all you can manage right now is committing to stay hydrated by drinking more water, being more mindful about what you drink and how often is an important part of self-care.
Few people enjoy going to the doctor, but it’s another important part of self-care. Find a good doctor you can trust, schedule regular checkups, and stay on top of any recommended screenings. It can help you head off potential health problems and catch existing ones so you can treat them.
If you do get sick, don’t try to tough it out on your own —go to the doctor. It can help you avoid costly medical bills in the future.
Note that not having health insurance is not a reason to ignore your health care. There are ways to get affordable medical care without health insurance. And if your employer doesn’t provide health insurance coverage, check out these alternative ways to get health insurance. If you do have health insurance but it has a high deductible, look into adding a health savings account through Lively.
2. Emotional Self-Care
Emotional self-care practices can help you reduce stress, be happier, and better recover from setbacks and challenges. Here are some to think about:
While it’s impossible to avoid all stressors in life, you can often find ways to lessen that stress. For example, if you run late every morning, overhaul your nightly routine so you prep as much as you can the night before, such as packing lunches ahead of time and laying out your outfit for the next day.
If your daily commute makes you irritable before you even reach the office, consider switching to public transportation so you can let someone else take the wheel or making the most of your commute time by listening to podcasts or audiobooks.
Think of what causes you the most stress in your life, and brainstorm all the ways you can either eliminate or reduce that stress.
When stress rears its ugly head, it’s important to have relaxation techniques in your self-care toolbox. They don’t have to be things like expensive massages or fancy bottles of wine. It’s easy to relax even when you’re on a budget, whether by digging into a good book from the public library or taking a long hot bath.
You can also build mini-breaks into your day, in which you take a minute to practice some deep breathing, go outside for a quick walk on your lunch break, or give yourself five minutes to look at some pictures on your phone that make you happy.
Meditation has plenty of health benefits, including lowering stress levels, improving sleep quality, and alleviating anxiety and depression. And it’s easy to do no matter how busy your schedule is. Even just a few minutes can provide a welcome break from the daily grind and help you refocus yourself.
Talk to Someone
As the saying goes, “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Identify the people in your life you can talk to when you’re struggling with a difficult situation or emotion. Even if they’re not able to solve the problem for you, just talking with a trusted friend or family member often makes you feel better than bottling up your feelings.
If you need more help, consider seeing a therapist. There are ways to get affordable mental health treatment. Many schools and universities have low-cost therapists or offer sliding fee scales depending on your income. Don’t let money worries keep you from getting the help you need.
It’s nice to be needed and trusted by those around you. But it can also be emotionally exhausting to be the one everyone depends on for issues big and small. It’s important to set boundaries, especially with friends or family who may take advantage of your good nature or generosity.
If you find yourself consistently burned out by a particular person or type of request, practice saying no or setting parameters for these conversations or queries. Then stick to these boundaries, no matter how hard it may be. Doing so is an important form of self-care, and it may even improve your relationships.
3. Spiritual Self-Care
Whether or not you’re religious, spiritual self-care is an area you shouldn’t neglect. If you practice a faith, spiritual self-care may include getting involved with a church or other religious community. But it can also be as simple as identifying the things you’re passionate about and that bring you joy and making sure to include them in your life.
Cultivating gratitude is one of the fastest and easiest ways to change your point of view. The hustle and bustle of everyday life can easily make us irritable and frustrated. Focusing on what you’re grateful for puts your attention on the positive things in your life.
There are plenty of simple ways to do this. Ideas include:
- Start a one-sentence journal where you write down a small thing you’re thankful for each day.
- Make a family “gratitude jar.” Have everyone write something they’re grateful for on a slip of paper and put it into the jar each day. Share the slips with each other during a weekly dinner or family meeting.
- Snap a picture on your phone every time you see something you’re thankful for, and sort the pictures into a folder so you can make a photo book at the end of each year.
Identify Your Passion
Contrary to what most of us were told growing up, our job does not have to be our passion in life. In fact, sometimes it can be better if your job has nothing to do with your passion so you don’t have to worry about monetizing the thing you love. But however you incorporate them into your life, identify the things that are most important to you and find a way to spend time on them.
For example, if one of your core values is preserving the environment, you can learn how to compost at home, start a community garden, or do green arts and crafts projects with your kids. If you’re deeply committed to animal welfare, explore becoming a vegetarian or volunteering with a rescue organization. Whatever it is, finding ways to incorporate your passion into your daily life is an important part of spiritual self-care.
Get Involved With a Faith Group
If you belong to a religion, consider finding a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place where you can meet like-minded individuals and share this part of your life with them. If you already attend a faith group but want to get more involved, consider pursuing a volunteer activity like teaching Sunday school or heading the new-member welcoming committee. Connecting with others who share your faith can be a great source of community and support.
4. Social Self-Care
Having friends makes life more fun, but it’s also good for your health. Many studies have shown that people with a strong network of friends outside of their family are more likely to live longer and lead happier and more fulfilling lives. Especially as we move into the busy periods of our lives, launching and growing careers and raising children, it can be hard to make and retain friendships. But it’s worth it.
Nurture Existing Friendships
As we get older, we face difficult and more complex challenges, such as divorce, job loss, and health scares. Having strong friendships makes it easier to weather these storms. With the hectic pace of modern life, it can be easy to let weeks, if not months, go by between seeing friends. But maintaining and fostering these relationships is essential.
Get creative — not every outing has to be glamorous or take up an entire day. Go grocery shopping or run errands with friends, attend the same children’s storytime at the library with your kids, or throw a casual potluck dinner. It can even be as simple as a standing phone call once a week to talk for 15 minutes on your way home from work. I live across the country from my best friend and only get to see her a few times a year, so we rely on Google Hangouts to communicate daily, even if it’s only to share a funny link or tell each other the new recipe we made for dinner. No matter what it is, find a way to nurture and care for your friendships.
Make New Friends
Once we’re out of school and no longer surrounded by peers our own age, it can be challenging to make new friends. But meeting new people helps us expand our worldview, explore new interests, and feel more involved and invested in our communities.
If the idea of meeting new people as an adult sounds terrifying to you, think of it as an opportunity to widen your social circle and increase your potential for happiness. You can start with low-pressure potential friendships by reaching out to someone else who is new to the neighborhood, your workplace, or your kids’ school. Consider joining a book club or starting a group through a site like Meetup.
Making new friends can sometimes feel hard, but it’s more than worth it when you consider how much it contributes to your happiness and quality of life.
5. Intellectual Self-Care
Exercising our brains helps us develop new ways of thinking and stretches our creativity and problem-solving capacity. It can also help us slow down in a fast-paced world. When our minds are exposed to new environments and situations, they must work harder to process these stimuli, seemingly slowing down the rate at which time passes. Here are several fun ways to explore this category of self-care.
Participate in a Reading Challenge
Instead of just setting a general, vague goal to read more, why not join a reading challenge to help you step out of your comfort zone and explore new authors and genres? One of the most popular — and free — reading challenges is Book Riot’s yearly Read Harder challenge, which encourages readers to try new genres and titles and explore books from a wide range of perspectives.
If you’d like to design your own challenge, take a look at Goodreads, which lets you set your own parameters and encourages you to connect with other readers to stay accountable. Whichever method you choose, make your goal a SMART one to help you stay on track
Visit a Museum
Paying a visit to a museum is another good way to stretch yourself intellectually. Take the opportunity to visit a new (or new-to-you) institution in your community, and you’ll likely be delighted by what you learn and discover.
This type of outing doesn’t have to break the bank. Many museums and cultural institutions offer free days throughout the year, which you can usually find by doing a quick Internet search. Additionally, some credit cards sponsor free admission for their cardholders at various museums, and your local public library might offer museum passes you can check out.
Attend a Play or Concert
A few years ago, I was looking around on the website for my city’s department of cultural affairs and learned that a classical music nonprofit was hosting its annual Schubertiade celebration the following weekend. I would never have thought to seek out this kind of opportunity, but because I was looking for new ways to practice intellectual self-care, I pushed myself to attend and ended up having a great time at the free event, learning all about Franz Schubert’s life and music from a group of devoted fans.
There are a number of ways to find free and inexpensive concert and event tickets, so don’t let cost be a deterrent to attending an event you wouldn’t normally try out.
Learn a New Language
There are many benefits of learning a second language. In addition to being able to communicate with other speakers of that language, learning a foreign tongue has been shown to increase cognitive abilities, improve multitasking and decision-making ability, and slow the onset of age-related cognitive losses. In addition, it can be a whole lot of fun.
There are many inexpensive ways to learn a new language. You can download a freemium app like Babbel to get started right from your smartphone. You can also check if your library has a subscription to a service like Rosetta Stone or Mango. You can even see if a volunteer organization near you serves immigrants and non-native speakers. You’ll get an opportunity to give back while learning a new language and teaching others English at the same time.
Learn a New Skill
If you’ve always wanted to take up woodworking or try your hand at knitting, learning a new skill or hobby is a great way to practice intellectual self-care. You can explore clubs dedicated to whichever skill you’re interested in, take a class, or start a group of your own. If you know how to do a skill like gardening and want to learn a new one, like sewing, see if someone in your community is interested in swapping lessons or sharing resources so you don’t have to buy any new equipment or spend a bunch of money. As a bonus, it could be a great way to help you meet new people.
6. Relational Self-Care
Relational self-care means fostering and strengthening relationships with those close to you, such as your significant others, kids, and siblings. You interact with these people regularly, and these interactions significantly impact your health and well-being.
From making time for a regular date night to putting in the effort to ensure you’re on the same page about finances, working on your relationship with your significant other can benefit both of you. It also helps strengthen your bond and makes you more resilient for the unavoidable curveballs and rough patches life throws at you from time to time.
Strengthening your relationship with your child will reap benefits for years to come. Think about how to share experiences and create fun traditions and memories with them you’ll both think back on fondly. You can go on regular parent-child dates, cook with your kids, or even just simplify your family schedule so you have more time for family time.
If you have siblings and are on good terms with them, it can be comforting to talk about a problem or share a triumph with someone who has probably known you longer than anyone else. You can laugh over inside jokes from childhood and reminisce about past experiences. Even if it’s hard to find time to connect in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, try to make a standing date to talk by phone a few times a month or get together for coffee or another inexpensive outing whenever you can.
7. Safety and Security Self-Care
Taking the time to be proactive about your safety gives you the luxury of making informed, educated decisions instead of waiting until there’s an emergency or breach of security to address this category. Luckily, many safety self-care measures just need to be done once — and perhaps “tuned up” once a year — so don’t ignore these items because they seem daunting. The idiom “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is a wise one.
Consider all the ways you feel unsafe during the day and think about ways to mitigate any of these situations that you can. For example, if you work long hours and often have to drive home in the dark, consider installing a motion-sensitive light on your home so you’re not walking from your car to your front door in the dark. Take a self-defense class or read a book about how to survive an assault. Do a social media audit and sign up for a credit monitoring service like Lifelock to make sure you aren’t vulnerable to cyber bullying or identity theft.
Even if you’re not in much physical danger, feeling unsafe is still emotionally draining. There are always things that will be out of our control, but if you can spend $100 on a doorbell camera to make you feel safer answering the door when you’re home alone, it will be money well-spent.
There’s no time like the present to tackle a few emergency preparedness projects. Make sure your family has a strategy for surviving a power outage, has prepared for winter storms, and that your home has a working fire extinguisher and other fire-prevention tactics in place.
You can involve the whole family in emergency preparedness, like having everyone work together to organize a 72-hour emergency kit or learn how to prepare and store food for an emergency. In addition to being an essential part of safety self-care, it can be a bonding activity and help alleviate you and family’s stress about future “what-ifs.”
While it can be tempting to let the more financially savvy partner in a relationship take care of all the money, it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons. It puts all the power in the hands of one person, and if anything happens to them, the other partner is stuck playing a cruel game of catchup at a very difficult time. It also places the unknowing party at a power disadvantage, which can leave them vulnerable to being taken advantage of if the partner in charge is engaged in risky financial behavior that could bankrupt the family.
Tackling a financial challenge together and figuring out what budgeting tactics work for your family will help you grow closer by working as a team instead of forcing one partner to be the fiscal gatekeeper or parental figure to the other. While it might not seem like the most fun subject, financial safety is a self-care category you can’t afford to ignore.
And don’t neglect your long-term financial security. Set up and contribute regularly to an emergency fund. Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Put as much as you can away for retirement. If you’re in debt, research ways to pay off that debt as quickly as possible. Even if you don’t have much to put toward these goals right now, every little bit you can do to chip away at them boosts your financial security — and your peace of mind.
Self-care is not a selfish endeavor. In an increasingly busy and stress-addicted society, self-care is an important part of being a happy, functioning adult. It simply means taking care of yourself and setting up habits and systems to make your life easier and more fulfilling.
It’s important for everyone to feel safe, happy, and healthy, no matter what stage of life they’re in or how much money they earn. Taking the time to care for yourself will enable you to have more emotional and physical energy to devote to other pursuits, like your family, your job, and your community.
What do you do to practice self-care?