In this self-care guide for beginners, learn what self-care is, why it’s important and how you can start practicing self-care today. Get your self-care 101 all in one place!
“To me, self-care means believing that I matter. And because I matter, I try to pay attention to what I truly think, feel, want or need in any given moment.”Kaitlyn, 27
So you’ve heard the term self-care thrown around and you want to know if it’s going to help you?
Maybe you’re a teacher or mom who’s feeling worn down. Or someone struggling with your emotional and mental health. Or maybe you’ve just been burnt out by quarantine life this year.
If you’re feeling like you have low energy, low mood, and are overwhelmed, then yes self-care can help you.
In this self-care 101 guide for beginners, I’m going to break down exactly what self-care is, why it’s important and how you can start self-care today.
What is self-care?
Practicing self-care means taking deliberate action to look after yourself. It includes any activities you do on a regular basis to reduce stress, and care for your current and long-term well-being.
It can be as simple as drinking 8 glasses of water to ensure you’re hydrated, to taking care of your stress levels at work by meditating.
In my experience, self-care practices fall into two categories – preventative and ‘urgent’ self-care.
In preventative self-care, you are incorporating healthy self-care routines and habits into your daily life before you need them.
The aim is to bolster your resilience for rough patches when they come. They might include daily habits like eating well, sleeping well and exercising to keep yourself at your best.
It’s like putting money in the bank to build a rainy day fund. You may not need those resources now but life is unpredictable and you want to prepare.
In the same way, when you practice preventative self-care, you build up your mental, physical and emotional resources to deal with any spanner that life throws at you.
Urgent self-care is self-care you give yourself during the storm. They are practices that soothe and bring you back to equilibrium when hard times come.
For example, you may be feeling extra lonely or fragile, or particularly burnt out due to your commitments. You might employ urgent self-care activities like going for a walk, deep breathing, going for a run, or cooking yourself a nice meal to bring yourself back to balance.
Ideally, you should have both self-care practices in your life. Self-awareness is essential to recognize when you need urgent self-care and be able to give it to yourself.
It’s not always easy
While being kind to yourself is often what we require. Self-care can sometimes be about being tough on yourself and showing discipline.
Self-care is long-term. It’s you thinking about your own ultimate benefit.
While you may not feel like waking up at 6 am to go to the gym, you do it anyway because you know in the long run it’s going to benefit you over pressing snooze.
That is self-care.
It involves doing what is best for you even if sometimes it’s hard or doesn’t bring instant gratification.
Why is self-care important?
There are many important benefits of self-care and why it’s a necessity in modern life.
Below are five of the most important reasons:
- Self-care allows you to be at your best. If you’re looking after yourself and your mind, body and soul you’re going to spend more time in a vital, energized state. You’ll experience more happiness and positive emotions. Remember, your quality of life is determined by the quality of your individual moments.
- It promotes a positive relationship with yourself; Self-care is ultimately an act of love towards yourself. You are putting yourself first, saying that your needs matter, that you deserve care just as much as anyone. When you practice self-care you are affirming this belief and strengthening your relationship with yourself.
- Self-care helps you become more resilient and resourceful, especially during trying times. When you know you have the resources and tools to deal with whatever storm life throws at you, you can travel through life with confidence and reassurance. Knowing what self-care activities work for you provides a valuable arsenal you can pull on to bring yourself back into balance whenever life throws you off-center (see urgent self-care).
- Practicing self-care allows you to be there for others. The only way you can give is if you have something to give. Taking care of yourself allows you to show up as a more patient mom, a more loving partner, and a more fun-loving friend. Your best self will always create the most positive impact for others and that’s what you, and everyone else around you deserves. Self-care fills your cup and allows you give your best (see self-care isn’t selfish).
- Self-care can save your life. It’s no secret that stress kills. Chronic stress has been linked to early death from heart disease, cancer and other health problems. Elevated levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, disrupts every major function of the body. Self-care is a way to lower your stress levels, which could save your life.
Health benefits of self-care
While there hasn’t been direct research on the health benefits of self-care in itself, common self-care practices like meditation, regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep have all been scientifically proven to benefit your health and wellbeing.
For example, research shows that regular exercise can lower your risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, stroke and heart disease while boosting your mood and energy.
Meditation has also been scientifically proven to reduce anxiety, depression and stress. Stress is a major risk factor in premature death, with stressed-out people 3 times more likely to die prematurely than those who aren’t.
Hence, by regularly employing self-care practices in your life, you’ll be able to take advantage of the health benefits these practices offer.
Lack of self-care and its consequences
Have you ever felt like you were running on empty? Hanging by a thread? Constantly tired and run down?
When you push your body beyond its limits – there are consequences. Most people don’t have self-awareness enough to know where those limits are until it’s too late.
I already talked about how chronic stress can kill. But neglecting basic physical self-care practices like adequate sleep, eating well and exercising can also be very damaging to your health.
Poor mental and emotional self-care too has consequences. When you’re not connected with your inner world, when you don’t take the time to maintain it regularly, motivation, a sense of fulfillment and purpose in life will be hard to come by.
Not being able to healthily process your thoughts and emotions as well as provide for your own mental growth can lead to anxiety, depression, addiction and other mental health problems.
At best, lack of self-care means you’re short-changing yourself on how energetic and vital you can feel in everyday life.
At worst, it can lead to life-threatening conditions like diabetes and heart disease, as well as mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
Is self-care selfish or self-indulgent?
It’s not selfish to love yourself, take care of yourself, and make your happiness a priority. It’s necessary.Mandy Hale
Self-care vs selfish
Self-care is not selfish!
Here’s a fact. Before you can give to others, you need to have something to give.
If you’re tired, stressed and running yourself ragged – do you think you’re going to be able to give anything valuable to others?
Probably not because you hardly have anything for yourself!
You and everyone else around you deserves the most caring, loving, fun, vital version of you. The best thing you can do for others then is to take care of yourself because that’s how they’re going to get that version of you.
A 2006 study by Ernst and Young found that for every 10 hours of vacation time their employees took, their performance reviews were 8% better the following year. That’s research that proves that taking time for yourself increases your impact!
There’s no reason to feel guilty for self-care. Giving from an empty cup doesn’t work. You need to replenish your stores so you have the means to give effectively.
Self-care vs self-indulgence
The difference between self-care and self-indulgence can be a fine line. How do you know if you’re doing one or the other?
Well, it comes down to this:
Self-care is intentional, self-indulgence is mindless – driven by a knee-jerk emotional agenda.
Self-care builds you up in the long-run while self-indulgence doesn’t.
Self-care is moderate, while self-indulgence is excessive.
You’ll know when you’re self-indulging because you’ll feel bad about yourself afterward. It’s marked by regret. You know in your heart what you’re doing isn’t benefiting you.
Indulging in a glass of wine or a slice of your favourite chocolate cake because you deserve the pleasure is good for the soul. This is self-care.
But when the glass turns to a bottle five nights a week, or the slice becomes the whole cake gobbled down without a thought, the dynamic changes…
It’s no longer so intentional and the action is there to fulfill an emotional agenda. It doesn’t come from a place of love and generosity, but from a place of fear and need. There’s a destructive and uncontrollable element to it.
Remember, self-care is a conscious decision, an act of love to yourself that revitalises you and builds you up.
Self-indulgence, on the other hand, may feel good at the moment but over the long-run doesn’t benefit you. It’s excessive, done mostly on auto-pilot, and often you’ll feel regret the next day.
Types of self-care
There are five main types of self-care. I outline what they are below and also provide some easy examples you can practice for each type.
Self-care is holistic and all types are absolutely connected to one another. Improving one area has a ripple effect on other areas, so any small step you take can have a huge impact.
1) Physical self-care
This involves taking care of anything to do with your physical body. This may include keeping to a healthy diet so your body gets all the nutrition it needs, drinking water, exercising and ensuring you get enough sleep.
How you’re feeling in your physical body affects all other aspects of your life so your physical self-care is absolutely foundational in your self-care routine.
In fact, just by regularly taking care of your body, you’ll find that you’ll automatically feel better emotionally and mentally too.
Isn’t it true that when your physical body is sick or in pain, it’s hard to be happy or cheerful? Or when your physical body is tired, mentally you’re also fatigued and move at the same pace?
The mind-body connection is real! (and it works in the other direction too). So I urge you to start your self-care journey by getting physical self-care right and making sure it forms the foundation of your self-care routine.
Here are some physical self-care examples:
- Get 7-8 hours sleep a night
- Move your body in some form every day e.g. Go for a walk in nature, clean, join a yoga class – it all counts!
- Eat a healthy wholefoods-based diet (the Mediterranean diet has consistently been proven to be one of the healthiest)
- Take your prescribed medication
- Drink 8 glasses of water a day
- Rest and see a doctor when you feel sick
- Stretch or foam roll to release muscle tension
2) Mental self-care
Mental self-care is anything to do with your mental growth and development. Tony Robbins says that one of the keys to feeling fulfilled and happy in life is growth. Are you becoming the person you want to become? Are you growing and learning every day?
We go to school to learn and stretch ourselves intellectually but as soon as we leave the formal education system a lot of us also stop growing and learning.
Make sure you keep your mind sharp and continue to challenge yourself as a person by engaging in one of the below mental self-care activities:
- Read a new book
- Try something new and shake up your routine e.g. take a new route to work, try a new cafe, cook a new cuisine for dinner
- Listen to your favorite podcast
- Learn a new skill or hobby on Skillshare or Masterclass
- Go on a microadventure
- Do a free university course on a MOOC platform
- Strike up a conversation with a stranger
3) Emotional self-care
This type of self-care is about learning to listen to, and respect your emotions, as well as having healthy ways to process them.
Many people suppress their emotions or turn to alcohol and drugs to drown them out, but this is neither healthy nor sustainable.
Your emotions and feelings may sometimes be painful or uncomfortable but with practice, you can find healthy ways to cope with them.
Emotional self-care is about giving attention and care to your emotions. It’s about being aware of what you’re feeling, being honest with yourself about your feelings, and finding healthy ways to release them.
Through practicing emotional self-care you can also cultivate more positive feelings and find more appreciation in your life.
- Journal your thoughts and feelings
- Talk to a friend about something you’re struggling with
- Give yourself permission to feel overwhelmed, sad or anxious
- Meditate and observe your feelings, neither pushing them away nor letting them suck you in
- Write down 3 things you are grateful for every day
- Have a good cry if you need it
- Tell someone you love them (even if that someone is yourself)
4) Spiritual self-care
Spiritual self-care is about doing things that fill your soul and bring you a sense of peace.
Organized religion may be one way to do this, but isn’t the only way.
Spiritual self-care practices help you to look beyond your day-to-day to the bigger picture. For example, the universe and your place in it or the connection between yourself and other beings on Earth.
Spiritual self-care helps you find meaning and direction in your life and cultivate a sense of fulfillment and contentment.
- Practice being present and mindful
- Meditate 20 minutes a day
- Pray or attend a religious service
- Go out into nature
- Appreciate the small things in your life like your morning mug of coffee
- Write down your goals and aspirations for the future
- Spend time on finding your life’s purpose
5) Social self-care
This form of self-care is about making and maintaining the relationships in your life. It’s about cultivating a sense of connection with others. This could be with friends, family, co-workers, or your community.
Humans are social creatures. Numerous studies have shown that relationships are essential to our health and happiness. For example, people who have strong relationships live longer and recover from illnesses better.
While everyone may have different needs in terms of social contact, we all need some kind of support network.
Social self-care is about making sure you’re getting the dose of connection you need.
Sometimes social self-care is also about ensuring the relationships in your life are healthy and keep to healthy boundaries. It can mean letting go of relationships that don’t serve you and cherishing instead those that do.
- Call a friend for a chat
- Organize a Zoom dinner party or board game night
- Let go of a draining relationship in your life
- Set boundaries. Say no when you need to
- Call your parents or family to tell them you miss them
- Cuddle your pet (or go to the dog park and cuddle someone else’s!)
- Volunteer in your community
How to start self-care
Now that you know what self-care is and why it’s important. How do you implement self-care into your life?
Here’s what I suggest.
- Prioritize the areas that need the most attention. For each of the five types of self-care (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social), ask yourself: Are you struggling, surviving, or thriving? The areas where you are struggling most should take your focus first.
- Pick 1-2 self-care ideas from your focus area to start with. You can keep other ideas or activities that interest you on a list to incorporate later. It’s better to start slow than become overwhelmed by making too many changes at once (I go into more detail about this below).
- Schedule these activities into your calendar. Whether it forms an ongoing daily habit or a weekly reset, make the time for what’s important by pre-committing yourself. Treat this time as protected and sacred, like an appointment you have to keep.
- After 2 weeks, review how you go. How do you feel? Were you able to keep your appointments with yourself? Do you feel replenished after practicing your self-care activity? If it’s going well – continue and maybe if you’re feeling confident add in some new activities or ideas. But if it was too overwhelming or the activity wasn’t quite what you’d hoped, make adjustments until you find the schedule and activities that work for you.
Some extra tips for beginners:
- Remember that self-care looks different for everyone. While folding laundry may be a soothing process for me, it may never be more than a chore for you. Find what works for you, it doesn’t have to look like what the person next to you likes. There are endless possibilities to choose from.
- If you want to incorporate a new habit into your life, in the beginning, consistency trumps everything. Make it easy for yourself to show up by taking it slow and making it simple. Your progress will act as a positive reinforcement and encourage you to continue. Taking on too much, too fast, or changing everything at once is a recipe for overwhelm. If this means you have to remain unbalanced in some areas while you work your way towards your goals, that’s ok.
- One of the most powerful ways to stay motivated to make positive changes in your life is to understand why you’re doing it. Why do you want to start taking better care of yourself? Are you finally through with feeling tired and rundown? Is it for a better relationship with yourself? To pass on more energy and joy to your kids? Spend a few minutes thinking about why self-care is important to you and write 2-3 sentences on your deepest and most compelling reasons. Refer to this regularly to remind yourself to keep going no matter what.
The bottom line
Self-care is any intentional activity you do to look after your wellbeing. It covers activities from exercise, getting enough sleep to treating yourself to a massage because you’ve had a rough week.
It is important to practice self-care to avoid burnout and to replenish your mind, body and soul. Self-care allows you to be at your best for yourself and others.
It also encourages a positive, loving relationship with yourself because it affirms that you matter and deserve care as much as anyone.
Self-care is not selfish because it allows you to give others the best of you, not what’s left.
Lack of self-care can be damaging to both your physical and mental health, leading to risks such as heart disease, obesity, chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety.
There are five main types of self-care. They include physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social.
If you’re a beginner and would like to start a self-care routine, it’s important to take it one step at a time.
Select one or two self-care ideas to begin to implement in your life and schedule them into your calendar to try daily or weekly. After a week or two, assess how you are going and make adjustments from there.