Self care is a complicated topic. It means different things to different people. It’s also very, very easy to neglect when society demands so much of our time and energy.
Some of the acts of self care that are ultimately most impactful may seem time-consuming and not worth committing to, but in the long run, they more than pay off in terms of positive impacts on our happiness and mental and physical health.
The way I see it, there are two main types of self care. The first is the stereotypical “treat yo’self” mentality. It usually involves face masks, chocolate, and other forms of instant gratification.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to this kind of self care. It’s great for a pick-me-up if you’ve had a rough week (or year), and obviously much better than turning to unhealthier forms of coping. But long-term, the impacts are minimal. In fact, too much of it will hurt your bank account and your health, and that’s the opposite of what we’re going for.
The second form of self care, and the kind that I prefer to focus on, comes primarily in the form of daily habits that leave you feeling better about yourself and your position in life. They make navigating the world a little easier and function as a support system when things start to go downhill.
Integrating self care into my life isn’t always easy. Sometimes I feel I don’t have time. Sometimes I feel guilty about it because I think I should be doing something else. Sometimes I just don’t want to.
But I do my best to integrate self care into as many parts of my day as I can, especially on those days when I don’t want to. I find those are the times when I most need it.
When I take the time and energy to properly take care of myself, I’m so much happier, energetic, and excited about life. Sticking to my self care habits goes a long way in preventing bad mental health days and helping me make the most out of life and go after the things I want.
So with that said, here are five self care habits that have changed my life:
This list isn’t in any particular order, aside from this first one. Meditation was a game-changer for me, and I’m constantly recommending it to other people.
The majority of the things that we struggle with can be solved, or at least improved, by learning to pay attention to our thoughts and dismiss any that aren’t helpful, rather than running away with them. Learning to sit with discomfort and acknowledge and accept it is also helpful in many areas of life.
Meditation teaches you how to do both of these things. In general, it teaches you to be mindful so that you notice and pay attention to yourself, your actions, and anything happening in the world around you.
Becoming mindful of our actions is also a valuable step to take in life. So often, our actions don’t line up with our values. We think and say that we want one thing, but our actions speak something else. And actions really do speak louder than words.
To be true to yourself, your actions have to be in line with your values. When you learn to notice your actions, rather than going through much of life with no thought, it becomes much easier to correct your course.
Obviously, this takes time and practice, and correcting your actions after you’ve noticed them isn’t always easy, but even noticing that your actions aren’t what you want them to be is a huge step in the right direction.
Maintaining non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, actions, and surroundings translates into quite a few tangible benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to be helpful in treating anxiety and depression, and with all of the recent talk about procrastination being an emotional issue, rather than a time management issue—you’re basically avoiding discomfort—I’m sure meditation helps in that regard as well.
In general, mindfulness is an all-around great tool to have in your toolbox when it comes to navigating through life, and meditation teaches you to be mindful.
How has meditation helped me?
Meditation has helped me to become more in tune with myself, my thoughts, and my needs. It has helped me to be more open and honest with how I feel and why I feel that way. It’s helped me come to terms with who I am and what I want, and it’s generally just made me feel more like myself.
Meditating regularly makes me feel more peaceful and grounded. It’s really difficult to describe, but I feel more in tune with the world and connected to everything that’s happening around me. Mindfulness makes me feel like I’m part of the world, rather than a separate entity superficially interacting with the universe.
The number one tool in my anti-anxiety toolbox is meditation. Whenever I’m feeling irrationally worried about something, focusing on my breathing and allowing the thoughts to exist around me rather than drive my actions helps me maintain control. It takes practice, but it’s a game-changer.
One of the best things that I’ve learned from meditation is how to take a deep breath and still all of the thoughts running through my head when I get overwhelmed or frustrated—or just thrown off track, for that matter. When things aren’t going the way I want them to, I automatically catch myself fairly quickly, take a deep breath, and let it go.
It’s rare for me to get worked up anymore because taking a moment to breath and relax has become such a deeply ingrained habit. It’s almost a reflex at this point. This has made me so much calmer, and I no longer dwell on negative thoughts and emotions.
This isn’t to be confused with repressing and ignoring negative events and emotions. Much the opposite, in fact. I’m able to fully feel and explore unpleasant situations, rather than avoid them, which helps me respond more thoughtfully and constructively.
All of this barely even touches the surface of what meditation can achieve, and I’ve only been meditating for about a year and a half. Meditation and mindfulness are some of the absolute best things you can do for yourself, and I can’t recommend them enough.
Literally Just Taking Care of Yourself
This gets overlooked a lot. Taking proper care of your body makes life so much more enjoyable. This is probably the most literal interpretation of “self care,” but if you aren’t eating well, exercising often, and getting enough sleep every night, that is step one in any journey of self improvement. Nail those habits before you start on anything else.
Meditation helps you learn to deal with the mental blocks that prevent you from getting things done, going after what you want, and living your best life. Once you’ve started to tackle them and become aware of your actions and values, the next thing you need to do is take care of your body so that you have the energy to go after all that stuff that you’ve decided you want.
When you’re feeling tired and headachey all the time, it’s difficult to get anything done. When you feel good, that’s one less thing holding you back. Being tired contributes to procrastination and lowered willpower.
I know I certainly think more clearly and have more drive to get things done when I’m well rested, have eaten a vegetable recently, and exercised within the last day.
On the other hand, whenever I eat fried foods or something carb-heavy, I know that I’ll be down for a few hours and there’s a decent chance that I’ll want to take a nap. Pushing through that haze to get work done is difficult, and focusing on anything mentally involved is nearly impossible.
Whether you realize it or not, the same things likely happen to you. The way you treat your body has a huge impact on how you feel day to day. If you’ve never noticed the correlations, try keeping a log of what you eat, when you exercise, how much sleep you get, and how much energy you have each day. I think you’ll find that the first three play a huge role in determining the last.
As I was outlining this post, I was trying to pick which of these things to emphasize as the most important when it comes to taking care of yourself, but they’re all just. so. important. that I couldn’t pick one. They all go hand in hand.
Having a good diet and getting enough sleep help you recover from working out. Working out and eating well will improve your sleep. Working out makes you want to fuel your body with healthy food and getting enough sleep gives you the willpower to make good choices. They’re all interconnected. Take small steps each day to do a little bit better than yesterday and the results will come more quickly than you expect.
Fuel Your Body
Eating well is something that has been ingrained in me throughout my whole life. Thanks, mom!
Over time, my diet has fluctuated, and generally gets healthier as I get older. I do make time for treats (although eating much sugar always gives me a headache), but most of the time, my diet is made up of homemade, whole foods.
Becoming comfortable in the kitchen and meal prepping make it much easier to eat a healthy diet. Properly prepared vegetables are much better than boiled mush. If you’ve never had properly roasted Brussels sprouts before, make that happen ASAP. (The internet can show you how.)
Cooking is my longest lived passion and since moving in with my foodie fiance, it’s only gotten stronger. Making delicious food is something that I deeply enjoy, and fueling my body with a balanced diet means I feel great almost all of the time.
Move Your Body
Exercising is something that I only started doing regularly about a year ago. When I was little, I did gymnastics and soccer, but it took me a while to find something that suited my life now and that I enjoy.
I’ve picked up running a few times because it doesn’t require any special equipment or other people, but ultimately, it’s not something that I keep up consistently.
Getting over my gym anxiety and into a gym to lift weights turned out to be the answer. It’s incredible how much better lifting makes me feel. No matter what mood I’m in when I go to the gym, I leave feeling amazing. Plus, exercise is the only thing that I’ve found will 100% take my mind off of whatever’s bothering me.
Watching my body gain muscle is incredible. I’ve always been pretty small and not very strong, so it’s still so hard to believe that this is my body, I can look like this, and I can lift as much weight as I do. I feel powerful. Being strong is amazing and a great confidence booster.
But you don't have to lift weights. Exercise isn’t one-size-fits-all. There are plenty of other options, and finding something that you like and will stick to is more important than trying to be the strongest, fastest, biggest, or whateverest.
Try new things until you find something that you like, and don’t worry if your tastes change over time. I’ve been getting into yoga lately despite never caring for it before. Hell, just go for walks around your neighborhood if you aren’t sure what else to do. The details aren’t important. What matters is that you move your body.
Rest Your Body
Few things are quite as important, yet quite as neglected, as getting enough sleep. Between the “hustle mentality,” college kids thinking that they need to pull all-nighters, overly demanding jobs, and a social media world that never sleeps, many, many people aren’t getting enough sleep.
But sleep makes a huge difference. When you’re well-rested, you’ll have more willpower, more energy, clearer thoughts, and just an all-around better life experience. Not to mention, sleep is important for forming memories, recovering from exercise, and living longer (source).
No matter what it is that you’re struggling with, getting enough sleep will almost definitely make it easier to deal with and make steps forward. (Unless you’re dealing with insomnia or already sleep too much, in which case, sorry.)
If you’re not sure how to go about getting better sleep, here is a blog post to get you started.
Personally, going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day has been the biggest factor in improving my sleep. I’ve been going to sleep around 9:30 and waking up between 5 and 5:30 for so long that at this point I don’t have a choice. I get sleepy around 9 every night, and even though I didn’t set an alarm and intended to sleep in this morning, I still woke up at 5:15.
Setting up a nighttime routine has also helped me a lot with falling asleep at the same time each night. At this point, I’ve pretty much conditioned myself to start feeling tired when I start my routine.
I also try to cut down on blue light before bed, and start shifting gears and winding down my day at least an hour before I need to sleep. Too often, we try to abruptly switch from one activity to the next without giving ourselves time to mentally transition, which makes it hard to shift our focus and energy.
For years, I couldn’t fall asleep at night because my brain just wouldn’t shut up. There was always more to think about, and no matter how much I tried to calm it, my mind would continue racing.
Turns out, the culprit was caffeine. These days, I never have more than one mug of regular tea, and even that’s rare. I’ve almost entirely switched to decaf, and it’s made a very noticeable difference in how easy it is to fall asleep.
If you can’t sleep because your mind is racing, try limiting—or eliminating—your caffeine consumption.
Having a Good Skincare Routine
This one is pretty new to me. Not that I totally neglected my skin before or anything, but I went from washing with water, followed by a moisturizer, to actually putting thought and effort into building a routine specifically for my skin.
I’m still in the process of figuring out what works—one of my bullet journal spreads for June is a skincare tracker—but I’m already seeing improvements.
Not only is having nice skin a confidence booster, but taking a few minutes every day to focus on caring for my skin feels nice and gives me a little sense of accomplishment. The clean, refreshed feeling I get from doing my skincare routine somehow feels a bit more satisfying than, say, eating broccoli.
Though working out and meditating make me feel good, most of the results are more general, long-term, and intangible. Washing your face with a cleanser makes you instantly feel like you’re getting your life together and are on top of your shit. Plus, being clean and moisturized just makes you feel pampered and luxurious.
P.S. if anyone knows of a good vegan, cruelty free alternative to plain ol’ Cerave, lmk thx.
When I was little, I used to read so much. I was one of those kids who hid under the blankets with a book and a flashlight when I was supposed to be sleeping.
Then, in high school and college, I had to do so much reading for classes that I never had the time, desire, or energy to read for pleasure. Since graduating from college a year ago, I’ve picked my reading habit back up, and I am so glad that I did.
I made a challenge on Goodreads to read 18 books this year, and I’ve already read 12, so I’m pretty far ahead of schedule. If you’d like to come hang out on Goodreads with me, here is my profile. You can see what I’m reading, what I want to read, and what I recommend. If you’ve never read much before, or are looking to get back into it, Goodreads is helpful when it comes to finding books to read and keeping track of it all.
At this point, most of my reading falls into one of two categories: self help, and purely for enjoyment.
I often listen to self help books as audiobooks. Audiobooks are a great way to read more. I didn’t think I’d like them at first, but they make it so easy to learn while you’re doing something else.
Self help books give me new ideas to explore and work with, and actual advice to make my life better. A few of them have definitely caused tangible improvements in my life. Exploring new ideas about how to improve myself and my life keeps me continually growing and learning new ideas to share with you all.
Though I love self help books, I’m a fiction girl at heart. I love getting lost in someone else’s world and exploring life through their eyes. The other day, I took a very long bath and read the entirety of Demian by Hermann Hesse, and it was wonderful. Not only did the book cause me to rethink how I view life, but the whole experience was great, and life is about enjoying the little moments.
(Disclaimer: That's an Amazon Affiliate link. If you make purchases using my links, I make a small commission at no cost to you. If you can, support your local library.)
There are few things as pleasant as curling up with some tea and a blanket, and diving into someone else’s world for a while. Most of the self care habits that I’m talking about here are in pursuit of a long-term goal, but reading for pleasure is all about taking a break from the world to just do something nice for yourself. I read because it makes me happy.
Getting Out of the House
I currently work from home. If I wanted, I could stay in my house all the time. Right now, there are no reasons that I have to leave my apartment. With the advent of grocery delivery services, everything I need could be brought here for me to enjoy from the comfort of my couch. But getting out of the house is so good for my mental health that I make an effort to go somewhere pretty much every day.
I know that if I stay at home for too long, I’ll quickly sink into a bad mental health slump. Not leaving the apartment quickly turns into not leaving the bed, which usually turns into hours of aimless scrolling. The longer that I stay in my apartment, the harder it is to leave again. It’s like I can feel myself sinking into a rut. We can’t have that.
So I go out. I go to the gym, I work from the library, I take afternoons to go adventuring with Bennett, even if that “adventure” just means getting groceries.
This is one of the reasons that I intend to keep my gym membership forever, even if I one day have the space and money for a home gym. Not only is the exercise itself good for my mental and physical health, but the small bits of interaction that I share with my gym friends act as a huge mental pick-me-up, even for little introvert me.
It’s easy to dismiss or ignore the benefits of talking to other people in person every day, but it is truly such a helpful part of my day. Even if I’m in one of those “leave me alone!” moods when I get to the gym, I always feel uplifted when someone says "hi."
Regularly seeing other people and facing the world helps keep my social anxiety at bay. It’s like I have to stay in practice, and if I don’t interact with people every day, I’ll forget how to do it. (Is that just a me thing? Do other people feel like that? That could just be my anxiety talking, I’m not sure.)
It’s a little scary how quickly I can sink into a lot of anxiety and a little depression if I don’t leave my apartment regularly. The longer I stay home, the more likely I am to stop leaving my bed and the easier it is to continue staying home.
Humans are social creatures. The comments you read on Reddit are not a substitute for human interaction. Getting out of the house and into the company of others on a daily basis is a habit I can’t afford to break.
Self care isn’t always about making yourself feel good in that moment—though it can be. For the most part, self care—the kind that actually improves your life long-term—is going to involve a little more effort than those quick pick-me-ups. But that effort is worth it.
Taking time to truly look after yourself the way you’d care for a friend improves your mood, self esteem, confidence, and mental health.
Make caring for yourself a priority. It impacts all areas of your life and is irreplaceable.