If the term “self-care” makes you roll your eyes, you’re not alone.
“There is a lot of self-care stigma even today,” says Dr. Judy Ho, Ph.D., a triple board-certified and licensed neuropsychologist. “People think self-care is a luxury, is selfish, takes too much time, is expensive, is another word for not being productive, and the list goes on.”
Part of the problem is branding. “The general idea of self-care that has been circulating in popular culture is one of long, luxurious baths, going to spas, doing face masks, and so on,” points out Sophia Burke, LCPC, a psychotherapist at Wellington Counseling Group. For many, there are barriers to accessing these types of self-care strategies. “We don't all have the time, money, or privilege to go on a weekend retreat, take time off, or slap an expensive cream on our face.”
"The general idea of self-care that has been circulating in popular culture is one of long, luxurious baths, going to spas, doing face masks, and so on...We don't all have the time, money, or privilege to go on a weekend retreat, take time off, or slap an expensive cream on our face."
—Sophia Burke, LCPC
And yet, you’ve probably heard that during these high-stress times, self-care is more important than ever. So how do we define real self-care? Well, it depends who you ask.
“I simply describe self-care as any practice that allows you to be your very best in your career, relationships, social life, and healthy behavior pursuits,” Ho says.
“Self-care to me is more about learning self-compassion as well as how self-soothe,” notes Beth Tyson, MA, a grief and trauma psychotherapist.
For her part, Burke says self-care is anything your future self will thank your present self for doing. “That could be as simple as doing the dishes before going to bed so your morning-self doesn't have to worry about them,” she explains. This shift in perspective takes the focus off of time and money you may not have and puts it on little things that’ll lighten your future load. It also takes self-care out of the realm of consumerism and intangible platitudes into real-life scenarios.
And though the term might be overplayed at the moment, mental health experts agree self-care is still a vital practice — particularly for BIPOC. “Historically, many Black women of color have been taught to sacrifice themselves to ensure the success of other members of their community, whether blood relative or not,” says Candida Wiltshire, MSW, LCSW. “During many of my sessions, we work on dissolving that unrealistic expectation and learning what it means to be a woman and how caring for oneself plays into that.”
When thinking about self-care in this new light, it’s understandable to be unsure of where to start. Ahead, realistic and fresh self-care tips from mental health and wellness professionals that’ll help you establish a routine your future self will be grateful for.
10 new tips for establishing a self-care routine
1. Find what works for you.
Doing what everyone else is doing for self-care isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. Yoga can be amazing for your mental health, but it isn’t going to work for everyone, Ho says. “Don’t do something just because your friend or neighbor is; it might not work for you and could even have the opposite effect.” It’ll take some trial and error to discover the self-care practices that are the right fit for you, but trust your gut as you’re deciding where to start (and don’t force yourself into a down dog if it’s just not your thing).
2. Do the thing you’re avoiding.
Remember, it’s all about helping out your future self. “Sometimes self-care means doing the laundry you’ve been putting off, or calling the family member that you’ve been avoiding because it’s too difficult to pick up the phone when they call,” says Liz Hughes, M.Ed., LPC, a therapist.
3. Take a cold shower or bath.
Hot bubble baths might be the cliche self-care option, but cold temperatures have their own special effect. Cold water can help ‘reset’ the brain, halt anxiety, and release calming hormones in the brain, according to Tyson.
4. Improve the tone of your self-talk.
“We tend to think of self-care as external activities and forget how big a role our minds play in how we feel,” says Sumayya Essack, LCSW, a coach at Curate the Future. But if your self-talk is negative, it can undo a lot of the benefits of your other self-care practices. She recommends keeping a journal where you practice recognizing harsh thoughts and rewriting those ideas through a more positive lens. “It helps you rewire those negative thought patterns,” Essack adds.
“We tend to think of self-care as external activities and forget how big a role our minds play in how we feel."
—Sumayya Essack, LCSW
5. Set boundaries.
Maybe you’ve already heard about the magic of setting boundaries, but especially in a high-stress world where many are newly working from home, they’re super important. “This can look like being really clear with your boss on what hours you are available and what hours you are not on the clock,” says Wade Brill, a mindfulness coach. “It could also look like saying no to certain friends, family members, or commitments because you notice your energy gets drained."
6. Try brain dumping.
A brain dump means writing down whatever comes to your mind: thoughts, worries, and feelings, according to Tyson. When we get the negative thoughts out on paper, it clears the mind and leaves room for the use of the executive functioning portion of the brain, or the area that deals with logic and reasoning.
7. Set aside some “non-productive” time.
Our culture demands busyness, and taking a break from that can be really therapeutic, Brill says. “Giving ourselves permission to slow down and not be as ‘productive’ can be a huge act of self-care in a society that values output. Releasing the pressure to perform and instead select ease and rest can support people relaxing and being more present.”
8. Tap into your anxiety.
For those who struggle with anxiety (which, let’s be honest, is a lot of us these days), listening very carefully to what that anxiety is saying can be hugely helpful. “We often say that self-care is doing the opposite of what anxiety wants,” say Emmalee Bierly, LMFT and Jennifer Chaiken, LMFT, therapists and co-hosts of the ShrinkChicks Podcast. “If anxiety says isolate, it means reach out. If anxiety says keep the peace, it means we need to be honest and authentic.”
“We often say that self-care is doing the opposite of what anxiety wants. If anxiety says isolate, it means reach out. If anxiety says keep the peace, it means we need to be honest and authentic.”
—Emmalee Bierly, LMFT and Jennifer Chaiken, LMFT
9. Try happiness scrolling.
We all know social media can have negative effects on our mental health. “But what if you flipped that on its head by taking control of what you’re looking at?” asks Sarah Pelc Graca, a certified personal trainer. Her advice: Create a pre-approved scrolling list by saving your favorite photos, videos, or memes. Then, scroll through them when you need a feel-good moment. As Graca puts it: “Some days you need to watch a cat playing the piano instead of staring at a bikini-clad celeb.”
10. Add to your savings or create a budget.
“So many self-care guides suggest buying something as part of the process, but that’s more of a quick band-aid to make you temporarily feel good than an effective self-care technique,” says Tarin Calmeyer, a yoga, meditation, and wellness coach. “What’s important here is to invest in your future. It doesn’t matter the amount, but the act of planning and progressing toward your financial goals can be therapeutic.”