What Does Self-Care Really Mean?

Written by Kendra Phoumivong, LCSW

Self-care has become a hot topic in recent years and rightfully so! Taking the time to care for ourselves is so crucial — not only for our mental health but for our overall wellness. But what is self-care? A bubble bath or vacation may come to mind; however, self-care actually goes much deeper than that. Self-care is about nourishing our body, mind, and spirit, and there are several different areas of ourselves and the environment that need to attend in order to really feel our best.

Physical Self-Care
When you say “self-care”, physical self-care is what most people think of. Our bodies have physical needs in order to properly function and help keep our moods regulated. These include needs for nutrition, hydration, sleep, and movement. What we choose to put in our bodies has a huge impact on how we feel—improper nutrition and hydration can make us feel sluggish, irritable, and anxious. Lack of sleep leaves us tired and unfocused.  As for movement, exercise not only keeps us healthy but releases endorphins that make us feel good. You don’t need a rigorous gym routine to experience these benefits— yoga or even light stretching can be beneficial. This type of self-care also includes the activities we do to relax and physically release stress, such as getting massages, taking bubble baths, and taking breaks (or vacations) when we’re feeling tired or burned out.

Emotional Self-Care
Our emotions can be difficult to experience, but they do serve a purpose in alerting us when something is wrong in our bodies or environment. It’s important to take the time to tend to these feelings and take the time to process our emotions, reflect on them, and understand them. Emotional self-care can look like journaling, therapy, or engaging in expressive activities like art and music, and using coping skills.

Mental Self-Care
Feelings of stagnation or lack of growth can contribute to depression. It’s important to keep our minds stimulated and continue to learn new things. This helps us feel sharp and recharged. Mental or intellectual self-care can include things like reading, puzzles, documentaries, or taking a class on something we’re interested in. Hobbies are also important for this type of self-care as they give us a place to continue learning and growing, and they keep us engaged in something enjoyable.

Social Self-Care
Humans are naturally social beings— loneliness or isolation can significantly impact our moods and even lead to depression. Its important to take time to nurture the positive social relationships in our life. Part of social self-care means carving out time to keep connected with our loved ones. This could be a phone call with a friend, dinner with family, or doing an activity where you’ll meet new people. Introverts and extroverts may socialize differently, but we all need some type of connection with others. Social self-care also means keeping our relationships healthy. Enforcing boundaries and letting go of relationships that are toxic to our wellbeing are necessary steps in developing a healthy social circle.

Spiritual Self-Care
This involves connecting to our inner selves and finding purpose to life. For many, spiritual self-care is rooted in religion and includes attending church, prayer, and celebrating religious holidays. However, for those who are non-religious this might include activities like meditation, spending time in nature, or volunteering for a cause we believe in.  Many people find connection with a higher power, whether that be a higher being or the forces of nature, to be extremely grounding during times of stress. Practicing gratitude is another spiritual practice that many find beneficial in keeping a positive mindset.

Practical Self-Care
Practical self-care is how we keep it all together! It’s how we manage life’s responsibilities and still have time for all of the activities above. Most of us lead busy lives, and if we don’t make time to figure out how we’re going to make it all work we begin to fall behind and feel stressed and overwhelmed.  Practical self- care is how we go about achieving balance. Time management such as organizing our schedules to be more efficient can be a life-changer. Planning or prepping ahead can save us time on the day of and help us feel less rushed. This type of self-care includes all the things we do to manage and minimize our stressors, such as budgeting, organizing our home to make it easy to keep clean, and meal prepping to make busy weeknight dinners go easier. Practical self-care also involves creating priorities, and saying “no” to the rest when we can.

Ultimately, a self-care routine should include what makes us feel our best. Its important to choose activities from each category, but how much time we choose to spend on each of them is entirely up to our individual needs.  We don’t need to devote a lot of time or money to these activities either, so if it feels daunting to implement all of the above try starting just a few minutes of one or two self-care activities each day to start experiencing the benefits.

Phoumivong, K. (2021, July 23). What does self-care really mean? Hillside. https://hside.org/what-does-self-care-really-mean/.

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