Many people hear the word self-care and think of massages

Much of the research on self-care doesn’t come from mental health fields but from nursing. It’s long been seen as a way to preserve overall health and prevent or manage chronic disease. An article published in October 2021 in the International Journal of Nursing Sciences points out that the concept of self-care is vague because so many different definitions exist. The authors define self-care as the ability to care for oneself through awareness, self-control, and self-reliance to achieve, maintain, or promote optimal health and well-being.

In practice, self-care is multifaceted. “The way I define self-care is the intentional, proactive pursuit of integrated wellness that balances mind, body, and spirit personally and professionally,” says Paula Gill Lopez, Ph.D., an associate professor and the chair of the Department of psychological and educational consultation at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, whose research focuses on self-care.

It’s about more than taking care of your physical health. “Just eating healthy isn’t enough anymore,” Patel says. “Things are moving so fast around us that self care package we need space to self-care and slow down to rest from all the busyness in our lives.”

Just because a behavior is “good for you” doesn’t make it self-care. “I recommend finding something you look forward to for self-care,” says Stephanie Freitag, Ph.D., a psychologist at Westchester Childhood and Adult Psychological Services in Purchase, New York, and an adjunct professor at Emory School of Medicine.

That might be something that supports physical health, like a certain type of exercise, or something that’s purely for joy, like a massage or regular dinners with friends. The common denominator of self-care practices is that you get some enjoyment out of the activity, adds Marni Amsellem, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

Your perspective plays a role in determining what types of behaviors constitute self-care for you. For instance, let’s say you’re new to running and you set a goal of running 10 miles per week. The act of running itself may not be enjoyable and you may struggle through every minute of it as you’re getting started.

But if you get satisfaction from meeting your goals, it could still be worthwhile. If that practice allows you to say: Look at what I did today; I’m working toward my goal and that feels good — then that counts even if at the moment it doesn’t feel like self-care, Dr. Amsellem says.

Dr. Freitag points out that certain not-so-fun activities count as self-care, like prioritizing annual checkups and keeping the house clean. Again, these things might not bring joy at the moment — not for everyone, anyway — but they go a long way in boosting overall well-being and peace of mind.

In short, self-care refers to all the steps you take to tend to your physical and emotional health in the ways you are best able to do so. “Good self-care involves doing the things that will help you operate at an optimal level,” says Shauna Pollard, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Rockville, Maryland. The activities you make part of your self-care routine should strike a balance between the activities that provide enjoyment once they’re done and the ones that bring immediate joy, she says.

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