5 ways to practice self-care, according to psychologists

Massages. Meditation. Setting boundaries. Sleeping in. Self-care can mean a million different things to different people, but however you define it, there’s apparently no better time to practice it.

Amid the back-to-school mayhem and general chaos that is life in 2020, you might have overlooked an important calendar alert: September is Self-Care Awareness Month, which was founded in 2017 by the group Evolve to Live.

Defined as “the act of attending to one’s physical or mental health, generally without medical or other professional consultation,” or “the products or practices used to comfort or soothe oneself,” self-care has been a buzzword in recent years thanks to an explosion of interest in the wellness industry. But with many folks under intense strain due to the pandemic, it’s become less of an indulgence and more of a necessity.

“Self-care has often been relegated to spa days and pedicures and other acts of pampering,” Dr. Rheeda Walker, a psychologist and professor at the University of Houston, tells Yahoo Life. “While these activities are certainly pleasant, we'd be better off thinking of self-care as a lifestyle and a series of decision points in which we decide whether some activity will increase our overall well-being and sense of peace or whether some new responsibility will be an added burden in an already overwhelmed day-to-day life. A mani-pedi will remove us, at least temporarily so, from the stress and strains of life, but someone who is chronically stressed may want to determine if there is a way to get permanent relief from those chronic stressors.”

Dr. Jen Hartstein, a family psychologist, author and Yahoo Life Mental Health contributor, adds that adopting some simple, yet effective, mindful practices can help someone put their mental health first.

Self-care goes deeper than the odd spa day, psychologists say. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Self-care goes deeper than the odd spa day, psychologists say. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

“We really thrive when we have routine,” Hartstein tells Yahoo Life, stressing the importance of adding structure to daily life as a form of self-care. “So create a great morning routine, create a solid bedtime routine. This also includes taking time off from work, so your brain has time to recharge and relax.”

Next, she advises acknowledging and celebrating our successes, even if it’s simply surviving another stressful workday. That can mean giving yourself a big pep talk — “cheerlead yourself on” and “pull out your internal pom-poms,” says Hartstein — or indulging in a physical reward, such as a weekly take-out meal or, yes, a mani-pedi.

Self-compassion and gratitude also key. “We often are our own worst critics,” says Hartstein. “And at this time, there is enough going on around us. Be kind — not only to others but, most importantly, to yourself ... Give yourself a break.”

This is also a good time to clear those dust bunnies off your yoga mat, or even just head out for a brisk walk. Hartstein notes that physical activity isn’t just good for the body; research shows it releases feel-good sensations that can help ward off low feelings.

Lastly, she advocates saying “no” when necessary — and without guilt.

“You do not owe anybody an explanation, you do not need to sit in any guilt,” Hartstein says, adding, “If other people are upset, that’s their problem. You’re taking care of what you need, and that’s OK.”

“Too often, we take on more than we can manage,” Walker agrees. “There are situations that are out of our control, as in the case of caring for a sick loved one or managing one's own chronic illness. However, declining involvement in an optional work project is self-care. Declining a leadership position in a community organization when one is already overwhelmed with working from home while managing young children is self-care. Spending time with supportive friends on a virtual happy hour is self-care.”

Hartstein adds that many people convince themselves that practicing self-care is “selfish,” but says it’s “really the opposite.”

“If we aren’t taking care of ourselves and putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first, we cannot take care of anybody else,” she says.

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