Everything You Need To Know About Self-Care—and How to Make It Work For You

Here's the scoop, straight from the experts.

The phrase “self-care” is a popular one and conjures up images of luxurious bubble baths with a glass of wine or hour-long meditation sessions. Self-care has long been misunderstood in many ways, perhaps a mantra reserved for yoga-doers, an indulgent brushing aside of responsibilities, or as therapy only when feelings of stress, depression and anxiety are at their worst.

But in recent years, the concept of self-care has become so universal that the World Health Organization now officially recognizes it as an essential ability to care for ourselves, our families and our communities. Here's everything you need to know about self-care, and how to weave it into your life.

What Is Self-Care?

Self-care is the practice of protecting and improving your physical and mental health. The scope of self-care is broad, but the key word in its definition is practice. So, it includes anything you do on a regular basis, with or without the direct support of a healthcare professional, to keep a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Examples of self-care include:

  • Maintaining good personal hygiene

  • Eating a nutritious diet

  • Getting enough hours of sleep, and ensuring that your sleep is actually restful and restorative

  • Engaging your body in a mix of exercise and relaxing activities

  • Maintaining financial wellness and security

  • Nurturing feelings of self-reliance, confidence and empowerment

  • Taking care of your spiritual needs

  • Participating in your community

  • Following a treatment plan prescribed by your doctor

  • Tending to your relationships and building strong networks of social support

Related: 100 Best Self Care Quotes

Why Is Self-Care Important?

The clear intention of self-care is to help you live a longer, happier life. But if that is too abstract, consider these very real outcomes of practicing self-care.

Physical and mental benefits of self-care:

Any time that you choose to take a walk, snack on fruits and veggies, go to bed a little earlier or treat your skin to a nourishing product—these small acts of self-care add up to huge benefits.

Simple lifestyle choices, including regular exercise and a nutritious diet, have been proven to drastically reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. Even applying sunscreen every morning is a form of self-care, as you are taking the time to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging effects.

Feeling stressed out often? Although it can be difficult to keep stress at bay when there are so many daily demands to meet, the cost of not doing so is high. Chronic stress causes not only bothersome headaches and heartburn, but is also shown to weaken your immune system, accelerate the signs of aging, and worsen conditions like depression, diabetes, heart disease and asthma.

Sometimes stress, anxiety and other negative emotions are unavoidable. Studies show that people who experience frequently high levels of emotional distress often rely on harmful coping mechanisms, including smoking, drinking alcohol and eating unhealthy foods. But practicing self-care can help you manage these feelings in healthy ways, both in the heat of the moment (for instance, anxiety attacks) and for the long-term goal of resiliency. Plus, taking care of your mental and emotional health is associated with higher overall productivity and stronger relationships.

Related: Instant Mood Boosters

How To Create A Self-Care Routine

Self-care is like any other healthy habit—if you want to reap the full benefits, you have to consistently set aside time and attention for it. Here are four tips to create a self-care routine that works for you.

1. Plan it like any other appointment.

If you’re someone who struggles with self-accountability, it’s easy to let self-care fall by the wayside when others’ needs or other commitments arise. Put your self-care activity in your calendar, set yourself reminders and treat it as an equally important part of your daily or weekly schedule. Even busy moms can practice self-care when it's integrated into their routine.

2. Be flexible and keep it simple.

If you make your self-care ritual complicated or inconvenient, you’re not likely to stick to it. Couldn’t get to the yoga studio this week? Instead of skipping it altogether, find a quiet space at home, light a favorite scented candle and do some light stretching on your own or practice mindfulness with an app or guiding video.

3. Do something you actually enjoy.

Don’t force yourself to maintain a hobby because you think it’s what you’re supposed to be doing. Maybe meditation isn’t your thing. That’s OK. Be honest with yourself about the things that make you feel calm, happy and energized. No judgment here.

4. Don’t feel guilty about your self-care time.

You can’t effectively care for others when you are not caring for yourself.

Related: How to Meditate

Self-Care Activity Ideas

Practicing yoga, treating yourself to a spa day, and cozying up with a cup of tea and a good book are just a few of the hundreds of self-care activities you can try right now. Here are 13 unique self-care ideas others you may not have thought of:

  1. Dabble in the kitchen with a new or tried-and-true recipe. Cooking is therapeutic! Time spent in the kitchen is linked to more intuitive eating habits, making healthier food choices, and improving mood and feelings of self-reliance.

  2. Or, try a meal-kit service to take the pressure off of planning fresh, healthy meals this week. Maybe it will inspire you to try new flavors, and you can use that prep time doing something else you enjoy.

  3. Post self-love quotes somewhere you’ll see them every day, like on your phone or your mirror. Self-affirmation helps many people overcome negative thoughts.

  4. Try mindfulness, a practice of focused breathing and observing your thoughts and senses. The best part? You can do it anywhere, and even a few minutes can recharge you.

  5. Learn how to say “no”before you become overwhelmed. It’s also OK to cancel plans and step away from people and tasks that ask too much of you.

  6. Try a new approach to journaling—make it fun and colorful!

  7. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about what stresses you out, but remember you can always talk to a mental health professional when you need a little extra help.

  8. Detoxify your social media by unfollowing anything (or anyone) that feeds your negative thoughts, including FOMO and poor body image.

  9. Bogged down by mundane tasks, like chores and paying bills? Stop procrastinating and tackle what you can in what happiness expert Gretchen Rubin calls a “Power Hour.”

  10. Make your self-care social. Book club? Wine club? Whatever you want to call it, a self-care club creates built-in time and accountability to do what makes you happy.

  11. Give your Netflix binge a break and try listening to a podcast that discusses self-care, self-help and other mental health topics.

  12. Plant a garden, even if it’s just a mini herb planter on your apartment windowsill. Science shows that gardening has many therapeutic benefits, including lowering depression and anxiety and increasing attention.

  13. Power down all electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime. Their blue light is proven to keep your brain alert longer, disrupting your sleep, and may be contributing to headaches and eye strain (plus, the midnight shopping or endless Insta scroll are probably not good for you either)

Self-Care Apps And Products

Sometimes you need a little extra guidance and motivation to take care of yourself. Here are our picks for the best self-care apps and products to jump-start or boost your self-care practice:

Best app for happiness boosting:

Happify (iOS | Android): Did you know that there’s science behind happiness? It’s called positive psychology. The app assesses your happiness level based on a questionnaire and then delivers a series of activities and games to help you overcome your happiness barriers and build life-long qualities of optimism, compassion, purpose, gratitude and self-confidence. (Free to download; in-app purchases and subscription fees may apply)

Also try: RealifeChange (iOS), SuperBetter (iOS, Android), iMoodJournal (iOS, Android)

Pair with:A gratitude journal

Don’t wait until Thanksgiving dinner to count your blessings. Research shows that people who frequently express awe and gratitude—the appreciation of things and people in your life—is linked to mood boosts and higher happiness overall. Specifically, it may train your brain in the long term to pay more attention to positive feelings and to retain them longer.

Best app for exercise motivation:

FitOn (iOS | Android): Never get bored with hundreds of free workouts from top-rated and celebrity trainers. Choose from beginner to advanced levels, target specific muscle groups and choose from a variety of workout plans, including prenatal routines, bedtime stretches, high intensity interval training, dance/barre and pilates/yoga. (Free to download and access most content; in-app purchases may apply.)

Also try: PIIT Pocket (iOS, Android), Active by PopSugar (iOS, Android), Burn By Rebecca Louise (iOS, Android)

Pair with:A set of kettlebells 

Kettlebell exercises are highly effective for both men and women at any skill level. When done correctly, these exercises torch calories and build muscle. There are dozens of different movements you can try that target different muscles and challenge your body, so your workout will never become dull.

Related: Best Workout Apps

Best for app for better sleep:

Calm (iOS | Android): Can’t seem to quiet your mind at the end of a long day? Calm offers a variety of programs designed to ease anxiety and induce deep sleep, including guided breathing and visualization exercises, soothing music and natural sounds, and bedtime stories, many of which are narrated by celebrities—who wouldn’t want to drift off to sleep while Matthew McConaughey explains the wonders of the universe? (Free to download, but accessing content requires a monthly or annual subscription fee.)

Also try: Headspace (iOS, Android), Smiling Mind (iOS, Android), Wysa (iOS, Android)

Pair with:A weighted blanket

Catching your nightly Z’s is a nonnegotiable component of self-care. If you struggle with feelings of restlessness and anxiety that keep you from falling or staying asleep, try a weighted blanket. Experts have suggested that for some people, a weighted blanket helps the body release tension similarly to deep pressure stimulation techniques, such as massage.

Related: 3 Acupressure Points That Can Help You Sleep

Best app for yoga and meditation:

Down Dog (iOS | Android): Whether you’re brand new to yoga or a powerhouse practitioner, Down Dog allows you to fully individualize your practice. Select the style of yoga and length of your session, hone in on specific areas to improve flexibility, pick music that matches your mood and follow along with audio guidance and video demonstration. (Free to download, but accessing content requires a monthly or annual subscription fee.)

Also try: Glo (iOS, Android), Daily Yoga (iOS, Android), Pocket Yoga (iOS, Android)

Pair with:Essential oil diffuser

Research shows that aromatherapy using certain essential oils may have therapeutic benefits for some people. Chamomile and lavender oil, for example, may reduce blood pressure, inflammation in the body and levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Other types of oil, such as peppermint, rosemary and orange may boost your energy and focus. Pair an essential oil with your meditation practice for a self-care indulgence.

Self-care is for everyone, so why not steal inspiration from your favorite celebrities? From Michelle Obama to Mandy Moore, read our 15 favorite celebrity self-care rituals.