What Is Self-Care? (And Why It’s So Important Right Now)

March 1, 2021 - 9 minutes read

Couple engaging in time together to focus on self-care

When you think of “self-care”, what immediately comes to mind? For many, their first thought is something to the tune of sitting in a candle-lit bubble bath with a good book and a glass of wine.

And while that may be one excellent mode of taking care of yourself, it really only scratches the surface of what this concept is truly about.

Here’s everything you need to know about proper self-care and how to develop a routine that helps to bring more calm and fulfillment into your life right now.

What is self-care?

Though it may seem like a relatively new trend, “self-care” actually emerged in the early 1970s as a medical concept. Physicians at the time saw a need for a more holistic approach when working with people in high-risk professions (like social workers, EMTs and trauma therapists) and developed a system of creating healthy habits that would empower these patients to better combat the stress of their jobs.

Today, more than five decades later, self-care has become a far more widespread event. Defined as any action you take to intentionally improve your physical, mental, emotional or social wellbeing, an act of self-care can be small (like reading a book or even showering) or large (like taking a well-deserved vacation).

But in defining what self-care is, it’s also important to understand what it is not. Many people mistake self-care as being selfish – that in taking care of ourselves we are somehow being self-involved. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. When we learn to put our needs first and act with compassion towards ourselves, we have more energy, more reserve and more depth to take care of others at home, at work and in our communities.

As a result of these downstream effects, self-care is actually one of the more selfless things we can do to enrich those around us and improve our environment.

Why taking care of yourself is so important

At the best of times, there are so many things in our lives that demand our regular attention. Work commitments, family roles, social pressures…not to mention the additional stresses that come with a worldwide pandemic.

When we’re so focused on all these external elements, it’s easy to forget that we need to turn our attention inward along the way. Much like a car, if we neglect our bodies – don’t give them fuel, take them in for routine maintenance or wash them once in a while – eventually they’re going to stop working the way we expect them to.

Luckily, we come equipped with a system of alerts that can tell us when we’re getting off track with our self-care. When we feel the onset of tension headaches, anxiety, distractibility, fatigue or anger, or notice a decrease in sleep quality, relationship satisfaction, self-esteem or compassion, these can all be signals that it’s time to make some changes and explore options to help us recharge.

The challenge is that so many of us don’t pay attention to these signs early on; opting instead to simply push through the discomfort. But neglecting personal care can put you at risk for much more serious issues like depression, heart disease, chronic pain and strokes. So while it may seem trivial in the moment, taking a short break to go for a walk, to meditate, or to call a friend could be instrumental in the longevity of your health.

Practicing self-care

So what should your self-care routine actually look like?

It’s helpful to start by understanding that self-care isn’t just about spending time alone or meditating. It’s about making sure you’re taking care of yourself within four main categories of your life: physical, emotional, social and spiritual.

To help conceptualize your own self-care, try to imagine a table with each leg representing one of these four elements. If one section gets out of whack – like, for instance, not exercising for a few months – it’s as if you pulled one of the legs out from under the table. The lack of support in this realm throws the whole system off track and it becomes very difficult for the other three legs to bear the added weight.

This is why it’s so important to create a multi-faceted approach to your self-care routine, consisting of these elements:

Physical care

The physical side of self-care is all about how you treat your body. Not only is this about the type of food you’re eating, how much sleep you’re getting, and how active you are each week, but also about attending health appointments, taking medication as prescribed and caring for illness and injury.

Emotional and mental care

The mental and emotional component includes doing things that keep your mind sharp, like learning a new language or challenging yourself with sudoku puzzles, as well as developing healthy coping skills to deal with uncomfortable emotions like sadness, grief, anger or anxiety. Maintaining a healthy inner dialogue is a strong part of this section, and can be enhanced by learning to acknowledge and express your feelings while also practicing self-compassion and acceptance.

Social care

The social element is about building and nurturing meaningful relationships with others. As everyone has slightly different social needs, there’s no gold standard on this section. The key is to figure out what it means for you to feel balanced between time alone and time spent with friends and family, and to build enough space into your schedule to create an optimal social life.

Spiritual care

The spiritual side of self-care doesn’t necessarily have to involve religion – it can focus on anything that helps you connect with a deeper meaning in the world. While this may be your faith, it could also include a sense of hope, a connection to Mother Nature or the experience of meditation, to name a few.

Developing your unique routine

The right self-care routine for you is exactly that: for you. As everyone’s circumstances are different, what might be helpful for one person could end up being overwhelming for another. It’s important to take the time to investigate what helps you restore and recharge and create your own plan without comparing it to others.

For a busy professional who spends a lot of time working at their desk, they may find that their physical care needs a bit of a boost.

For a busy mom who spends all day running around with her kids, a plan to emphasize the emotional component may be helpful.

Assess which of your self-care needs are already being met and which ones could use some added attention. Then create a plan that’s customized to you and reassess often. As your life changes, so may your self-care needs so it’s important to always be open to evolving your routine so you can continue to stay healthy and nurture your best self.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition, contact the Canadian Mental Health Association for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.