There are countless ways to practice self-care. But as we spend more time at home, many are running out of ideas for self-care practices that really make a difference. Fortunately, what counts as “self-care” is much broader than many people think.
“Self-care is the practice of engaging in health-promoting thoughts and behaviors, as well as cultivating feelings that are beneficial for well-being,” says Peggy DeLong, PsyD, an author and psychologist. Most of us focus on the behavior part of self-care. “What’s often overlooked is purposefully fostering emotions that are known to be related to physical and psychological well-being.”
Here’s the amazing thing: When we focus on promoting those positive feelings, it becomes easier to prioritize our well-being — including habits like exercising and eating well — in a way that’s both effective and sustainable. Ahead, expert-approved self-care practices that cultivate good vibes.
Perfectionism harms us in many ways, including making it harder to reach our goals. That’s why you might want to purposefully try holding yourself to an “imperfect” standard. “Intentionally identify an activity you’re going to do 50, 60 or 70% ‘perfectly,’” suggests Nora Gerardi, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. “Allowing room for error actually reduces stress and increases the likelihood we will approach a task and work toward a goal.”
You can apply this to any area of your life, but here’s an example: Instead of telling yourself you have to run 3 miles at a 9-minute pace, you might say something like: “I am intentionally going to exert 70% effort and will settle for under 3 miles today.”
“Research consistently demonstrates that the number 1 factor related to happiness is our relationships,” DeLong says. “For many people, relationships have suffered tremendously during the pandemic, as we have not had our typical ways of getting together and relating to others, including with strangers.” Many of us still need to get creative to safely spend time with others.
So, whenever you’re given the choice between a machine or a person, choose the person, DeLong suggests. “Choose the long line with people at the grocery store over the self-checkout line. Then, while in that line (and maintaining social distance), talk to the person in front of you or behind you. Speak to the clerk. If the clerk is wearing a name tag, use his or her name.”
That might sound silly, but many people get a mood boost after having positive interactions with others. “These interactions add up and make us feel more connected to our communities and to the world, help to combat loneliness, and make us happier,” DeLong says.
“These hobbies require you to be in the present, as you have to be mindful of completing the stitches accurately,” says Erika Martinez, PsyD, a licensed psychologist. “It helps your brain be creative, as well as relax and unwind without being glued to a screen.” These make a perfect before-bed self-care activity, she adds. “When you’re doing something creative, you’re using a different part of your brain, which helps you see things from a different perspective — just what you need when you want to achieve some elusive goals.”
“Some of the most transformative self-care work I’ve seen clients be successful with revolves around ensuring our self-care activities closely align with your values,” says Lindsay Carter, a counselor. The first step toward doing that is to identify values in each domain of your life: personal, professional, social, spiritual and health. Write them down. “Then, ask yourself what self-care activities you’re doing — or what you can do more of — to prioritize those values in your day-to-day life.”
This process is helpful when it comes to following through with more difficult self-care goals, like eating well and exercising. Carter says. “If the intent is purely to lose weight or look a certain way, your plan is likely to lose steam pretty quickly. If, however, that goal is associated with preventing disease, having enough energy to play with your kids, or inspiring those around you, then you’re much more likely to value the importance of eating well and exercising.”
Sometimes you have to process negative emotions to feel positive ones. For instance, try screaming into a pillow when you’re feeling frustrated or angry, suggests Kelly O’Sullivan, a licensed clinical social worker. “A lot of people were taught not to get mad and that anger is a bad feeling. But feeling angry is totally normal, and sometimes we just need to let it out.”
For many people, the new reality is the office is now right next to the bedroom, points out Austin Hunter, a psychotherapist. Spending some time considering how you can keep “work activities” and “home activities” separate can make all the difference in improving our emotional lives.
“These are items or activities that bring you comfort and destress you quickly,” says Kate Steiner, PhD, a burnout coach. Your list doesn’t have to involve anything fancy. Steiner’s includes a cozy sweater, her dog, Hallmark movies and macaroni and cheese. “When I find myself in need of a self-care moment or day, I make sure things from my comfort list are included,” she explains. “Just as we comfort a child when they are upset, we must comfort ourselves when we feel overwhelmed and stressed.”
“For many people, discarding physical clutter helps alleviate mental clutter, too,” Martinez says. “Start small like that junk drawer, and work up to bigger projects like a closet or the garage.”
“When you are feeling stressed, anxious or sad, growing a plant can be just the thing you need to get out of your head and back into action,” says Emily Schickli, a certified yoga and meditation teacher and self-care coach. “It has numerous benefits that can have a positive ripple effect throughout your life.”
Some of the benefits include being able to show up for something outside of yourself, gaining a feeling of control amidst the chaos, and feeling more grounded. “Try a cactus if you forget to water, microgreens if you want to eat the benefits of your labor and have a short growing cycle, or a peace lily if your home doesn’t get a lot of light,” Schickli adds.
“Any form of self-care is impossible if you can’t even make it out of your thoughts,” points out Nicole Nina, a cognitive-behavioral therapist. Having a phrase that brings you inner peace, such as ‘I am safe’ or ‘this will pass’ can provide a chance to pause, reflect and really get the most out of your other self-care practices.
Make progress on nutrition and fitness goals with our “Plans” feature in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks.