What Does Self-Care Mean — And Why Is It Important?

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
woman reading a book on the floor
© Ivan Ozerov / Stocksy United

Let’s state the obvious: The pandemic has been stressful, tiring and trying — and that’s putting it mildly.

So it’s no surprise that you’ve probably heard all sorts of advice about how important it is to practice self-care for your physical and emotional well-being.

But what is self-care exactly and — cue the skeptics — does it actually make a difference?

Morgan Turner, a licensed independent clinical social worker who sees patients at the UW Neighborhood Ballard Clinic, explains what self-care does and doesn’t mean, why it’s important and how to incorporate it into your everyday life.

What is self-care?

“Self-care is the necessity to do things that are good for our physical, emotional or psychological well-being,” Turner explains.

In essence, it’s doing something that helps your body, mind or soul feel good.

For some, that can mean taking care of your physical health by going on a walkeating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep or simply making sure you’re able to fit in a shower each day. For others, it can mean nurturing your mental health with daily meditation sessionspracticing a hobby you love or connecting with friends and family.

And, in some cases, it can even mean setting healthy boundaries by giving yourself permission to turn down invitations to certain activities or to stop engaging in a negative relationship.

There’s no one right way to practice self-care — it can take on a variety of forms depending on what you like and what you need.

“Self-care is anything that leaves you feeling enriched or nourished,” Turner notes. “It’s adaptable — what self-care is for one person will look very different for someone else.”

What counts as self-care?

While self-care activities are broad and wide ranging, there is a difference between something that’s actually helpful and something that’s harmful.

Take behaviors like going on an online shopping spree you can’t afford or downing a bottle of wine in one sitting. These may make you feel free and happy in the moment, but they ultimately result in negative consequences. (Hello, maxed-out credit cards and massive hangovers.)

Self-care activities have the opposite effect: In the end, they make you feel better and don’t result in any harm.

“Things like overspending or drinking too much are avoidance strategies that prevent you from having emotions for a certain period of time, and there is a negative consequence or impact once that avoidance activity is over,” Turner explains. “Self-care, on the other hand, makes you feel healthier, happier and more empowered as a consequence.”

That’s not to say that only 100% good-for-you activities count as self-care. If you can afford to buy yourself an expensive new sweater, feel free to get it for yourself. If you want to enjoy a candy bar or a glass of wine after a hard day, go for it.

“As long as it’s not something that you will later deem excessive or unreasonable, then there’s no reason not to treat yourself,” Turner says.

Why does self-care matter?

While practicing self-care is often touted as an essential way to help yourself, it’s easy to understand why skeptics aren’t exactly convinced.

After all, if you’re feeling swamped with commitments or overwhelmed by the state of the world, can taking a bubble bath really do much of anything?

Well, yes.

“Every one of us has limits, and it’s taking care of yourself that helps you have the energy and well-being to continue going,” Turner says. “If you don’t practice restorative activities from time to time, then you run out of steam.”

She likens self-care to putting gas in a car. You can only drive so far before you run out of fuel, but if you fill up every so often, you’ll never have an empty tank.

And there are very real consequences to running on fumes.

“The consequence is burnout, which can result in poor sleep and inefficiencies,” Turner says. “We see increases in rates of anxiety and depression, and if we’re feeling more anxious and depressed, it can take more time to get our basic tasks done, which can add even more stress.”

How to incorporate self-care into your life

So you’re convinced that self-care is important, but how can you realistically devote time to it when you have so much going on?

Reframe how you view self-care

If you’re someone who is constantly thinking of others, it can help to look at self-care in a different way.

Rather than thinking about self-care as something you’re doing for just yourself, picture it as something you’re doing to help yourself take care of others.

“You shouldn’t need an excuse to take care of yourself, but for some people that excuse can be helpful,” Turner explains. “It’s like the classic airplane analogy — if you’re not putting your oxygen mask on first, you aren’t able to help other people.”

Recognize your internal cues

For some people, a daily self-care practice just isn’t realistic — and that’s totally fine.

Instead of putting pressure on yourself to do something on the daily, make it a point to recognize the signs that you need a little self-care break.

“There’s not a set amount of self-care that people need,” Turner says. “Some people may feel they need more self-care when they’re tired, irritable or distracted, and knowing those internal cues can help them learn when to dial it up.”

Make mindful choices

On the flipside, another easy way to incorporate self-care into your life is to make it part of your regular routine.

While you may not have 30 minutes to spare for a nap or knitting session, you’re probably still finding time to eat and go to work. Instead of making self-care a separate activity, try incorporating elements of it into your daily activities.

“One of the easiest ways to practice self-care is to make mindful choices about things we’re already doing,” Turner notes. “Get a vegetable or fruit in there when you’re eating or take a scenic route that’s filled with trees when you’re going to work.”

Every little act of self-care you can carve out for yourself can help.

The bottom line

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we all need support to get through this difficult time. And sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference.

“There’s a marathon versus a sprint mentality,” Turner says. “You can only sprint so far. With the pandemic, we need to take a marathon mentality where we’re pacing ourselves and making sure we can make it to the end of the road.”