The title of this article specifically mentions “for wellness” — and not for "mental health" — because self-care is about the whole person. The philosophy or underlying assumptions beneath the concept of self-care recognizes that the body and the mind are not separate entities, but rather are related. Self-care helps promote physical, mental, spiritual, social, and emotional health (among any other realms an individual is attempting to balance).
However, this word has gotten watered down over the years. As a buzzword in the wellness world, many people who don’t truly understand what is meant by the concept use the term "self-care" to promote bubble baths and eating chocolate. While these activities can constitute self-care, it is important to recognize that self-care does not look the same for everyone, nor is it the same for a single individual across time. This misconception has resulted in some people concluding that self-care is not for them or not important for their life. However, self-care is for everyone.
What is self-care?
The interest in self-care has increased in popularity as people have become aware of the difficulties achieving work-life balance (or school-life balance for students). Self-care is the notion that human beings have the ability and potentially even the responsibility to safeguard their own state of well-being. This decreases how much folks are relying upon others to tend to one’s needs and places more autonomy on the self (Denyes et al., 2001).
A more recent model has identified six core domains of self-care including: physical, professional, relational, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Because people exist within many contexts, stress can pop up in any one of these contexts and therefore self-care should be tailored toward where we experience that stress at any given time.
- Physical Self-Care: This domain intends to care for the physical body in order to achieve optimal functioning. After all, we only have one body. Therefore, the ways to promote physical self-care include high quality and optimal quantity of sleep, physical activity or exercise, nourishing the body with food, and even seeking out and keeping up with medical support from doctors.
- Professional Self-Care: We live in a world where our profession is highly tied to our identity, our livelihood, and our sense of meaning and fulfillment. It is no wonder that our satisfaction and performance (or lack thereof) play a large role in our overall well being. Therefore, professional self-care involves minimizing job stress, burnout, and occupational hazards while simultaneously optimizing job engagement, performance, and satisfaction. For folks in helping professions, additional components have been suggested including avoiding secondary traumatization (emotional distress from witnessing and/or hearing about others’ trauma) and seeking compassion satisfaction.
- Relational Self-Care: The relationships that we are a part of help us to feel connected, loved, and meaningful in the world. Therefore, we must put effort into the maintenance of those relationships if we want them to be long-lasting. Engaging in relational self-care might mean increasing or strengthening our social support systems, engaging in altruistic acts, or even connecting with folks throughout the world virtually using online opportunities (like Fitness Blender!).
- Emotional Self-Care: While emotions are fleeting and both positive and negative emotional states are to be expected within our lives, when our life is out of balance, a negative emotional state can take over our experience. Emotional self-care is about engaging in practices to help to minimize or reduce negative emotional experiences and/or strengthen positive emotional experiences. This is done through recognizing destructive or less effective coping mechanisms (addictive substances, compulsive shopping, binge-watching television) and using those sparingly alongside coping mechanisms that enhance or elevate your mood (any activity that lowers your stress or you find comforting).
- Psychological Self-Care: The psychological component involves both intellectual pursuits as well as doing things to maintain awareness of the self. Promotion of intellectual satisfaction could look like partaking in activities of the mind like music, reading, cinema, puzzles, etc. To compliment this with the self-awareness component, one might engage in mindfulness practices, journaling, self-compassion, or anything that enhances awareness of the self and personal growth.
- Spiritual Self-Care: Finally, spiritual self-care involves anything that helps us to wrestle with our role or place in the universe. This can take any number of forms and is highly personalized, but often involves faith-based spirituality (participation in an organized religion or prayer) or could be non-faith-based (spiritual meditation, connection with nature, etc.). This is typically the least attended-to self-care domain, particularly for those who do not identify with an organized domain (Butler et al., 2019).
It is important to recognize that these are sort of falsely being pieced apart in this model. Our wellness or distress in any one of these arenas can have significant ripple effects on our wellness or distress in the other five contexts. Because of this, it can sometimes be hard to identify what your needs might be at any given moment.
I highly recommend that if you are unsure where to start or what your needs are, starting with self-awareness (psychological self-care) is a great place to start. This gives you the ability to stay present and recognize your needs.
What does self-care mean or look like for you? We would love to hear your ideas — I always love hearing others’ strategies and am continually learning from people I work with!
Butler, L. D., Mercer, K. A., McClain-Meeder, K., Home, D. M., & Dudley, M. (2019). Six domains of self-care: Attending to the whole person. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 29(1), 107-124.
Denyes, M. J., Orem, D. E., SizWiss, G. B. (2001). Self-care: A foundational science. Nursing Sciences Quarterly, 14(1), 48-54.