Mental health and self-care: what is it and how can you practise it?

What is self-care and how can you use it to improve your wellbeing? We offer some practical tips and ideas.

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Today, the idea of self-care is considered an important part of maintaining positive physical and mental health, but given the popularity of the term, its real practical applications can sometimes get lost.

In this article, we’ll outline exactly what self-care is, the impact it can have on your general health and wellbeing, and suggest some effective self-care tips that anyone can use.

What is self-care?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines self-care as:

“The ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider”.

The ultimate goal of self-care is to maintain healthy mental and physical illness, achieved by engaging in various activities that are geared towards that goal.

Self-care is an umbrella term for engaging in all kinds of things that impact our health in a positive way – emotionally, physically, socially and spiritually.

Self-care includes focusing on things like your:

  • Hygiene and health
  • Lifestyle (including sports and leisure activities)
  • Professional life
  • Personal relationships
  • Environment (including your living conditions, both personally and in your community)
  • Socioeconomic circumstances (including your personal income)

Why is self-care important? Benefits of self-care

Self-care can sometimes be dismissed as a luxury, or something you can only engage in when you have the time. However, we can all go through daily challenges in our lives, increasing our stress levels or leaving us feeling anxious or unhappy. Self-care is designed to reduce the impact of negative emotions like anxiety, stress, anger and sadness, and help us to maintain balance in our lives. It also helps us to develop a sense of purpose and belonging, motivating us to achieve life goals and generally improve our quality of life.

It can also be very powerful for people suffering with mental health conditions. Self-care might be used to help:

  • Recover from a mental health disorder, such as depression or an anxiety disorder
  • Manage symptoms while you're going through treatment for mental health

Self-care also has a physical health element too. Physical activities, like exercising, eating healthily and sleeping well are also forms of self-care that have positive long-term effects on both our physical and mental health.

Types of self-care

There are many different types of self-care, involving different activities. Depending on you as an individual, and any difficulties you’re currently facing, you might need to focus more on certain types of self-care than others.

self care types with examples

Mental self-care

Mental self-care is all about fine-tuning your brain and helping your mind to stay healthy. Keeping our minds sharp is vital to things like our performance at work and making good decisions. It might also contribute to good brain health in the long-term.

Mental self-care can also relate to maintaining a healthy inner dialogue with ourselves. Building a positive mind set and working on your self-esteem are things you can work on as part of mental self-care.

Examples of mental self-care:

  • Reading a book
  • Solving a puzzle
  • Engaging in self-compassion and acceptance

Physical self-care

Your body and your mind are interconnected. Spending time focusing on keeping them both healthy is an important aspect of a holistic self-care routine. They often interplay with one another too, as keeping your body fit and healthy will lead to you feeling happier and less stressed.

Physical self-care also relates to how you’re caring for your body’s physical health. Eating a healthy, nutritious diet, sleeping well and attending any necessary doctor’s appointments are all aspects of physical self-care too.

Examples of physical self-care:

  • Getting enough sleep each night – adults should aim for between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night
  • Exercising on a daily basis – even a short walk can do wonders for your wellbeing
  • Taking any medication prescribed by your doctor

Emotional self-care

Emotions such as anger, anxiety, stress, sadness and grief are all natural responses to things that are going in your life. Emotional self-care can help you to process, accept and deal with these emotions in an effective and healthy way.

Emotional self-care could be physical or creative in nature, or it could be something as simple as chatting with a friend – anything that helps you connect with your feelings.

Examples of emotional self-care:

  • Spend time with friends and family as often as you can, if this is something that brings you joy
  • Write a daily gratitude journal
  • Attend a therapy session

Spiritual self-care

Spiritual self-care refers to your spirit, or the idea of something bigger than yourself. Spirituality, which is defined by the idea that there's more to the world that what we see and feel in the physical world, is often associated with religion. However, you don't need to be religious to adopt spiritual self-care practices. Anything that helps you develop a deeper understanding or connection with what’s around you counts as spiritual self-care.

For people undergoing treatment for addiction, spirituality can play a significant role. Fellowship groups, where likeminded people share their experiences of battling addiction, often include elements of spirituality.

Examples of spiritual self-care:

  • Meditation
  • Attend a religious service
  • Try some mindfulness sessions

Social self-care

Humans are social beings. Harvard’s famous study of adult development, which has now been running for over 80 years, suggests that we’re happier and healthier when we have strong social connections. Establishing and maintaining those connections is exactly what social self-care is all about.

Everyone’s different, so take some time to work how much time you should dedicate to developing the relationships you have with family, friends and colleagues.

Examples of social self-care:

  • Going for a coffee with a friend
  • Phoning your parents for a catch-up
  • Organising and attending an after-work meal with colleagues

Other types of self-care

The above are widely considered to be the five core types of self-care, but there's no absolute set list. Many other types of self-care exist, with plenty of overlap between them. You might also come across:

  • Practical self-care: anything that helps you organise or achieve something within an important aspect of your life, for example, engaging in personal development
  • Personal self-care: taking some time to work on yourself, your contentment and your life goals, for example, having a solo spa day
  • Space self-care: fostering greater confidence and happiness in the space around you, ranging from your home environment to your community, for example, cleaning your home
  • Financial self-care: working to make you more confident in yours or your family’s financial situation, for example, budgeting for the month
  • Work self-care: setting out to achieve something in your professional career, for example, getting a new job
  • Intellectual self-care: cultivating a healthy mind-set and satisfying your inner curiosity, for example, learning to play a musical instrument

Self-care tips

Need more inspiration? Here’s a whole host of ideas and activities you can do, that cover the entire self-care spectrum:

  • Organise your wardrobe
  • Go for a walk at lunch
  • Learn a new skill that'll help you in your job
  • Sign up to the gym
  • Organise a reunion with an old friend
  • Book in some time for self-reflection
  • Offer to walk someone’s dog when they need it
  • Have a clear out of old clothes, books and other things you don’t need
  • Drink an extra glass of water a day
  • Start going to yoga classes
  • Find a better deal on your car insurance
  • Bring your bedtime back an hour
  • Offer to do some gardening or shopping for your neighbour
  • Re-decorate a room in your house
  • Join a new sports team

Page clinically reviewed by Zhila Alfrouz (BA, MA, BACP), CBT Therapist/Counsellor at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester.

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