Self-care is a term that’s so ubiquitous it’s almost lost its meaning. (Thanks, marketers.) But at its core, the best self-care ideas are all about taking time away from your day-to-day responsibilities to make sure that you — your heart, soul, and body — have what you need to handle another day. A good self-care routine is what you turn to when your favorite activities to relive stress — like talking to your friends or trying a new DIY face mask — just aren’t cutting it. Not finding joy in the things you love? That’s a sign you need some serious self-care.
Of course, you can always start by reading some of the most helpful books about self care, but when it comes to the best self-care ideas to try at home, try focusing on the following stress-reducing techniques so you can get your mental health back on track and start seeing things more clearly. These (totally free!) techniques were recommended by therapists and backed by science, so you can rest easy knowing that they're tried-and-true practices proven to work. While self-care is an ongoing process, and never a means to an end, the following things to do by yourself can help you work towards being resilient, calm, and better equipped to handle whatever life throws your way.
Whether you call it self-care, me-time, or “break glass in case of emergency,” here are the best self-care tools and activities to have in your back pocket when times are particularly tough.
Make sure you’re meeting your basic needs.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943, includes physical needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.
“Sometimes, it can be tempting to think of indulging in something that you want to do as self-care, when indulging in an urge that comes from depression or anxiety usually just serves to reinforce the emotion it came from,” Julia Koerwer, LMSW, director of people at Brooklyn Minds Psychiatry, tells Woman's Day. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to care for yourself, Maslow’s hierarchy can point you in the right direction.
Are you eating, drinking, and sleeping enough? If not, start there. If you’re struggling to feel safe — especially when it comes to housing or income — look into what options are available to you for added security. For love and belonging, run an inventory on who you can reach out to for connection, or what you can do to create new bonds, Koerwer says. For esteem, spend time doing something that makes you feel masterful — maybe a favorite recipe, if you’re a baker, or time with an instrument, if you’re a musician. Lastly, with self-actualization, spend time evaluating your values, goals, and the steps you can take to get closer to them.
Moving your body is one of the most effective tools for stress reduction. First, it tends to take your mind off of things—it’s hard to think about daily stressors when you’re huffing and puffing up a mountain, for example. It also boosts your endorphins, according to the Mayo Clinic, which are the magic hormones behind the “runner’s high.”
But you don’t have to run to get the benefits of moving your body, and you’re better off starting with a brisk walk or any form of activity that you genuinely enjoy than, say, entering a marathon. Whether it’s dancing, kicking a ball around, hula hooping or any other activity, just get moving!
Try a weighted blanket (or a good hug).
Hugs are good for your health, Diana Concannon, PsyD, associate provost at Alliant International University and licensed psychologist and crisis response expert, tells Woman's Day. “The firm, constant pressure of a hug can help calm an overactive sympathetic nervous system,” she says.
If you’re not in a situation where you can safely get a hug, weighted blankets can stimulate similar benefits. Research is still thin on their effects, but some small studies have suggested weighted blankets help people sleep better, according to the Mayo Clinic. You can buy a top-rated weighted blanket, or make your own using poly pellets or beads, Concannon says.
Meditating at home — which is just about bringing your focus to the present moment — has a whole host of benefits. “Even as little as five minutes of mindfulness meditation per day has positive outcomes on such conditions as fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” Concannon says.
There are several different types of meditation from mindfulness meditation to concentration meditation to using mantras, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and all can result in deep relaxation. Guided meditations, like those offered by the best meditation apps, are a good place to start.
Focus on your breathing.
If meditation sounds too complicated, simplify focus on your breathing. “Our breath is a direct line to our heart,” Teralyn Sell, PhD, a psychotherapist and brain health expert, tells Woman's Day. By focusing on our breath, you can lower both our heart rate and blood pressure, according to Harvard Medical School. Sell recommends taking 5-7 minutes to breathing exercises that lengthen your exhale. A breathing app, like Breathe2Relax, can help. Practice when you’re not feeling stressed, Sell recommends, so that your body knows what to do when it’s time for a little self-care.
Take a nap.
When your body tells you that it's given all it can give, the best thing you can do is listen. Allow yourself to take a breather and relax into a nap. You'd be surprised how good you'll feel mentally and physically once you wake up.
Spend time outside.
A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research followed 94 adults who visited one of three urban parks. The participants were given fitness trackers, but weren’t told how long to stay or what to do while at the park, and then were asked about their wellbeing. Well-being scores rose for more than half of the participants, even those who didn’t exercise.
The next time you’re feeling frazzled, go to your nearest green space or other outdoor area and just ... hang out.
Spend time with your dog.
“Spend some time with man’s best friend,” Tasha Holland-Kornegay, LPC and founder of WellnessIRL.com,tells Woman's Day. “Time with animals lowers the stress hormone cortisol and boosts oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates the feelings of happiness.” According to the National Institutes of Health, pets can also encourage mindfulness.
Schedule your worry time.
“I like to suggest that clients ‘schedule worry time’ and practice consistently making a specific time each day to let yourself worry, plan and watch the news,” Annie Miller, MSW, LCSW-C, LICSW, a psychotherapist near Washington, D.C., tells Woman's Day.
During this time, you can take note of anything you’re worried about and make a plan for mitigating that duress. Rather than a low-level set of worries following you all day, you’ll be able to put aside time to deal with what’s bothering you. “Scheduling worry time in this way trains your brain to have a contained time to think about difficult things," Miller says.
You’ll want to keep your designated worry time away from bed time, and you’ll need to practice redirecting your brain if it starts to worry outside of yours scheduled time. Hopefully, in time, it would lead to lower stress levels.
Practice positive thinking.
“Our brains are wired to protect us from danger and have an inherent negativity bias, and are thus more attracted to troubling information,” Miller says. In other words, it’s a lot easier to think about all the things that are going wrong than to remember the things that are actually going right.
Combat that natural tendency by finding positive things to focus on. People who think more positively live longer, have lower rates of depression, and better cardiovascular health, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s not entirely clear why, but it could be that the ability to think positively helps you recuperate from bad situations, limiting the duration and effect of stress.
Turn off your phone.
Whether you realize it or not, your phone can suck a lot of time and energy out of you. Having to deal with email, social media, Slack, news apps and more right at your fingertips is very demanding. Tune your phone out for a bit and tune into yourself. Even one hour away from the demands of your phone can be freeing.
Cut down on caffeine.
Caffeine can make the body feel constantly “on” and unable to relax. And relaxation is often what we’re after when it comes to self-care.
See if you can minimize the amount you’re imbibing. “Caffeine is most obviously and readily found in coffee, but it can sneak up on people in places they wouldn't expect, like diet sodas, energy drinks, and even tea,” Brittany Ferri, OTR/L, CPRP, a licensed occupational therapist, certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner, and clinical trauma specialist, tells Woman’s Day. If you already have a lot of caffeine, going cold turkey can be a problem, she says. Instead, just try to cut back.
Sit in silence.
It's rare to find a quiet moment when we live in a world of constant noise. Allow yourself to quiet the mind and those racing thoughts to sit in silence and appreciate the peace of the moment. It can be a rewarding part of self care to become aware of your thoughts and surroundings when you welcome quiet if even for a moment.
Join a support group.
Feeling like you’re alone in your feelings, or not having anyone to speak to about them, can be terribly isolating. Support groups can offer a reprieve. “Talking with others who have similar concerns can help you work through your own concerns or learn more about what you are living with,” Ferri says.
Balance your blood sugar.
Your nutrition can have a real effect on how stressed you feel, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you start your day with sugar or other simple carbs, you may want to change your strategy. “Protein helps to stabilize your blood sugar,” Sell explains. When your blood sugar tips too much in either direction, your stress response gets engaged. Eating a bit of protein 3-4 times a day can help even things out. Complex carbohydrates can also help, and may even increase the amount of serotonin in your brain.
Write a gratitude list.
“One of the best ways research has found to reduce anxiety and depression and improve your overall well-being is to write a gratitude journal,” Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, therapist and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, tells Woman’s Day. In a 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 201 undergraduate participants wrote down a few sentences each week. The control group wrote about what had irritated them, a second group wrote about neutral events, and a third group wrote about what they were grateful for. Folks who wrote what they were grateful for reported feeling more optimistic, exercising more, and complained about fewer physical ailments.
To experiment for yourself, write down a handful of things you’re grateful for from the day before bed. “These can be as broad as your kids, or friendship, or love, or as specific as the egg sandwich you had for breakfast or the wicked new phone case you just bought,” Bilek says. In time, you’ll hopefully start to feel your outlook shift toward the positive.
Spend time with friends.
According to Psychology Today, face-to-face contact with friends can reduce the risk of depression. Penciling in a few dates with friends have been known to improve self-esteem and aid in stress relief.
Make yourself a fancy dinner.
It's common for people to reserve fancy dinners for memorable dates, celebratory occasions, or special company. However, you can benefit from enjoying a fancy dinner any day. Treating yourself to a good meal is great for your physical health. Plus, treating yourself to a fancy meal is a great personal reminder that you are worthy of special treatment.
Work on the budget.
Emotions and money are very closely related. Specifically, stress can be a direct result of how you handle money. Even if more money would solve a lot of your problems, knowing exactly how much money you have, future expenses, and creating plans to get a better place financially can alleviate some tension you may be feeling.
Deactivate social media.
Considering how divided society can be in regards to everything under the sun, it seems, social media can be a bit much at times. A 2018 study found a connection between frequent social media use and feelings of loneliness. There's also been a link between social media and depression, anxiety and poor sleep quality.
Deactivating social media for even a few days could help you sleep better, improve personal connections and feel better about where you are in life once you stop comparing yourself to social media feeds.
Terri Huggins Hart is an award-winning journalist, lifestyle writer, parenting writer, and race and culture writer who is convinced she's figured out the trick to living life with no regrets: do what you love, give love, lead with love. She's also the writer of an active monthly newsletter sharing tips for motivation and emotional well-being. When not writing, she can be found working out via Zumba or pole dancing, reciting her favorite affirmations and covering her adorable kids in kisses. You can learn more about Terri on her website, TerrificWords.com, or following her on social media @terrificwords.
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