Maybe your usual self-care techniques aren’t working. Maybe you’ve heard so many people mention their ~self-care routine~ that your head is spinning with exactly how many routines you—a single human with other responsibilities—is supposed to be maintaining at any one time. Caring for mental and emotional health shouldn’t be this hard, right?
No worries—we went directly to the experts to both simplify self-care and hyper-focus on the practices that really matter. Consider your self-care strategy leveled up.
First, let’s get on the same page about what we mean by self-care. Social media and the internet might have confused you into thinking it’s something you purchase—a hydrating face mask, a fragrant bubble bath, or a special journal. While all of those things can be self-care, your wallet doesn’t actually have to be involved.
And, sorry, self-care doesn’t always feel especially relaxing, either. “Self-care behaviors can sometimes be enjoyable and relaxing, but many of them might actually be difficult and be things we may struggle to do,” Dr. Wang explains. Mind-blowing, right? “Self-care can include having difficult conversations with people. It may involve setting boundaries at work to allow you to live more sustainably.”
Basically, self-care is all about actions that help us protect our mental, emotional, and physical resources, Dr. Wang says. Regularly caring for ourselves makes it easier to be resilient when life inevitably throws a wrench in our plans.
That’s why it’s best to think about self-care as a preventative measure, rather than a cure. “Our ability to rise to difficult occasions depends on how well resourced we are before something difficult happens,” Dr. Wang says.
Which means: Get started now! Here are five super simple ways you can level up your self-care with tools you’ve already got available.
1. Add a break into your work or school day.
AKA, chill out for a second. We’re not robots, and we can’t expect ourselves to work at a backbreaking pace all day. Jessica Stern, PhD, clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, says that we all tend to run out of our emotional and mental batteries really quickly. “Taking a break is an opportunity for us to recharge that battery,” she explains.
If breaks aren’t a regular part of your day, try to add a small one to start. There aren’t any rules about what you do during that break, Dr. Stern says—it’s really individual. The goal is to have the break actually feel like a break, though. If a quick scroll on social media does that, great. If it doesn’t, you might want to try other techniques—a quick meditation, for example, or doodling on a piece of paper, or even just staring out a window.
2. Make a list of your core values.
Pop quiz: What values do you try to live by? If you have trouble answering that question, sit with it a moment.
If you’re wondering what the heck values have to do with self-care, knowing your values can help you figure out where to focus your energy. “We are inundated with so many requests, demands, and obligations across a single day,” Dr. Wang says. “Some may be important. Some may be urgent. But some of them are simply noise and cause us to become distracted from more important things in our lives.”
Start by making a list of the values that come to you. They might be things like creativity, dependability, courage, compassion, honesty, or humility. Maybe you value time with friends, family, and pets just as much as you value time recharging by yourself. And remember—these are the values that truly matter to you, not values you think you should have based on social pressure.
This little values audit can be a great self-care habit because it can serve as a tangible gut check when you start getting overwhelmed. “When we have core values that we live by, we now can cross-reference and check whether these demands align with our core values and future goals,” Dr. Wang says. “If they do not, we need to seriously consider whether it is worth spending our time on these things.”
3. Pick something to say “no” to today.
When’s the last time you said “yes” to something you really didn’t want to do? If you’re like most people, it’s probably recently. So here’s a fun little self-care challenge: Say “no” to something you don’t want to do. Today, if you can.
“We oftentimes get pressured into doing things that we don't want to do: extra projects at work or going out to plans that we didn't necessarily want to spend the money on, that type of thing,” Dr. Stern says. Saying “yes” when we don’t want to can build resentment or leave us exhausted.
That’s why “no” can be an act of self-care in our lives. “When we prioritize our ‘no’ responses, we give ourselves the gift of really enthusiastic ‘yes’ responses,” Dr. Wang explains. “When we say ‘no,’ we are setting boundaries and also conserving energy and time for things we truly want.”
If you’re worried about the consequences, that’s something to work on, too. “We might assume that something bad might happen or that someone might reject friendship or whatever it might be, or we might get fired,” Dr. Stern says. “More often than not, it's not gonna be as bad as we think it is.”
The best way to prove that to ourselves? Practice saying “no.”
4. Take 10 seconds to tune into your feelings.
Much of self-care is paying attention to how you’re feeling and making adjustments to support yourself. But what if “feeling your feelings” is brand new to you?
A good place to start is by paying attention to what different emotions might feel like in your body. “The body does not lie,” Dr. Wang says. “When I am stressed, my body starts to tell me by disrupting my sleep, decreasing my appetite, making my skin break out, and increasing muscle tension,” she adds. “Sometimes my body is aware of my distress before my brain has caught on.”
Most of us are too used to tolerating mild to moderate forms of stress, she says, and so we’ve tuned out these subtler cues that something is off. “One way to tune into yourself is to give yourself time to really notice how your body feels,” she explains. Literally, like right now—are you clenching your jaw? Are your shoulders tense? How did you sleep last night? These can all be clues to how you’re feeling.
When you have more than 10 seconds, Dr. Wang recommends trying progressive muscle relaxation, which can help you tune into how your body feels and also practice releasing tension and calming your nervous system. YouTube has options aplenty if you’re looking for a guided version.
5. Be honest with the next friend you see.
Self-care isn’t just about doing things by yourself, for yourself—it’s also about connecting to your community, Dr. Wang says. The next time a friend asks how you are, she recommends you don’t default to, “Fine, thanks.” Instead, give a sprinkle of honesty—like, “You know, this week has actually been pretty tough.”
The goal isn’t to unload on your friend, but to let them know you’re available for real talk. By going first, you’re showing that you’re willing to get real if they want to. “This opens the door and signals to the other person that there might be an opportunity for vulnerability and compassion,” Dr. Wang says. “When we share how life is really going with others it gives them the opportunity to reciprocate back with their own real life emotions, concerns, or struggles.”
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.