For many of us, self-care refers to the things we turn to when we’re in desperate need of a mental health pick-me-up. The thing is, relying on it to put out fires after they’ve already started is not the best way to stay on top of your mental fitness. Self-care can and should be a tool you use to set Future You up for success, not just an emergency switch you pull during crisis mode.
“I always tend to view self-care as something that is done from a ‘preventative’ standpoint to help build your resilience to stressful and anxiety-inducing situations,” says therapist Siobhan D. Flowers, PhD, LPC-S, an adjunct professor at New York University. “Consistent self-care activities help to provide a protective buffer against stress, which allows you to handle a series of setbacks or overwhelming emotions in a much more rational, less impulsive way.”
Basically, self-care can boost your ability to deal with all of life’s B.S. when it pops up. Here, we asked therapists to share the little acts of self-care you can put into motion now to make life easier and less stressful for Future You.
1. Meal prep (or pack snacks) so that you have good food on hand when you need it.
“A great self-care tool is food prep,” says psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Stephanie Roth Goldberg, LCSW-R, founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC. “Knowing you have food at the time of a meal or snack helps build extra time into your day. It also sets you up to meet your needs physically.”
Mindfulness around eating—and focusing on consuming foods that we enjoy and make us feel good—is also an important way for us to show ourselves love, says licensed psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Babita Spinelli. “You’re saying ‘I love myself enough to pause, slow it down, nourish myself, and take care of me.’” So while meal prep may seem like just a technical convenience to get you through a busy workday, it’s actually a way to care for yourself without having to make it a big production. And it might even keep you from getting hangry and taking your stress out on your co-workers or partner.
2. Make time for movement in your day.
It’s hard to overstate the mental health benefits of exercise. It’s empowering, energizing, and may even help people manage the symptoms of mental health conditions, Spinelli says. When we move our bodies, we feel less tense and more ready to tackle the world. It sets us up for more good days ahead.
Because of this, Dr. Flowers suggests making time for moments of gentle, restorative movement throughout your day. “These simple acts include activities such as stretching, walking, and yoga, which allows any negative emotions or stress to be fully released from your body,” she says. “This act of self-care helps to reset your nervous system and restore your mind-body connection towards a healing and calm state in a way that is healthy and sustainable.” If you’re thinking this sounds great but not actually realistic for your schedule, try making legit calendar invites for movement breaks. When that meeting alarm goes off, hold yourself to it the same way you would a work meeting.
3. Set some boundaries with the people in your life.
“Boundaries are self-care,” Spinelli says. Hard stop. They allow us to establish our limits, to make sure we’re always doing things that are good and healthy for us, and to not allow toxic people or behaviors to mess with our mojo. You can set boundaries around pretty much anything: how much body-image talk you’ll tolerate at family gatherings, how accommodating you’ll be to a loved one who always asks you for favors, or how much energy you will put into caring for someone who tends to leave you feeling mentally drained every time you interact. Then, stick to the boundaries you set, even if the other person doesn’t like it. The way they react to your boundaries is on them, not you.
4. Make time for activities that support your values.
Doing things that give us a sense of purpose or support our values can ultimately help us increase our feelings of self-worth, Dr. Flowers says. So, make sure you’re blocking out some time regularly to do things that are in line with your beliefs—whatever they are. “Write out a list of your core values and map out a list of restorative activities that are in alignment with your values,” Dr. Flowers recommends.
“For example, if ‘freedom’ is a core value, then think about what that looks like in real life. When do you feel the most free? When you’re dancing to music? When you’re spending time in nature? Then create some time in your schedule to make room for these specific activities.” Maybe that means signing up for a dance class, or joining a local hiking group that meets weekly. No matter what it looks like, prioritizing your mental and emotional wellness in a way that is personalized to you can be really powerful, she says.
5. Make a few mood-specific playlists to blast when you need them.
“There is something about how music speaks to your soul,” Spinelli says. “For many, it brings so much happiness and joy.” Think about it: There are likely a handful of songs you associate with good memories, or types of music that just pump you up and really get you stoked. On the other hand, you can probably name a few tunes or musical styles (Bridgerton acoustic, anyone?) that help you feel calmer and reduce stress.
Make a playlist that you can turn to when you need to get pumped up, and another one for when you need to decompress. Future You will thank you for having some foresight to curate these mood-specific lists when you had the energy and clarity to do so.
6. Put gratitude on your calendar (literally).
Making time to remind ourselves what went well or what we did well is a huge boost to mental health. Spinelli recommends setting time in your calendar like you would an important work meeting so that you can take a minute to reflect on the good. “We can get so consumed by things that are negative and feel so hard, and sometimes we just need to pause and think about what we’re grateful for,” she says.
Ask yourself, “What’s the one thing that brought me joy today?” Even if it’s as small as enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning or listening to the birds chirp outside your window, acknowledging one positive thing can really shift your outlook for the rest of the day.
7. Actually take your vacation days.
At some point, it became almost like a badge of honor to never take vacation days. Cue the excessive burnout that basically all of us feel these days. Spinelli says that one of the best forms of self-care out there is taking time off work. “We don't need to prove to ourselves that we can power through,” she notes. “When we take a vacation day, we are able to relax and recharge and allow ourselves to have a break.”
Remember that rest is productive, and it’s OK to step away from the hustle and bustle to do it. (Especially if you get a certain number of paid days off from your employer—they’re yours, so use ‘em!) Look at your calendar and plan these intentional breaks, and try to do it before you run yourself ragged. Your work and personal life will both benefit from it, even if your time off involves a whole lot of doing absolutely nothing. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
8. Put limits on your social media use.
“Doom-scrolling made me feel so much better!” said absolutely no one, ever. Yet we all keep on doing it anyway. “Spending too much time on social media ingesting negative things and comparing ourselves to others increases our anxiety and depression and can make us feel like we’re not good enough,” Spinelli says.
She recommends creating a plan to slow your social media consumption and setting limits around how much we use it. That involves being selective about who you follow and unfollowing people who make you feel bad about yourself. When you cut back on social media time, you make more time for practicing other forms of self-care, or connecting with family and friends, Spinelli notes. And those are the things that will make life more rewarding in the long-run.
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.