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What Therapists Want You to Know About Self-Care

By Lauren Krouse
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
August 10, 2023

Since the pandemic began, many of us have realized just how essential self-care is. Addressing your most fundamental needs, like following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and getting quality sleep, doesn’t just help you get through the day—research suggests it can also lead to a longer and more satisfying life.

Eight in 10 adults say they plan to prioritize taking better care of themselves. But nearly half wish they had more guidance on how exactly to go about it, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of Samueli Integrative Health Programs.

That’s where therapists can come in. Although mental health professionals help people navigate significant life changes, along with a slew of conditions like depression and anxiety, they’re also a rich source of straightforward advice on how to practice self-care.

If your go-to self-care strategies could use an upgrade, here are a few pieces of wisdom therapists say they often share with their clients.

Daily Check-Ins Can Help Keep You Grounded

It’s easy to wake up and mindlessly run through your day, especially when you have a lot on your plate. Starting your morning with a personal check-in can help you stay more mindful of what you can handle throughout the day, and help you make sure you have the support you need, says Krystal Jackson, a licensed professional counselor in Farmington, Connecticut, and author of the workbook Getting Real About Self-Care.

To perform a check-in, Jackson advises asking yourself two key reflection questions each day:

  • How do I feel today?
  • What do I need to feel my best?

To stick with this practice, schedule time on your calendar as a nonnegotiable part of your morning routine.

You Need More Self-Care Than You Think

It’s tempting to take self-care in large but infrequent doses—the long-awaited beach trip, an occasional massage. But that may not be enough to help you contend with everyday stressors.

“A more sustainable idea is a smaller dose, far more often,” says Jenny King, assistant professor of applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University and creator of the Take a Break card deck, a collection of 28 mind-body practices, what she calls micropractices, that can quickly soothe the stress response.

For example, one easy and discreet micropractice is to give yourself a finger massage. “Gentle, repetitive, rhythmic pressure on each finger helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, lower your heart rate, improve circulation, and increase activity in the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system [the part that promotes rest],” King says.

Simple acts of self-care may seem small, but sprinkling them throughout your day can help recalibrate your nervous system more regularly and, in time, make stress more manageable, she adds.

Your Relationship to Worry Can Change

Do you find yourself filled with worry? In-the-moment self-care strategies like mindfulness meditation can help you change how you interact with stressors and stay present, says Max Maisel, Ph.D., a Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist. Here’s a three-step mindfulness exercise he recommends that you can do anywhere, anytime, even if you only have a few minutes:

  1. Visualize balloons floating in front of you.
  2. Bring a worry to mind. Then, imagine placing it on the balloon and watching it float away.
  3. Keep letting balloons pass, pinning on worries, and allowing them to flow by without engaging with them.

You may also want to try our game Uplift, which has a similar theme.

Studies suggest that learning to observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance—instead of being overly attached to and overwhelmed by them—can help you cope with difficult emotions and become more adaptable and action-oriented when issues do arise.

You Can Cultivate Self-Compassion

Another piece of self-care we don’t always talk about is how to soothe yourself immediately before or after a stressful event. “[In these situations,] simple kindness turned inward can radically change your life,” says Caitlin Billings, a licensed clinical social worker in the Bay Area.

Billings suggests making a list of what can trigger feelings of positivity or calm by activating any of the five senses. For example:

  • Sight: a beloved painting or the view from your bedroom window
  • Sound: your favorite music or calming soundtrack
  • Scent: a favorite food in your pantry or your essential oil of choice
  • Taste: herbal tea or a piece of chocolate
  • Touch: cool water running over your hands or petting a four-legged friend

By exposing yourself to a sensory experience you know helps comfort you, you’re recognizing that you’re vulnerable, that what you’re experiencing is burdensome, and that you feel compassion for yourself, Billings says. In other words, gaze at your backyard, play the music, or cuddle up with Fido when you need some soothing.

It’s Crucial to Have a Plan

“I have found the most important part of self-care is actually setting a plan for it,” says Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping teens and adults cope with stress.

Not sure where to start? Try following these steps:

  • Think of one thing you want to start doing for your health, like taking a 20-minute walk outside every day, or signing up for a new workout class.
  • Make a specific goal for when you’ll do it, where, and for how long.
  • Identify potential barriers, like your children’s pick-up schedule or a high number of work demands.
  • Plan out where you can realistically fit it into your schedule and put it on your calendar.

“While this part of self-care is less glamorous than the actual participation in the activity, I have found a lot of my clients start to feel better just by planning something to do for themselves,” Chait says.

Also, research suggests that setting goals boosts motivation and ups your odds of making healthy habits last.

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