Just what is “self care”?

Scrolling through Tumblr recently, amidst the seemingly endless stream of Doctor Who fan art and cat memes, I saw a friend equate looking at corgi puppy photos with self care. This term, “self care,” seems to be a catch-all term for comforting activities, like whipping up a batch of cookie dough just to eat it raw. In the midst of finals or midterms, students might default to self care to survive. But how can we define self care? And what’s the difference between unchecked indulgence and legitimately beneficial activities? What are some good forms of self care?

Defining “self care”

When deconstructed, the words “self” and “care” imply a basis in medicine. A doctor develops a treatment plan and you are under his or her care. This plan could include a prescription for medicine or supervised treatment. Adding “self” to “care” gives the individual, the “self,” the choice in treatment. Whatever alleviates your discomfort or emotional distress is up to you. When doctors advise you to use self care, they are recognizing your capacity to choose what’s best for you outside the realm of medicine.

For some, this might mean taking a long walk in the woods and meditating in nature, for others self care could be eating a carton of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream while watching reruns of Friends. It could be free (listening to the sound of running water; wandering the stacks of a library) or it could have a price tag (buying that sweater you’ve had your eye on; getting a massage at the spa). Regardless, it helps you feel calm, relaxed, and good about yourself.

What “self care” is not

At best, self care is often a low-to-no cost method for alleviating depression, stress, anxiety, or any kind of overwhelming emotional state—even just a case of the blahs—without medicine. At worst, the term “self care” can be confused with “self medicating,” which often carries the connotation of using and potentially abusing alcohol and drugs. Likewise, taking yourself out to the mall and buying some new pajamas is a generally harmless form of self care—spending a big chunk of every paycheck on new electronics is not self care, that’s potentially a shopping addiction. On the popular TV comedy, Parks and Recreation, some of the characters have a “Treat Yo Self Day,” every October 13, meaning a day of excess indulgence and doing whatever you want, no matter how over the top. October 13 has now entered into the cultural conscious, with hashtags for #treatyoself and the ubiquitous meme.

The kind of self care medical professionals might have in mind could be treating yourself to some me time and being kind to yourself. But while a Treat Yo Self” day is good every once in awhile, it should not be confused with regular self care, which takes that idea and applies it on a smaller scale.

A Few Ways to Practice Self Care

With all this talk about what self care is or is not, let’s go over some effective ideas for self care activities, some judgment-free and harmless ways to be kind to yourself in times of emotional distress.  

  • Binge watching. A 2015 TiVo survey found 92% of respondents reported that they have binge watched television. The stigma of years ago has diminished. This could be considered a way of being in touch with the rest of the world, finding new fandoms and being included on debates and speculation played out on the internet and among your friend and family. Now that watching TV is a more social act, binge watching is a non-isolating way to practice self care.
  • Listening to an audiobook. Some might find listening to an audiobook similar to a guided meditation. Listening to a story to be entertained or enlightened is one of the oldest form of art.  Hearing someone read a book out loud to you brings back memories of being read to as a child. Many audiobook listeners like to listen and multitask, but you can also indulge just by sinking into a chair, stretching out on a bed, or putting the audio on speaker while you take a candlelit bath. This is one way to carve out some self care time.
  • Spending time with animals. Petting a cat, playing fetch with a dog, riding a horse…animal lovers will testify the healing power of pets, and the science backs them up. According to the National Center for Health Research, a 2002 study found that people who had a cat or a dog had steadier blood pressure and heart rate measurements after doing a performance activity (a simple math test) than people who did not have a pet, and they made fewer mistakes when the pet was in the room. If you have a pet, self care could involve playing with your cat, taking your dog for a walk, or feeding your fish. And even if you don’t own a pet, you can watch the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Cam, walk outside in nature to see wildlife and listen to the birds, or, yes, look at corgi pictures online.

Self care can be an effective way to be kind to yourself and potentially relieve stress or feeling overwhelmed. If you find cuddling with your cat as effective as Ativan, perhaps we should consider exploring the therapeutic benefits of self care.