Life doesn’t always proceed smoothly, to put it mildly. When challenges you face prove difficult to handle, it can tax your emotional health, especially if your overall well-being already has some room for improvement.
When you feel physically and emotionally well, it’s often easier to navigate stressors in healthy and productive ways. That’s what makes self-care — practices that promote mind and body wellness — so important.
Self-care doesn’t look the same for everyone, however. Your go-to approach for managing stress may not help your best friend. And even partners in close, healthy relationships tend to have different needs for things like companionship, exercise, and leisure time.
Yes, that means there’s no one-size-fits-all self-care checklist, despite what the internet might tell you. So, how are you supposed to know what works for you?
To get some insight, we reached out to P. Jeremy Dew, licensed professional counselor and clinical director of The Oakwood Collaborative in College Station, Texas.
“It’s important to think about the needs currently going unmet and the self-care that is uniquely fit to meet those needs,” he says.
A solid self-care checklist will reflect your specific needs, habits, and time considerations. It might take a little effort to develop, but you’ll probably find this investment entirely worth it in the long run.
As you get into the specifics of self-care, use these questions to help keep your plan workable and relevant to your needs.
Do I see myself using this approach?
Your self-care plan won’t have much benefit if you don’t put it into action.
Maybe you’ve read about the benefits of gardening and want to start a garden, but you really dislike dirt, and grubs and worms churn your stomach.
While you can absolutely work to overcome these issues, there’s no need to force yourself to do something you don’t enjoy.
If you truly don’t see yourself sticking with something, remember: You have plenty of other options.
In this case, an indoor garden of succulents or other easy-care plants might be a good alternative.
Do finances factor in?
Say you join an expensive gym with the goal of exercising more. If you only stop in once a week, you might end up feeling more stressed by the cost than recharged from the increased activity.
At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with spending money on something that really works.
The cost of getting takeout on work nights instead of trying to cook (not your strong point) may add up quickly. But if doing so allows you to spend more time with your children and you can afford it, this value may be worth it.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure the cost doesn’t increase your stress.
Am I trying to do too much?
You can burn yourself out on self-care.
Overloading your schedule with activities meant to boost wellness can leave you the opposite of relaxed.
Too many commitments, even enjoyable ones, tends to increase stress, since this leaves you without time to simply sit and process your own thoughts — another essential part of self-care.
Do I have the time?
When it comes to self-care, best practice means regular practice. Self-care should happen all the time, not just when you feel most stressed.
After all, regularly tending to needs can help prevent you from reaching a point of high stress in the first place.
Try to make self-care goals you can accommodate alongside work and other responsibilities.
What’s worked in the past?
Think of a time when you felt relatively happy and positive about life, even if you have to go back to childhood or late adolescence. What contributed to this mindset?
Perhaps it was the relative absence of responsibilities, or a sense of playfulness you can’t easily access now.
“Self-care is most beneficial when it’s informed by your own story,” Dew says.
He explains specific memories can help recreate calm and wellness in your life.
“When you recall moments of childhood that felt innocent, these moments are often more deeply impactful as you work to invite that experience into the present,” Dew says.
As you begin to identify key moments and actions that helped you find peace before, explore ways to incorporate them into your present life.
Physical self-care needs include the things that help keep your body functioning well.
When considering physical self-care, identify the needs you have, and note any steps you currently take to meet those needs. If you notice any areas where you’d like to make changes, emphasize these in your self-care plan.
Most adults need around 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Not getting enough quality sleep on a regular basis can affect your mood, concentration, and health.
It’s pretty common not to get the recommended amount of sleep, but here’s the good news: You can often improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep on your own.
Good self-care can involve setting aside your dread of the doctor’s office and getting any concerns checked out in a timely manner.
You may not see the point of an annual checkup — particularly when you’re uninsured — if you haven’t noticed any problems and you generally feel fine.
But regular visits with a healthcare provider can help you catch health concerns in early stages, before they become serious. Issues that start small can quickly get worse and affect other aspects of health, such as sleep and appetite.
If you’re in the United States, the Health Resources Services Administration’s database of health centers can help you find affordable care, even if you don’t have insurance.
Good nutrition doesn’t just involve the types of food you eat.
Sure, eating a balanced diet and mostly choosing foods that nourish you over foods that offer few health benefits certainly helps protect your health.
It’s just as important to consider how you eat: Do you wait until you feel ravenous and then devour food between meetings, as you rush from home to work, or in front of the TV?
Or do you give yourself enough time to eat slowly, at regular intervals, so you can pay attention to what you eat and enjoy your meals?
Mindful eating and intuitive eating are two approaches that can help you feel more satisfied with food, which can make it easier to enjoy any foods in moderation without restricting yourself or setting stressful limits.
Exercising can feel like an unpleasant chore when you don’t like what you’re doing. If it feels fun or even recreational, however, you’ll probably want to do it more often.
When adding exercise to your self-care plan, choosing activities you enjoy (or at the very least don’t mind doing) is key. If you hate running, consider investing in a bike or pair of roller skates instead of running shoes.
Get more tips for starting an exercise routine.
People often use “intimacy” as a stand-in for “sex.” But other types of physical contact also play an important role in wellness.
Touch is a basic human need, and touch starvation can have health consequences.
Looking for some self-care strategies that fulfill touch needs?
- getting a massage (professionally, or swap massages with a friend or partner)
- hugging a loved one or giving yourself a hug
- finding a cuddle buddy
- getting a pet or volunteering to pet-sit
Mental needs refer to cognitive needs as well as mental health needs. In other words, you’ll want to consider what energizes your brain and keeps you feeling sharp.
Stress levels play a significant part in mental health.
A good way to get started is to explore things currently stressing you out. How are you managing those issues? Can you get rid of any? If not, how can you handle them more effectively?
Strong boundaries help you protect the time you set aside for yourself, which can, in turn, help keep stress in check.
Setting these limits might involve:
- saying no when you’d rather not do something
- not volunteering for extra work
- communicating needs directly to others
Expanding and strengthening your mind can have a lot of benefit for overall wellness.
Boosting cognitive skills might involve:
- learning something new
- playing brain games to improve concentration
For many people, counseling makes up an important part of self-care. Working through any mental health symptoms with a professional can help you see significant improvement, which can have positive benefits for emotional and physical health.
Professional support can help even when you don’t have specific symptoms. Everyone faces challenges, and letting them build up can lead to burnout and stress.
If you feel overwhelmed for any reason, therapy provides a space to explore coping strategies and talk through anything on your mind.
Worried about the cost? Here are five budget-friendly options.
Taking time to expand and develop as a person is another way to care for yourself. This can lead to a more authentic, meaningful life, strengthen your sense of self, and improve your relationships.
Exploring your existing knowledge and worldview can help you start identifying areas that might benefit from growth.
- What can I learn about different cultures?
- How can I spend time with people I wouldn’t usually spend time with?
- How can I further my education in some way?
- This job doesn’t satisfy me. What are my options for moving forward?
Letting yourself zone out and relax from time to time gives your brain space to recharge, which promotes optimal function.
If your attention often wanders, this could suggest you’re not getting enough mental relaxation. Self-care for you, then, might include some technology breaks when you feel overstimulated. Try things like doodling, nature walks, or short naps to let your brain rest.
Setting aside time for play and fun also makes a difference. A schedule full of things you have to do and nothing you want to do is often an early sign of impending burnout.
Feelings and emotions can provide clues about what’s missing in your life. Emotional self-care revolves around getting in touch with your feelings, learning to understand what they have to say, and using this information to better protect emotional health.
It’s tough to let your emotions guide you when you don’t know what they mean.
Make it a goal to spend more time sitting with your feelings, since this makes it easier to acknowledge emotional needs and recognize when they go unmet.
If you have trouble connecting with your feelings, meditation or journaling might be great additions to your self-care plan. Sharing your feelings with people you trust can help, too.
Most people need to spend some time interacting with others in meaningful ways, though specific needs for social interaction can depend on personality and other factors.
If you often feel lonely, you might need to spend more time connecting. If you often feel overwhelmed, even irritable, around people, consider making alone time a bigger priority.
You can fulfill socialization needs by spending time with friends and loved ones, but branching out and making new connections in your community can also have benefit.
Your emotional state can guide you to the type of interaction you need in any given moment.
“Consider whether you want to be around friends who will help you remember or friends who will help you forget. Friends who help you remember make space for you to feel deeply. Friends who help you forget might help you care for yourself by inviting you to do something fun,” Dew explains.
Most of us want to know (and be reminded) that other people love us.
Affection might involve spoken words, kind gestures, or physical touch. Lacking this type of emotional support can trigger feelings of isolation, even anxious or depressed thoughts.
It’s not always easy to get the affection you need, especially if you don’t have many friends, are between relationships, or don’t have interest in dating.
If you need more affection in your life, consider a pet. Not only do they provide affection and companionship, they sometimes help with other self-care needs, such as exercise and getting outside.
Everyone needs time to unwind on their own.
This could mean:
- taking a personal day from work when feeling disengaged
- creating private space for yourself at home
- making time for your favorite hobby
However you choose to spend your time, private relaxation is essential for emotional health, so alone time in some form should show up in every self-care plan.
Self-discovery plays an important role in self-care. Learning more about your specific needs makes it possible to find more productive ways to take care of yourself.
Once you’ve identified your personal needs, you can start to create a list of daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly needs.
Keep in mind that self-care needs often change over time, particularly when taking into account what’s happening in the world.
A self-care plan developed during COVID-19 stay-home orders or Black Lives Matter activism, for example, might reflect specific feelings and conscious behavior changes you may not have considered before.
Think of your self-care plan as a living document, one that grows with you. Revisiting it regularly can help you identify less impactful strategies and add in more beneficial approaches.
When you struggle in certain areas, explore the potential barriers keeping you from meeting those needs. A therapist can always offer guidance and support here, too.
If sticking to your plan proves challenging, visual reminders could help. You might try:
- a wall chart
- a self-care planner or journal
- reminders on your smartphone
Self-care needs vary a lot from person to person, and this guide isn’t exhaustive.
As you evaluate your personal needs, you’ll probably discover some other important considerations along the way.
Chances are, you’re already taking some effective steps to meet your needs. When you feel at your best, pay attention and note what you’re doing, consciously or unconsciously, to support your wellness. Sometimes, self-care is as simple as doing more of that.
Just remember, at the end of the day, you know what’s best for you.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.