Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Fran Jeffes

Self-care is our way of prioritising mental, physical and emotional wellness. It can both help manage symptoms of mental illness and help to improve overall well-being.

Here, we explore self-care in more detail, how it can help and our tips for incorporating it into your daily life.

What is self-care?

Self-care is the act of caring for yourself and making a conscious effort to do things you enjoy and will benefit from. It’s about being aware of your health, identifying your needs and taking steps to meet them.

It sounds simple, looking after yourself - after all, don’t you do that every day? But self-care can be more than eating, drinking and showering. Self-care can be whatever you need it to be, but you have to listen to your body to truly understand what it wants. For example, keeping busy and socialising may work for some people, but others may benefit from some alone time. 

To help break self-care down, The International Self-Care Foundation has set out a framework called the seven pillars of self-care. These are:

  1. knowledge and health literacy
  2. mental well-being, self-awareness and agency
  3. physical activity
  4. healthy eating
  5. risk avoidance and mitigation
  6. good hygiene
  7. rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines

Ensuring we are covering all areas in our self-care work can be a helpful way to think about self-care, working on any potentially neglected areas.

In this video, Kat Nicholls, content creator at Happiful, shares the seven pillars of self-care, according to the International Self-Care Foundation. Talking through what each one means; Kat also shares some tips if these are areas you're working on.

Self-care techniques

While self-care can be totally individual, there are lots of activities that fall under the self-care umbrella, such as meditation, exercise and maybe a night in with your favourite film. It depends on what you need. You might be able to relax and recharge short-term by spending a weekend with friends and family. Other times, you may need a complete lifestyle overhaul where your mental and physical well-being gets more attention.

It can be difficult to know what falls under self-care and whether you are caring for yourself, or thinking it’s what you should be doing. Take time to think about what may help you - what do you want to do? What will allow you to rest and refocus? Here are some tips that you may find helpful.

Spend time alone

Not all of us like it but spending time alone can give you some much-needed quiet time. It’s often the only time you can hear your own thoughts and reflect on your feelings. You may know what helps you to relax, like sitting down with a cup of tea and your favourite book, going for a dog walk, or having a long, warm bath. It’s important to schedule some downtime; we’re living in a busy world and making some time to fully switch off can leave you motivated, inspired and more productive later on.

Nourish your social life

Socialising with others is just as important as alone time. Feeling connected to other people can help you feel confident and valued, and help you gain a different perspective on certain situations. Try to spend time with your friends and family if you can - whether it be a big day out, a coffee date or a quick phone call. You’ll be surprised at how it can make you feel.

Without an active social life, you can feel isolated, but there are other ways you can make connections. Look in your local area for organisations such as book clubs, workout classes, or even volunteering to meet new people.

Set boundaries

The modern world asks a lot of us, with our careers, family and responsibilities, and it demands much of our time and energy. This has become expected of us, and we may be criticised for saying no to these demands - we may even criticise ourselves.

However, it’s important to know it’s not selfish to say no sometimes. Learning to say no without guilt can be empowering. Setting boundaries like this can give you the time and energy you need to rest, recharge and live a happy life, while also caring for your loved ones and succeeding in other areas.

Knowing when to say no, and not being wracked with guilt afterwards isn't always easy. You may worry you’ve let people down, but an important part of self-care is knowing when to step back and when to reach out for help. Counselling may be able to help you work through these difficulties, teaching you how to set healthy boundaries and know when your mind and body need a break.

Look after your physical health

Your physical health is just as important as mental health, and often the two go hand-in-hand. If you’re looking to introduce self-care into your lifestyle, take some time to look into your diet, activity levels and sleeping habits. When we’re swamped with work and feeling stressed our physical health can often be the first to dwindle.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re going through a difficult time, sleep gives your body the chance to rest and your mind the time to process your day. 

What and when you eat can also affect how you feel. Eating a balanced diet and staying active keeps you physically healthy and can make a big difference to your mental well-being too. Make sure you speak to a professional before making any big lifestyle changes, what you need may differ from someone else.

Talk about your feelings

If you’re finding it hard to cope, talking to others can offer a sense of relief. As alone as you may feel, there are people who care about you and support is available. Perhaps ask a friend to join you on a walk and ask if they’re OK to talk. It’s so easy to keep your worries to yourself, and a part of self-care is not allowing yourself to go through the journey alone. Self-care is about you and your health - if you need a helping hand, that’s OK.

If you’re going through a difficult time but don’t feel comfortable talking to a friend or family member, consider joining a local support group and speaking to people who understand how you’re feeling, or try online support. Alternatively, you can talk to someone trained to simply listen - Samaritans are available 24/7 and you can call them for free on 116 123. 

Consider further help

While self-care is about caring for yourself, accepting help when it’s needed is a big part of self-management. If you’re stressed, unwell or experiencing a mental health problem, going through it alone makes the journey all the more difficult. Counselling can help us understand how to take care of ourselves. A counsellor can help you learn how to cope with your stressors and show you how caring for yourself is nothing to feel guilty about.

As children, we’re taught to look after ourselves, from physical actions, like brushing our teeth daily and going to bed early, to learning how to talk about our feelings and resting when unwell. As adults, why should this be any different? If you feel you’re getting too wrapped up in life, but aren’t prioritising your health, remember that change is possible. Giving yourself time isn’t selfish in any way - it’s caring for your mind and body.

Learn more about counselling and find a counsellor to support you. 

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