Self care isn't selfish. We know this. And yet - when we make time to care for ourselves, we feel, well, guilty. It's time to let science settle this debate once and for all: is it good for us to practice Self Care Sunday, or are we simply giving ourselves an excuse to be selfish?
The Definition of Self Care
Before we dive into the science behind self care, it's important to know what self care is.
According to the UK Department of Health:
“Self care is a part of daily living. It is the care taken by individuals towards their own health and well being, and includes the care extended to their children, family, friends and others in neighbourhoods and local communities. Self-Care includes the actions individuals and carers take for themselves, their children, their families and others to stay fit and maintain good physical and mental health; meet social and psychological needs; prevent illness or accidents; care for minor ailments and long-term conditions; and maintain health and wellbeing after acute illness or discharge from hospital.”
“Self-Care is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, and maintain health and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.”
What we like about this definition is that it immediately addresses the fact that self care isn't selfish -- it is as much about taking care of ourselves, as it is about taking care of our families and communities. Self care initially evolved as a response to earlier iterations of our healthcare system, which put all the health and healing power in the hands of our doctors. Self care evolved as a means for empowering us to participate in our own care. Rather than self care being selfish, it is an act of taking responsibility and doing the work.
The Seven Pillars of Self Care
Sometimes knowing what self care is in practice can be overwhelming. Thankfully, the International Self-Care Foundation has broken it down into seven, concrete self care pillars:
- Health literacy – includes: the capacity of individuals to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions
- Mental Wellbeing – includes: knowing your body mass index (BMI), cholesterol level, blood pressure; engaging in health screening.
- Physical activity – practicing moderate intensity physical activity such as walking, cycling, or participating in sports at a desirable frequency.
- Healthy eating – includes: having a nutritious, balanced diet with appropriate levels of calorie intake.
- Risk avoidance or mitigation – includes: quitting tobacco, limiting alcohol use, getting vaccinated, practicing safe sex, using sunscreens.
- Good hygiene – includes: washing hands regularly, brushing teeth, washing food.
- Rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines – includes: being aware of dangers, using responsibly when necessary.
Now that we know the different pillars of self-care, let's see why each of them is scientifically good for us.
The Science of Self Care
Each self-care pillar has its own scientific benefits. Let's explore a few of them them together one at a time.
1. Health literacy – includes: the capacity of individuals to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions
Let's think about health literacy as knowledge. The more we seek out knowledge, the easier it is for our minds to understand and retain it - knowledge empowers our cognitive processing. Simply put, the more you know - the more you'll know, both in the short- and long-term.
2. Mental Wellbeing – includes: knowing your body mass index (BMI), cholesterol level, blood pressure; engaging in health screening.
When you visit the Self-Care Foundation's website, they go much deeper into mental health and talk about how it is directly tied to self awareness and the agency we feel we have over our lives and well-being.
Self-care is what gives us agency over our view of and experience of the world. It also lets us know when independent self-care isn't enough, so that we can seek out the care of trained medical professionals. Especially after the pandemic, which caused rates of anxiety and depression to soar, self care is key to our mental health. Self-awareness and introspection are known to not only boost confidence and self-esteem, but also reduce anxiety, boost creativity, and make us better partners.
3. Physical activity – practicing moderate intensity physical activity such as walking, cycling, or participating in sports at a desirable frequency.
One area where there is ample research that shows the benefit of self care is physical activity. When you exercise, not only do you improve your physical health, you bolster your mental health as well. Exercise releases endorphins into the brain that reduce your perception of pain, make you feel happier, improve your sleep. The endorphins that get released when you exercise also make you better to socialize with - proof again that self care isn't selfish.
4. Healthy eating – includes: having a nutritious, balanced diet with appropriate levels of calorie intake.
Similar to physical activity, when you engage in healthy eating, you bolster not only your physical health but your mental health as well. A healthy, well-balanced diet will make you more alert and focused. In contrast, an unhealthy diet leads to brain fog, fatigue, delayed reaction speeds and lack of focus. The impact of both of these options on the people and world around you is obvious.
Science-Backed Self Care Rituals
Now that you know that self care is scientifically good for you (and the world around you) here are 10 science-backed self care rituals for you to try:
1. Dance. Spend 15 minutes dancing in your room every morning before you start your day.
2. Garden. Visit your local nursery and pick a plant to nurture. Devote 30, device-free minutes to tending to your plant (and your mental health).
3. Be Your Own Advocate. Schedule your annual physical and while there, ask for resources to learn more about how to improve your health literacy.
4. Sleep One Hour Earlier. Sleep is essential to both our physical and mental health. Rather than binge-watching a show before bed while scrolling Instagram, turn off your devices and go to bed an hour earlier.
5. Stretch. With many of us spending hours each day sitting in front of a screen, stretching is more important than ever to release tension (and stuck energy!) in our hips and lower backs.
6. Hydrate. A key element of proper nutrition is adequate hydration. Challenge yourself to drink at least at least 64 ounces of water each day.
7. Meal Plan. The easiest way to make a healthy nutrition decision is to plan in advance. Visit your local farmer's market on Sunday and prep your meals for the week in advance.
8. Read a Book. Reading is a simple way to ensure you're maintaining your mental acuity and also ability to focus and pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time. No, reading articles doesn't count.
9. Schedule a Therapy Session. Whether you've never had therapy, or you have been in therapy regularly, it's never a bad idea to touch base with a professional. With mental health apps now readily available, speaking to a licensed therapist has never been easier or more affordable.
10. Join a Community. Self care is best practiced together. If you're in need of a community that will empower you to practice self love and self care more regularly, join us on Instagram @fredandfar