I never thought of myself as a morning person. Hitting snooze on my iPhone alarm three times each day only left me rushing off to the office feeling groggy and so not ready to talk to anyone until I could down several cups of coffee.
But starting last year, waking up earlier completely changed my A.M. routine for the better. Doing my workouts in the mornings gave me more energy — and actual motivation to get out from under the covers. Now I look forward to my pre-work HIIT class or a park run because it’s one hour I have all to myself, before the emails and errands inevitably creep in.
Setting aside that time helps me feel more awake and ready to take on the day. It’s my form of self-care — and we could all use more of it, especially since we’re feeling just as anxious than ever.
Almost half of us — 45% to be exact — report laying awake at night due to stress, according to a 2018 American Psychological Association survey. But that shared sense of helplessness has grown alongside another phenomenon: self-care.
What is self-care?
The concept actually got its start in the ’70s, but now, more than four decades later, lots of self-care focused tools such as meditation apps like Headspace, podcasts like Forever 35, and newsletters like Girls’ Night In (more on these in a minute) are cropping up. With all the buzz surrounding the word, it’s easy to forget what it actually means to practice self-care. Today, experts have a clear definition for it:
“Self-care is one’s action is around our physical, emotional, relational, perhaps professional, educational, and, for some people, spiritual well-being that reflects the way that we take care of ourselves on the most fundamental levels,” says Helen L. Coons, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at the specializing in women’s behavioral health and wellness at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry in Aurora, Colorado.
It’s also helpful to know what self-care isn’t. “Many women confuse self-care with being selfish — that somehow taking care of ourselves is self-involvement or a selfish act instead of a self-respectful act,” she adds. “When women take care of themselves in all aspects of their lives, they actually have more energy, more reserve and depth to take of others at home, at work, and in their community.”Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
It’s all about making small and purposeful efforts — and not necessarily doing things alone. Self-care can look like blocking out time for a date with a partner, or planning healthy meals instead of reaching for sugary snacks. Setting those intentions can provide more motivation and pleasure and cut back on stress, worry, and for some people, irritability.
Why is self-care important?
“When we don’t take care of ourselves, we’re more likely to feel fatigued and get physical symptoms, like stress-related headaches or pain,” Dr. Coons says. “The biggest thing is being intentional of how we take care ourselves. When we’re not last on the task list, we have more energy to do what’s important to us.”
After the 2016 presidential election, Alisha Ramos wanted to spread a message of joy and happiness in response to the stress and burnout she and so many women were feeling. Her passion project — the weekly email newsletter Girls’ Night In featuring wellness tips, smart reads, and self-care memes — took off so fast enough that she quit her full-time tech job to focus on the 120,000 (and growing) subscribers.
“When I launched Girls’ Night In, self-care was pretty in new in everyone’s vocabulary, and now you see it everywhere,” she says. “When you’re a mom, you have so many demands on you from your family, your community, you’re consistently taking care of everybody around you except yourself. This reminder to put your oxygen mask on before helping others is really resonating because it’s not a message that our society sends to mothers.”
Ramos helps conceptualize her own self-care as an imaginary pie chart in her head, with slices for spending time on work, family, friends, and herself. And whenever one of those sections gets out of whack — like, say, not seeing friends for three weeks — it’s time to make a practical plan to change that.
“Girls’ Night In is ‘Girls’ plural for a reason,” she says. “It’s creating that balance of staying in but also making sure you’re carving out time to connect with those around you that you really care about.”
Friends Kate Spencer and Doree Shafir have done just that, building an entire online community for self-care by starting the popular podcast, Forever 35, in January 2018 — and a subsequent Facebook group with more than 12,000 members.
“We hear from a lot of people who say that they’ve never given themselves much care, in whatever way that means for them,” Spencer says. “A lot of people are like, ‘I never thought of the fact that I deserve time to do a thing that I want to do.'”
The bi-weekly episodes started thanks to a mutual appreciation for skincare. “I’m almost 40, Doree’s past 40; we found ourselves spending more time putting lotion on,” Spencer says. But it has since evolved into an exploration of self-care that still includes the vanity table, but also covers everything from to finding underwear that’s actually comfortable to setting boundaries with taxing family members.
“There’s a misconception that self-care is something we have to spend money on,” Shafir adds. “We get that question a lot actually and I think what we try do with the podcast is to show that are ways for you to take care of yourself that don’t cost a lot of money or are very inexpensive. It’s not just about buying the $200 serum.”
The inherent definition of self-care means it’s not going the way of maple syrup cleanses and jazzercise. Research advocating eating healthily, getting regular exercise, and taking care of our mental health might outlast any buzzword, but whatever you want to call it, self-care isn’t going away.