Six Types of Self-Care

Oct 14, 2023

Six Types of Self-Care and How to Use Them

Our modern, demanding world makes prioritizing self-care as important as ever.

But taking care of yourself isn’t just bubble baths and retail therapy; it involves actively nourishing your whole body-mind for a balanced life.

At its core, self-care is a set of practices that we commit to for better well-being, with origins that can be traced back to antiquity and meant to train us in living well.

Here are six types of self-care essential for living a good life:

  1. Physical self-care focuses on nurturing your body and includes regular movement, nutrition, and getting enough rest.
  2. Emotional self-care involves acknowledging and processing your feelings, seeking support from loved ones, and engaging in activities that bring you joy.
  3. Mental self-care involves taking care of your cognitive well-being by challenging yourself intellectually, practicing mindfulness, and engaging in brain-stimulating activities.
  4. Social self-care emphasizes building and maintaining healthy relationships, setting boundaries, and seeking social support when needed.
  5. Spiritual self-care nurtures your spiritual side through meditation, prayer, or connecting with nature.
  6. Lastly, practical self-care addresses time management and organization skills while encouraging work-life balance and finding fulfillment in whatever it is you do that pays the bills.

We each may have differences in how we approach these spheres, but getting our basic needs met is a prerequisite for successful introspection, growth, and self-cultivation. 

Once our basic needs are met, a good self-care plan serves as a roadmap to a happier and more satisfying life. 

This article expands on these spheres and discusses some simple ways to fold the six types of self-care into your daily routine. 

But first, let’s have a look at some not-so-pleasant aspects of self-care.

The Dark Side of Self-Care

It might surprise you, but the idea of self-care has a long history.

Indeed, the ancient Greeks widely embraced the idea that taking care of oneself was essential for leading a fulfilling life and gaining self-mastery. Numerous cultures have used various techniques to care for one’s mind, body, and spirit for centuries, aiming for self-cultivation and enlightenment.

As noble as the concept may sound, in reality, such autonomy hasn’t always been extended to everyone.

Historically, women and non-cis-hetero people, differently-abled persons, ethnic and religious minorities, and individuals of lower social or economic status have not necessarily been seen as fit for the kind of self-determination achieved through self-care practices.

In fact, those in power have often deemed these groups incapable of making rational or moral decisions about their own lives and bodies, thus in need of care and guidance.

Furthermore, people from marginalized groups are often pressed into caregiving roles for others, such as cooking, housekeeping, and attending to children. This allocation of labor provides those in more privileged positions the freedom to engage in higher forms of self-care such as contemplation, physical exercise, reading, and writing.

Moreover, the kinds of self-care practices these groups often do engage in, such as grooming rituals, are not always in the service of their own care or self-expression so much as to appease those in power and preserve their own status in the social hierarchy.

It’s really only been due to massive liberation movements over the past couple hundred years that we’ve seen a shift in beliefs about the universal right to autonomy and self-determination. Not all movements have been successful and there is inevitably some backsliding. 

It also doesn’t help that the scope of self-care responsibilities has widened to encompass mundane care tasks as well as higher-minded pursuits. For many of us, not only do we feel compelled to do the kind of inner work that is required for self-realization, but we must do that while also taking care of our own basic, daily needs and the needs of those who depend on us. 

Add to that the expense and gatekeeping associated with these various tasks and the expectations keep piling up.

It can feel like we are never doing enough. We can end up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the demands foisted upon us by the cultural dominance of “individual responsibility” that tells us with the right system and the right set of life hacks, we can do it all.

And if we can’t, we can be made to feel weak for asking for help. Meanwhile, those with means will happily outsource daily care tasks in order to get on with the business of living well.

Suddenly self-care doesn’t feel very kind and caring at all.

Add to that life experiences that result in grief, anxiety, or any number of mental, emotional, or physical health limitations and you’ve got a recipe for struggle.

But it doesn’t have to be so hard!

The importance of self-care for well-being

In reality, self-care is not a luxury, but the foundation of a healthy and fulfilling life.

We actually do need to ensure that our basic needs are met, ideally in such a way that leaves resources available for self-development.

When we neglect our own needs, we risk burnout and a decline in our physical and mental health.

Sure, we can outsource some of the care tasks, if we have the means or social support, but we must prioritize our well-being to ensure that we have the energy and resources to show up for ourselves and others.

Moreover, self-care is not just about preventing negative outcomes; it’s about enhancing our overall quality of life.

When we engage in regular self-care activities, such as good nutrition, enjoyable movement, mindfulness, and leisure pursuits, we not only bolster our physical and mental resilience but also foster a sense of contentment and inner peace.

This positive impact ripples into our relationships, work, and community involvement, enabling us to be more effective, compassionate, and engaged members of society.

In essence, self-care is a cornerstone of personal development and societal well-being.

Luxury, indeed.

Recent research supports this. A 2023 article published in the journal Nature finds that people who regularly practice a range of helpful self-care habits, some of which are discussed here, can significantly reduce their chances of experiencing depression, even when controlled for genetic risk.

Even more telling, the data show a causal relationship between these protective factors and depression risk, not just a correlation.

Let’s get to the six types of self-care.

Physical self-care: Nurturing your body

Taking care of your body is the foundation of a good self-care plan.

While food and exercise are important, physical self-care also means getting enough rest and sleep, scheduling regular medical checkups, and tending to basic personal hygiene.

Our bodies have a variety of needs and communicate them via an intricate feedback system that permeates the entire body. In order for self-care to be effective, we have to pay attention and notice when our bodies are trying to tell us something.

All we have to do is listen and be responsive.

When it comes to food, there is no big secret as to what constitutes a nutritious diet.

Plus, everyone’s nutritional needs and preferences are different and vary over time. The key is to eat enough to fuel your body and consume a diverse selection of foods within your budget that you genuinely enjoy.

You might need to experiment to find the right balance of fats, proteins, complex carbohydrates, and fiber-containing foods that works best for your body.

Learning how to eat more intuitively can hone the skills that help you use your own body’s feedback to guide your food decisions. A dietitian can help you with that if you get stuck.

Most bodies like to move, with respect to physical limitations.

Rather than focusing on deliberate exercise, think about everyday activities, too. All movement counts, whether it’s walking from the couch to the kitchen, engaging in household chores, or playing with your cat.

Find ways to move your body that feel good. If it feels good to push your physical limits, great! However, if leisurely strolls and gentle stretches better suit your body’s needs at the moment, trust in that choice.

Staying attuned allows us to recognize when our bodies are craving more activity or signaling for a bit of rest.

To be sure, many of us will have some form of physical limitation at some point in life. Seek advice from a physical therapist to find a movement routine that supports you.

Emotional self-care: Taking care of your mental health

Emotional self-care involves acknowledging and processing your feelings in a healthy way.

It’s important to create space for yourself to experience and express emotions without judgment. This may involve journaling, talking to a trusted friend or therapist, or engaging in activities that bring you joy and help you relax.

Going deeper, when we truly care about ourselves, we are cultivating a certain attitude that urges us to attune to our various needs and then respond to those needs with actions that serve our best interests.

An attitude of care includes kindness and self-compassion, both of which are mindstates that can be strengthened with practice.

Seeking support from loved ones is also an important aspect of emotional self-care. Surround yourself with people who uplift and support you, and practice asking for help when you need it.

Engage in activities that bring you joy, whether it’s listening to music, painting, or going for a walk in nature. Find what resonates with you and make time for it regularly.

When things get too hard or overwhelming, finding a good psychotherapist is a great idea.

Mental self-care: Stimulating your mind

Taking care of your cognitive well-being is essential for overall self-care. Mental self-care involves challenging yourself intellectually and engaging in activities that stimulate your brain.

This can include reading books, listening to podcasts, solving puzzles, or learning a new skill or hobby.

Practicing mindfulness is another important aspect of mental self-care. Take time each day to be present in the moment and focus on your thoughts and feelings without judgment.

This can be done through meditation, deep breathing exercises, or simply taking a few moments to pause and reflect. To get started, try the free Insight Timer app.

You can also check out this collection of guided meditations that combine mindfulness with self-compassion.

We all need some “check out” time now and then, but overuse of media, video games, and streaming content can work against us by dulling our intellect and cognition. It is wise to place judicious boundaries around such media usage to keep your mind sharp and clear.

Social self-care: Nurturing relationships

If there is one area that has clear benefits to overall health and happiness, social self-care is it, concludes a lengthy study on happiness from Harvard University.

Social self-care emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining healthy relationships. This involves setting boundaries and prioritizing your own needs in relationships.

When our own needs get met, we have more reserves to care for others. 

Understanding your own social needs and capacities helps you tailor them to the kinds of interactions that enliven you without depleting you.

While socializing and meeting new people is easy for some, it takes effort and courage for others to get out of their comfort zone. In time, the rewards of positive connections far outweigh the risk of feeling awkward. 

For example, introverts and extraverts have different social needs as well as needs for alone time to recharge. Here, knowing yourself is an important part of self-care.

Understanding our own capacities and respecting those of others is a form of deep boundary setting. 

Finally, engage in activities that foster connection, such as having meaningful conversations, spending time with loved ones, or joining social groups or clubs that align with your interests.

Spiritual self-care: Asking the Big Questions

Spiritual self-care involves nurturing your spiritual side and connecting with something greater than yourself. This can be done through practices such as contemplation, daydreaming, meditation, prayer, and spending time in nature. Find what resonates with you and make it a regular part of your routine.

Connecting with your inner self and exploring your values, beliefs, and purpose can provide a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life.

Take time to reflect on what’s important to you and engage in activities that align with your spiritual beliefs and values.

Cultivating an attitude of awe and wonder is arguably the core reason spiritual self-care is effective.

Wonder is the root of inspiration and thinking beyond our individual selves. Several scholars have written about the value wonder provides. Spontaneous awe is one thing, but deliberately seeking out the super-phenomenal is a powerful act of self-care.

Practical self-care: Managing your time and responsibilities

Practical self-care involves managing your life in a way that promotes balance and well-being.

This includes setting work-life boundaries and prioritizing personal time for rest and relaxation.

Create a schedule that allows for breaks and downtime, and delegate tasks when possible to alleviate stress and overwhelm.

Take care of your physical environment by keeping it clean and organized. A clutter-free space can promote a sense of calm and clarity.

Practice good time management skills by prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and breaking larger tasks into smaller, manageable steps.

Our brains are wildly neurodiverse. If planning, organizing, and executive function are difficult, then self-care involves seeking the right help to make these routines easier.

Lastly, many of us desire purpose and meaning in our work, but not all J-O-Bs provide that at all. We typically have to sacrifice some of our values and ideals just to climb the proverbial ladder.

Maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s worth it in the end.

And also, maybe we end up somewhere we realize we didn’t want to be in the first place.

A really good academic counselor or career coach can help with these questions.

Incorporating self-care into your daily routine

To truly experience the synergistic benefits of the six types of self-care, it’s important to make it a regular part of your daily routine. 

  • Start by identifying the self-care activities that resonate with you and make you feel good. 
  • Choose the ones that are easiest to turn into habits.
  • Make it fun and pay attention to the payoff.
  • Create a schedule or checklist to ensure that you are incorporating these activities into your day.
  • Give yourself some foundational “non-negotiables,” like brushing your teeth or eating a balanced breakfast.
  • Cultivate an attitude or intention of genuine care and kindness toward yourself from which to act.
  • Combine different aspects of care into one action:
    • mindful eating nourishes body, mind, and spirit
    • attending lectures is socially and intellectually stimulating
    • spiritual talks or religious services also provide a social element
    • joining a sports team cares for the body and is social

Remember that self-care is not selfish; it is necessary for your overall well-being.

By prioritizing these six types of self-care, you are investing in yourself and setting the foundation for a well-balanced and fulfilling life.

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