Self-Care: An A To Z Guide
A more or less definitive guide to taking care of yourself.
By now, so much has been written about self-care: what it is, what it isn't, what it can do, what it can't. It has been bastardized, commercialized, reclaimed, redefined. And while there's no shortage of information on self-care out there, we wanted to create a more or less definitive guide to what self-care means to us and how you can apply it to your own life and health — a kind of one stop shop for your mind, body, and soul when you need it. So as firm believers in showing up for yourself — both to ease whatever personal baggage you carry and to make existing in this world a little easier — we’ve put together a long list of ways you can try to be a little more okay. We hope it helps.
Anything that contributes to your overall well-being. There are a lot of definitions of self-care out there, but at the end of the day, it’s about taking care of yourself. Whatever that means to you. For some people, it’s doing the bare minimum to take a little weight off your shoulders as you try to make it through the day; for others it’s all about indulging and pampering and de-stressing. For most of us, it’s a wide spectrum of decisions and actions and intentions we can make to soothe and fortify ourselves against all the shit we deal with in the world. Because we all have our shit.
Along those lines, self-care usually falls into at least one of these four categories:
Physical: the things you do to take care of your body, like moving and nourishing it, drinking enough water, taking care of hygiene, and keeping up on your medical appointments.
Mental: the things that promote positive emotional and psychological health, like developing coping mechanisms, cultivating self-awareness, and learning to be vulnerable.
Social: the care and keeping of support systems in your life, as well as setting boundaries and distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy bonds.
Spiritual: the intangible ways you nourish your soul and create meaning in the world, like setting your values, practicing religion or magick, or creating meaningful rituals.
We’re not here to tell you the right way to do self-care, because honestly, it’s about what you need it to be. The self-care ideas you’ll find here are meant to be a starting point. They are big and little, preventative and curative, concrete and abstract. Not every idea will apply to you and your needs, but they will be here for you to draw on when you need inspiration. Experiment with them — find out what works for you when you’re angry, when you’re sad, when you’re lonely, when you’re grieving, when you’re numb, when you’re stressed. Commit to prioritizing caring for yourself and finding the things you can do every day that make you feel stronger.
And through all that, discover your own definition of self-care. So let's continue!
Audre Lorde, the writer, poet, and civil rights activist who said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Keep her in mind and contextualize your self-care efforts.
Aromatherapy. Bring 👏 on 👏 the 👏 lavender. Start with this guide to essential oils.
Ask for help. Because you can’t and shouldn’t do everything alone, especially when you’re struggling.
Balance. We all know, logically, that life is about balance, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to put into practice, or that it’s always going to be logistically possible to do so. But it’s worth aiming for an equal balance of things that mentally revitalize you vs. tire you out; otherwise, you’ll feel burnt out all the time. If you don’t know where to start, make a list of every aspect of your daily life (work, chores, hangouts with friends, sports, sleep, grocery shopping, etc.) and note whether each activity charges your ~battery~ or if it leaves you feeling depleted. Be super specific, and be super honest with yourself! Like, yes, exercise should revitalize you in theory, but if your current exercise habits are cutting into time with friends and your sleep schedule, it might actually be depleting you. Once you’ve got your list, figure out what changes you can make, or what you can add that would help restore some balance to your life.
Boundaries. As in, set them. Think about the things in your life that drain you and the ways you can mitigate their impact. Does your friend dump relationship problems on you too much? Set a date for catching up specifically about that stuff, and tell them you’d rather not text about it in the meantime. Do you always get stressed out when people borrow your things and don’t return them in a timely manner? Stop lending them out. Figure out when you’re putting others’ needs and feelings before your own and how you can start looking out for yourself.
Breathe. Controlling your breath through deep breathing is a powerful tool to manage stress and anxiety. Follow along with these exercises if you want a guided approach.
Candles. As Lindsay Ostrom writes in her fantastic holiday survival guide for sad people, “I fully embrace the cheesiness — there is something just so magical about a flame. Since it gets dark so early now, every night I come home from work and I light a candle. It feels special and sacred and spiritual, and I don’t need to explain anything to anyone.” Also, we’re big fans of burning the nice candles more often instead of waiting for “special occasions” that never seem to come.
Celebrate small victories. Listen, sometimes doing your laundry or speaking up for yourself *is* a big deal. Instead of brushing things off for being small potatoes or beating yourself up for things you wish were easier, let yourself feel good about the little ways you show courage and resilience every day.
Clean. A clean space is so calming and affirming, and it’s an easy way to show up for yourself — you’re basically treating yourself like a guest worthy of nice towels and a shining sink. It’s also a good form of emergency self-care. If you’re pacing around and/or kind of spiraling and know you should do something but don’t know what it should be, try going and cleaning your bathroom. Like, don’t overthink it; just go. Why? Because it tends to be a relatively short and contained chore — unlike, say, cleaning your closet, which you’ll start with good intentions and then somehow spend $75 ordering hangers online before falling asleep on piles of clothes — but it’s just long enough to help you get clarity on what to do next, to leave you feeling accomplished, and to basically press the reset button in a panic moment.
Coloring books. You’re never too old for the relaxing satisfaction of taking color pencil to paper and making something beautiful.
Complain less. Complaining = ruminating on negative thoughts. And ruminating on negative thoughts takes a big toll on your mental health in the long run. Don't hold stuff in, by any means, but make an effort to express those negative thoughts once and move on — or at least keep an eye on when revisiting an issue again becomes unproductive.
Compliment — yourself or other people. A few genuine, kind words go a long way.
Cook. Being in the kitchen engages all of your senses. And there’s something incredibly soothing and rewarding about watching a bunch of ingredients become something delicious that nourishes you. If you need a recipe to start with, try this lemon butter pasta, or peruse this list of recipes to make when your life is in shambles.
Ditch things that aren’t serving you anymore. If you have things in your closet or in your home that make you feel worse when you see them — like clothes that you plan on fitting into again "one day," or mementos of an old relationship — toss them.
Doctor. Find one! Having a doctor you love comes in handy in so many ways — including referring you to where you need to go if you start having issues with depression, anxiety, stress, or any host of mental health-adjacent things. If you don’t have a general doctor, make a point to get one.
Dry shampoo, or other hacks and shortcuts that make life easier when you’re having a hard time looking after yourself. Sometimes, self-care is just about finding ways to feel a little more human.
Earth. Nature nurtures, and connecting with it can be incredibly healing. (Also, the sheer vastness of nature often helps put our own problems in perspective.) And there are so many ways to let the earth take care of you. Get a little sunshine, breathe fresh air, spend some time near water, visit a public garden, read under a tree, feel the grass or sand beneath your feet, learn about octopuses or other cool animals, visit a natural history museum, study the moon...the list goes on and on.
Eat. When life gets hard, properly nourishing your body is often one of the first things to go. But not eating (or eating foods that make you feel physically worse) is going to leave you feeling depleted and make it that much harder to do all the other things on this list. So please remember to eat. (If you need some help, these not-overwhelming ways to nourish yourself when you're depressed is a good place to start.)
Educate yourself on your mental health. Guy Winch's Emotional First Aid is one of our favorites if you need a place to start.
Escape. Find a way into a world that isn’t your own — play the Sims, build a dollhouse, daydream, or immerse yourself in a book. Or if you need to get out of your head, drive somewhere new. Take in the open road. Book a trip.
Feel your feelings. It can be tempting to think of self-care as something that should make you feel better. And it’s not not that. But sometimes shitty feelings aren’t really problems that can really be solved, and it’s good to be aware of how coping mechanisms — even seemingly healthy ones! — can keep us from doing the hard work of sitting with our grief, anger, guilt, or shame. These feelings need to be felt and not rushed through or ignored.
Finish something small. Do a chore, answer an email, find a stamp and actually mail the bill, etc. Basically, choose one thing on your to-do list that you know you can actually finish, and then do that thing.
Follow along with this interactive flowchart designed to help you when you feel like shit.
Forgive yourself for your mistakes. You’re human and you’re bound to mess up. Don't beat yourself up for decisions that turned out to be the wrong ones. Your decision probably made the most sense with the data available to you. And as therapist Ryan Howes told us, “When you forgive yourself for your past decisions, you're free from the blame and can find the bandwidth to manage the current issues in your life.”
Fresh clothes. Even if you’re not leaving the house, change into clean clothes to feel a little more okay.
Friends. So much can be said about the positive impact friends can have on our mental health and lives in general. You might be tempted to isolate yourself when you’re going through something — which, understandable. A lot of us feel the need to put our best face forward, even to our friends, or to not burden them with our problems. But so many negative emotions breed in isolation, and good friends will show up for you when you need a little care. So enjoy their company, lean on them, and appreciate the ways their presence is healing.
Garden. The physical and mental benefits of getting fresh air speak for themselves, but many, many people find the act of taking care of plants to be restorative and transformative. As one BuzzFeed Community member put it, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
Gratitude. As therapist Andrea Bonior previously told us, “Reminding yourself of what you have leads to appreciation that helps you feel measurably more content.” So make gratitude a part of your life, whether that’s by updating a gratitude journal daily, making a little gratitude list in a particularly low moment, tipping super generously, or writing a thank you letter to someone who you really appreciate.
Habits. Good self-care isn’t usually something you do just once — it’s about building an arsenal of fortifying habits. Commit to doing the things you know make you feel better regularly, not just as damage control. (Schedule them, if you need to!)
Hobbies. Hobbies provide you with a sense of accomplishment, teach you about yourself, introduce you to new people, concepts, and facts about the world, and give you something to do besides getting into Facebook flame wars. If you know you need a hobby but haven’t been able to land on one, here are some options: 8 Creative Hobbies To Take Up This Year, 25 Creative Hobbies To Try When Everything Is Awful And You're Not Okay, and 19 Cheap And Easy Hobbies That'll Make You Say, "Why Didn't I Think Of That?".
Hydrate. Water, water, water, water, water. Even at rock bottom, you will feel a tiny bit better if you’re not also dehydrated.
Hygiene. This can be one of the first things to go when things are rough, and it’s also one that can make you feel a bit more human when you do actually do it. So check in with yourself: have you brushed your teeth or showered lately? Try to do that, and be gentle with yourself if you have to take it slow.
Indulge. For us, indulging as a means of self-care isn’t really about blowing your money on something expensive or otherwise numbing your feelings through consumption; it’s more about allowing yourself to feel true, genuine pleasure in a given moment. (It’s hard not to be present when you’re burning The Fancy Candle or drinking a really wonderful cup of tea, y’know?)
Interrogate your thoughts. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming your negative thoughts are automatically true just because they popped into your head. Your ~inner voice~ can be a bitch and a liar, so call it out.
Joke. Sometimes all you can do is make light of the shit you’re going through, because when you treat things as less serious, they can feel less serious — and less heavy. Find some way-too-relatable memes or crack a few darkly funny or self-deprecating jokes.
Journal. Not only is it satisfying as hell to get all your emotions out on paper, but expressive and reflective writing has also been shown to help your mental well-being. If you need some inspiration, give this post about journaling for mental health a read or check out this year of journaling prompts.
Know yourself. So much of taking care of yourself is rooted in actually knowing yourself and your needs. Make a concerted effort to observe yourself — your habits, your patterns, your ticks, your vulnerabilities. Gathering this info over time will turn you into an expert on your needs. Bonus points: record your findings in a special journal.
Knit. As Alanna Okun puts it, knitting dims the roar — of anxiety, of sadness, of anger, of any unsavory feeling that needs smoothing over. She writes, “Crafting is a lot like sex or yoga, how it shrinks your immediate world down to this cozy, manageable size where all you have to focus on is what’s right in front of you; unlike sex, at the end you get a new pair of socks or a coaster.”
Let it out. It can be so satisfying to release your emotions instead of sitting quietly with them swirling inside. And while you can’t always yell your rage from the rooftops or hurl your sadness off a mountain, you can probably find a decent outlet that gives you the same satisfaction. Allow yourself a hearty cry. Take up a kickboxing class. Create a messy work of art.
Listen to your favorite song, podcast, or TED Talk. And remember that the right playlist can really change/set a mood, and can legitimately make the time spent in your home (or your car, or at work) feel more pleasant overall.
Lounge around in something comfy. We’re big fans of intentional lounging, especially when it’s done wearing something clean, cozy, and that feels *slightly* more elevated than your mismatched grungy Sunday outfit. (Think: matching jammies, a fluffy robe, the perfect hoodie and basketball pants. If nothing else, at least aim for putting on a clean pair of underwear.) The clothes we wear matter and can have a big effect on our overall mood; it’s worth it to put on clothes that make you feel better, not worse.
Make your bed. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to feel a little bit more okay and in control.
Manage your expectations. We don’t mean “be pessimistic” — just be mindful that your expectations aren’t unrealistic or setting you up for disappointment. There will be good days and bad days, positive outcome and negative outcomes. And like empowerment coach Christine Hassler once told BuzzFeed, the expectation that we should be happy all the time or always get our way will leave anyone with an expectation hangover.
Massage. Let someone else work the tension out for a change.
Meditate. Meditation is one of those things that you kind of just have to say “Sounds fake, but OK” to, and then give it a try (probably for just 3-5 minutes to start!) with a super open mind and basically no expectations. We’re fans of Calm and Headspace as good places to start.
Move. The frustrating thing about exercise is that it’s both incredibly good for your mental health and incredibly difficult to do when your mental health is suffering. You’ll have to find what works for you — it might be as small taking a regular trip around the block — but it’s worth it once you do. In case you need it, here are some not-overwhelming tips on getting some exercise when you’re depressed.
Name what’s upsetting you. We’ve all been there: some straw breaks the metaphorical camel’s back of your emotions and you have a strong reaction to a small argument, misunderstanding, hiccup, or whatever. Get in the practice of reflecting on what’s really making you feel like shit — is there something else going on that needs to be addressed and soothed?
No. Say it more. Say it without apologizing. Say it because one of two things inevitably happen when you say "yes" when you want to say “no” — either you do things at the expense of your own well-being, or you make excuses and flake later at the expense of your relationships. Don't do that. Be gracious and polite, sure, but look out for yourself.
Nostalgia. Find comfort in your old favorite songs, books, and shows. Flip through photo albums and relive your favorite memories. Catch up with an old friend. Make your go-to childhood comfort meal.
Organize. Here’s the thing: being disorganized — and the feelings of being anxious, embarrassed, and flustered that come with it — typically doesn’t feel great. It’s also pretty hard to take care of yourself if you can’t, say, find a your prescription to get it refilled. So investing some time and energy organization is a really good way way to feel a little bit better in the long run. (If you don’t know where to begin, try starting with the things you most often feel stressed, embarrassed, or guilty about, or with the things you regularly find yourself apologizing for.)
Own your mistakes. Part of looking after yourself is knowing when you need to learn to do better.
Pamper. They may waaay oversimplify the concept of self-care, but sheet masks and bath bombs became the misguided face of the self-care movement for a reason. Spoiling yourself feels good. It’s relaxing and comes with the glow of doing something nice for yourself.
Pets. Because sometimes you just need to cuddle your best animal friend.
Plan. As Greg McKeown notes in his book, Essentialism, “When we don't purposely and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people — our bosses, our colleagues, our clients, and even our families — will choose for us, and before long we'll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.” So take the time to plan short-term pleasure and long-term goals — aka, actively make your life what you want it to be.
Play. Play outside, play make-believe, play games. See if you can’t transport back to that feeling of free-spiritedness. If you have to play with your niece or nephew or your friend’s kids to reawaken some childlike wonder in yourself, do it. They’d probably appreciate a babysitter.
Puzzles. As Rachel has written, when it feels like the world is falling apart, literally putting something back together is powerful. It’s also a good activity for when you want to unplug, but aren’t quite sure what to do with your hands.
Quiet. Having background noise — in the form of crowds, music, Netflix reruns, whatever — is the default. Carve out quiet time for existing without distraction.
Quotes. Quotes can seem sort of cheesy...until you find the exact perfect quote that speaks to your heart and/or lights a fire under your ass. So start a quote collection on your phone or in your journal and give it a read when you need a little affirmation.
Reach out to someone you care about. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, and it can be through text or a phone call or whatever. Just talk to someone you like, about anything.
Read. Read books and articles and comic books and blog posts and poems. Read the stuff you *actually* like and don’t force yourself to finish a book you aren’t feeling. Life’s too short!
Relieve. Check in with yourself and find out what aches and pains — physical and emotional — you haven’t been tending to. And then tend to them.
Routines. There’s comfort and joy in routines, particularly ones that we’ve designed ourselves, with our specific needs in mind. And, of course, figuring out what your self-care routine looks like is kind of the whole point here. So don’t feel like you have to constantly be trying something new and exciting; sticking with what works is perfectly fine.
Spirituality. There’s no one way or reason to be a spiritual person. It could be about bringing creativity, curiosity, and wisdom into your life. It could be about strengthening your relationship with yourself or the world around you. It could even be about finding some higher guiding path to make existing a little easier or more meaningful. Whether that’s practicing religion or magick, doing rituals, meditating, learning astrology, or whatever speaks to you, spirituality gives you a way to tap into something beyond yourself.
Spruce up. Do whatever you need to be really feelin’ yourself. Put on your favorite outfit. Do a deep-dive into makeup and hair tutorials on Youtube and give them your best shot. Take a million selfies so your camera roll becomes a beautiful mosaic of your beautiful face.
Support group. Friends are great, but it can also be incredibly healing to seek out a group of people who are going through the same things you are. There are a lot of support groups out there, if you go searching — groups for people with specific mental illnesses and chronic conditions, groups for grief, recovery groups, queer groups, anger management groups, groups for family and friends of those who are suffering, the list goes on. Psychology Today’s group therapy and support group finder is a good place to start.
Talk about your feelings. As hard as it can be to open up, talking about what you’re feeling can really lighten your load. The more you express your true feelings with other people, the more you realize that we all kind of have the same insecurities and hangups and fears. And when that happens, you’re less likely to take things personally and internalize the comments and behaviors of other people.
Tarot. As Anna has written, practicing tarot is a way to reflect on yourself, your life, and your needs while feeling somewhat magical. Sometimes you feel weird focusing on yourself or making your problems front and center, and if that’s the case, the ritual of reading tarot cards gives you a permission slip to be intentional about it.
Tea. Loose leaf, bag, herbal, black — brewing a cup never fails to create a small pocket of peace in the chaotic world. We love this soothing tea recipe.
Therapy. The very act of allowing yourself a space to focus on you and only you is one of the most compassionate things you can do for yourself — but it feels weird. We’re all used to relationships being reciprocal, a balance between talking and listening, venting and helping. Which is what makes having a therapist so magical. Yes, it’s a professional relationship, but it’s also a weird, wonderful, intimate one, probably unlike any other connection you have. Here’s this person in your corner whose job it is be an expert in supporting you. Where else can you get that?
Track your habits and moods, maybe through a bullet journal. When you keep track of your habits and how you feel physically and mentally, you can start to play detective and make connections — meaning you can look back and say, OK, I did this and felt good, and I did this and felt bad. Which can help you practice more effective self-care in the long run.
Unfollow. Hate-following is not fun. You *know* this. So stop doing it.
Unplug. People put their happiest selves forward on social media — relationships, vacations, work brags, etc. — which makes it easy to wind up feeling like shit about your own life. Step away and focus more on the IRL, especially when you’re feeling your mental health drag. Also be aware of how being plugged in creates a ton of inputs (all those different tabs, apps, multiple screens at once, etc.) that can leave you feeling scattered, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, and unable to enjoy much of anything. So experiment with unplugging regularly (15 minutes before bed, during your commute, for an hour a day, etc.) and see how it makes you feel.
Use your emotions for good. Instead of trying to ignore negative feelings when you have them, allow yourself to look at them differently and experience them with an understanding of their benefits. It can be hard — nothing is more aggravating than being told to look on the bright side when you're angry, afraid, or sad. But at the same time, anger fuels change and sparks motivation, fear protects you and challenges you to be bold, and sadness allows you to feel deeply. Use those things.
Vine compilations. There is a WHOLE genre of compilations titled “Vines That Cured My Depression” and while obviously that’s hyperbolic because Vines don’t cure depression (but you knew that, right???), they *will* make you feel better. Here’s one, and another for good measure.
Volunteer. There’s a lot of research that suggests doing things for others is great for mental health. And on top of that, it's wonderful medicine for loneliness, which is a really difficult emotion to self-soothe. You'll be around people, making connections, and having people thank you for your time and appreciating you for who you are.
Vulnerability. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is...easier said than done, to say the least. There’s no guidebook that teaches how exactly to let your guard down and offer yourself up to the terrifying possibility of being seen and known. But what you can do is look for small opportunities day to day and challenge yourself to take them. Answer honestly when someone asks you how you are and you’re not fine. Admit to a friend that something they said hurt your feelings. Ask for help. Teach people how to love you. It requires bravery, and opening yourself up to potential hurt and disappointment, but as Brené Brown has written, “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.” (PS Her book Daring Greatly is a great place to start if you want to get better at being vulnerable.)
Well. Your “well” is a concept mental health professional Kameelah Rashad shared with us, and much like self-care, it’s different for everyone. Ask yourself, “Where do I go to feel nourished and affirmed? To feel understood?” Maybe it’s a friend who always makes you laugh, someone who texts you loving things, a conversation with your mom, being in nature, meditation, prayer, or even watching a video of your adorable baby cousin. Just make sure you know what your well is and that you go there often, using it as a chance to take a moment to breathe and gather your strength.
Work-life balance. Leave on time, don't check your email past a certain point at night, and in general, don't think about your work responsibilities at home, and vice versa.
Work. As Anna North wrote for the New York Times, relaxing isn’t everyone’s self-care: "Chilling out just doesn’t work for me the way work does. Far better for me to put my mind to use. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term 'flow' for the state of 'being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.' In a state of flow, he says, 'the ego falls away.' This is the best description I’ve come across for the feeling I have when I’m immersed in writing or reporting. I remember finishing a daylong project in Iowa City last year, ahead of the Iowa caucus, and realizing that all the worries that had entered the city with me had been pushed aside by the voices of the people I talked to, by the process of fitting them all together. To work, for me, is to care for the self by putting the self aside." So if that sounds like you, don’t beat yourself up about it.
Write down compliments and positive feedback you get. It’s hard to remember the nice things people have said about you when you really need them, so make sure they’re accessible.
XXX. We probably don’t need to tell you that masturbation and sex are great stress-relievers. But if you need convincing, your brain rewards you for orgasming. When you get off, you release oxytocin — which is a pretty damn blissful hormone — and afterward, your mind is chill, calm, kind of stoned, and everything feels freaking wonderful. Masturbation is also an underrated way to practice mindfulness, which you can read about here. Self-care, baby.
Yes. Just like you should say no to more things you don't really want to do, you should say yes to the things that scare you but that deep down, you want to try. Take that night class. Go to that party where you only know the host. Indulge your urge to take that solo vacation. More than that, though, you should say yes to the things that you would normally avoid due to anxiety. This sounds awful, we know, but it's therapist-approved. While part of self-care is being mindful and avoiding triggers, a lot of the time where anxiety is concerned, avoidance only breeds more anxiety and can build up to the point of interfering with your life. If you never put yourself in a position to see that things will be okay, even if they're uncomfortable in the moment, you never give yourself the chance to learn to live with — and ultimately lessen — your anxiety.
Yoga. Like meditation, yoga is one of those things that is either your thing or it isn’t, but that it can’t hurt to try to see if its physical and mental benefits ring true for you.
YouTube videos — that teach you something, or that make you laugh until you cry.
Zoo. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can explain the self-care properties of going to the zoo better than we ever can, so we’ll leave you with this video.
Zzzs. Lack of sleep can seriously magnify feelings of unhappiness or depression and anxiety, just like a good night’s sleep can provide you with the foundation you need just to get through the day sometimes.