The truth about self care

There's a lot of chatter about "self-care" these days. Between wellness and beauty companies promising to release feel-good endorphins with every product and being told to take more baths and learn to meditate, it can be confusing to determine what "you" time really should be – and shouldn't be. Is self-care letting yourself watch one more episode and treating yourself to another brownie? Or is it actually learning when to turn off Netflix and get in bed a little earlier? And who decides?

At the core of the self-care movement is the need to renew your spirit, to choose activities – or a complete lack thereof – that helps you feel both relaxed and rejuvenated. Self-care is ultimately about taking a pause to do what you need to be happier, calmer, and healthier.

And no matter what products you buy or things what you do, it's crucial to remember that self-care is an individualised experience. What benefits you mentally and physically may not be the same for your best friend or colleague or partner. We have compiled what mental health experts and coaches consider as the do’s and don'ts of creating a self-care routine that's for you – and only you.

Do focus on activities that fill you up

One commonly touted self-care practice is to take a bath, complete with candles, essential oils, salts and bubbles. But if you don't have a bathtub, if you get antsy sitting in a tub, or if you hate having wrinkly fingers, why force yourself? The point of these rituals is to fill you up rather than deplete you, so it's crucial to figure out what brings you joy.

Your self-care choices should leave you feeling nourished, energised, and ready to tackle whatever comes next. All too often people get into the doing-and-producing mode and then start to see self-care as yet another to-do list item. To determine what works for you, experts suggest the cognitive-behavioural technique of imagining experiences in detail ahead of time. When you're considering what you need at the moment to feel good, imagine yourself doing it and how you will feel after. If it's filled up, then go for it. If it's depleted, skip it.

Don't use self-care as an excuse to overindulge

Self-care isn't an excuse to spend an excessive amount of money or go overboard at happy hour to escape.

When we make these excuses for ourselves, we aren't reaping the real benefits, since they provide instant gratification without a long-lasting impact. Instead, self-care should be about creating a little breathing room to come back to the task or problem with more mental resources to handle it.

Do view self-care as essential rather than indulgent

When you have a pile of laundry that keeps multiplying, a calendar packed with back-to-back meetings, and children who need your attention, you likely don't prioritise self-care. Many people worry that taking time for oneself is selfish and indulgent, it's critical for personal well-being. Self-care is not only a wellness skill but a survival skill. Once you start seeing self-care as essential rather than indulgent, it becomes easier to care for yourself and therefore to also care for others.

To begin reframing how you picture it, correct yourself when you start to feel guilty for doing an activity that fulfills you – like reading a book for 30 minutes. Instead, list all of the reasons you'll be a better partner, friend, mother, daughter, and so on by taking the time you need.

Do listen to your mind and body's needs

The mind-body connection is strong and outspoken, but we have to learn to tune in to emotions and physical feelings to figure out what we need. That's why it's essential to make your self-care practice fluid and flexible, so you can adjust to what will benefit you the most from one day to the next. This starts by looking for signals your body is sending in terms of things like soreness, cramps, fatigue or pain. You can further explore your mental health indicators by answering these questions:

Am I sleeping poorly?

Am I eating well?

Am I craving unhealthy foods?

Am I grinding my teeth?

Do I feel body aches?

As you answer these, you can narrow down potential solutions for what's irking you. Maybe it's a nap, a long stretching session, or testing out a new recipe while listening to a podcast.