It's hard to go one day without hearing about the importance and endless benefits of practicing self-care (and if it does happen, it's probably because you're off the grid practicing self-care).
But because self-care looks different for everyone and our needs constantly fluctuate, putting an effective practice together can be a touch-and-go process, where you're never quite sure if what you're doing to care for yourself is, well, working.
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"I've found that asking other people what they do for self-care can be helpful," Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, PhD, psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It gives you new things to try you probably wouldn't have considered otherwise."
And who better to ask than therapists? They're not just the ultimate advocates of self-care, but practicing self-care is crucial for people in caring professions, to help avoid burnout.
Here are the top self-care practices of six therapists and exactly how you can DIY them.
Self-care is different from self-soothing. Self-care supports your long-term health and growth, helping you feel more grounded, while self-soothing practices are short-term strategies that comfort or distract you when you're faced with stress or overwhelm.
1. ‘Set Boundaries’
Many people consider self-care to be sprinkling their to-do list with fun tasks that leave them feeling refreshed, like bicycle rides and bubble baths — but without communicating your needs, you won't be able to do the things that make you feel cared for.
"The way in which I practice self-care is by verbally and non-verbally communicating my boundaries," Aisha R. Shabazz, LCSW, Philadelphia-based therapist and career strategist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This allows me the time and space I need to take care of myself, independent of what I choose to do with that time and space I've created."
Carve out regular moments of reflection to take inventory of exactly what you need that day, that week, to feel nurtured, rested and rejuvenated so your needs consistently get equal billing as you schedule out your time. That might look like setting your phone to 'Do Not Disturb,' blocking off time on your calendar to check email or politely declining invitations for plans, for example.
2. ‘Freshen Up’
It's easy to get so caught up in what you need to get done that personal hygiene takes a backseat. While it's always good to make an effort to stay clean, for Washington-based licensed clinical psychologist Ruth Varkovitzky, PhD, showering is more than that.
"If I'm feeling overwhelmed, sometimes I'll take a quick shower, even if I've already had one that day," she says. "There's something about taking a pause, being in a private space, feeling the sensation of warm water on the skin — it feels like a reset. It can feel like washing off whatever came before and trying to start fresh."
When there's no access to a shower and she still wants that reset feeling, Varkovitzky goes to the nearest bathroom and splashes her face and hands with cold water. "Just that small moment can sometimes make all the difference," she says.
3. ‘Take a Time Out(side)’
One self-care ritual that never gets old for Varkovitzky is spending some tech-free time outside.
"It's a way for me to feel connected to my senses (like sight, sound and smell) and take a break from being cooped up indoors," she says. "I make an effort to keep my phone in my pocket and try to be present."
The best part is there's no one way to spend time outside, so you can adjust your outings based on how much time and energy you have.
"You can sit in a space and observe it (like birdwatching), walk around your local neighborhood or find a local park," Varkovitzky says. "You can also plan bigger outings if you have time, like exploring a new trail on your day off."
4. ‘Pair Healthy Foods With Positive Thoughts’
For New York-based licensed psychologist Renee A. Exelbert, PhD, one of her most important self-care techniques is nourishing herself with healthy food and thinking about the beneficial and healing effects the nutrients have on her body.
For instance: "I'll eat walnuts and think about how they're reducing inflammation in my body, lowering my risk of breast cancer and making my skin glow," she says.
Positive thoughts have been shown to reduce stress and pain levels, decrease blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and increase longevity, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"Anyone can engage in this self-care technique by consuming a healthy food and concentrating their thoughts on the ways it's nurturing, strengthening and healing their body," Exelbert says. "If we think of ourselves as peaceful and nourished, we become peaceful and nourished."
5. ‘Reach Out for Support’
"As a natural introvert, it's easy for me to spend my time only speaking to clients and working," says Frederica Boso, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor at Brightside. "Reaching out to my social support, the people who know me well and I trust, helps me decompress and enables me to be my genuine self, regardless of whether I'm venting or laughing."
Realizing you're not alone and that at least one person cares about you can make all the difference to your mental health, especially if you're going through a crisis, per the Mayo Clinic.
Let yourself be vulnerable, if for no other reason than to get out of your own head when you're feeling stuck. "It doesn't help to pretend you're OK when you're not," Boso says. "Reach out, ask for help, say what you need."
6. ‘Study Who Inspires You’
When Boso feels stuck or overwhelmed, another of her go-to self-care rituals is reading articles — or watching documentaries — about people who've accomplished what she hopes to.
"I use other people's stories as motivation to push through difficult moments," Boso says. "Reading about how others did what you want to do makes your goals feel real and tangible."
Plus, the act of reading or losing yourself in a documentary allows you to take space from the problem or situation you're coping with and possibly come up with new methods of persevering, as you learn the specifics behind how others pushed through their own difficult moments.
7. ‘Write Down Your Thoughts’
Regularly setting aside time to write down what you're thinking and how you're feeling can be a proactive way to head off stress and anxiety.
"Journaling allows me to reflect on my successes and learn from my mistakes from a non-judgmental stance," Boso says. "It helps me slow down and focus on what I want to do or say."
Writing things down gives you the opportunity for self-reflection and helps to validate your thoughts and feelings. It can also help you reframe negative or self-destructive thought patterns, acting as a reminder to your anxiety that it's not running the show — you are.
"You can write about what you're feeling in the present moment, what you hope for or what you wish could be different," Boso says. "The goal is to just write what comes to mind, regardless of if it's good or bad. Just write."
8. ‘Vary Your Yoga Practice’
For Lira de la Rosa, yoga takes care of all three dimensions of his self-care: physical, emotional and spiritual. He finds it's most effective to switch up the types of yoga classes he takes, based on what his needs are.
"There are times I practice Vinyasa yoga to help me sweat, release tension and connect with my body and breath," he says. He also practices restorative yoga as an emotional and spiritual practice: "It's a much gentler form of yoga, so I use it when I'm carrying a lot and need to release some energy."
Bottom line: Go with your flow.
9. ‘Engage in Challenging Activities’
"I always felt stifled and confined by the traditional feminine gender roles when I was growing up in my family," Priscilla Chin, LCSW, New York-based psychotherapist, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Learning Muay Thai is my way of pursuing one of the many things my inner child has always wanted but couldn't have."
More often than not, she's filled with hesitation and self-doubt about her ability to learn Muay Thai, but Chin leaves each session knowing she's pushed past her comfort zone and perceived emotional and physical limits.
"Doing this again and again reminds me I have the ability to push past other perceived limits in different areas of my life," Chin says.
Martial arts can have profound effects on your mental health. The sport can enhance your mental clarity and emotional stability, help you develop self-discipline and increase your overall energy level.
"If you're an introspective person or are in therapy, you can also learn a lot about yourself in the process by observing your inner thoughts, fears and fantasies as you engage in these physically and emotionally challenging movements," Chin says.
If you're considering martial arts or another challenging discipline as a form of self-care, be sure you know yourself and the way you respond to new things. Use it as an experiment to discover how much you can push yourself, while still balancing between too hard and too lenient.
"When it comes to building a self-care routine, consistency and stability is the key," Chin says. "You don't want to burn yourself out and treat it like a chore."
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