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Self-Care May Sound Like a Luxury, but Science Proves It’s Actually a Non-negotiable

By Locke Hughes

We all know how good it feels to #treatyourself. Does it get any better than a face mask, bubble bath, and candles on Sunday night? But while we have the vague understanding that “self-care” is beneficial, it’s more difficult to define exactly why it’s so hard to take that downtime. Turns out, plenty of studies — and experts — back up the idea of taking “me time.”

Self-care can take many forms, explains Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit. It can mean physical activities (like exercise, getting enough sleep, healthy eating), pleasurable activities (baths, manicures, Netflix), or simply responding in a more positive way to stressful situations.  

At its core, however, “self-care means having an evident shift in mental energy,” explains Kali Rogers, a mental health counselor and founder of Blush Life Coaching. “Instead of focusing on what others want from you, self-care involves shutting down those thoughts and focusing completely on what you need in the moment.”

No matter what form it takes, self-care enables you to be your most productive, energetic, and all-around happiest self — which in turn helps you be more present for others. Need more proof? Our experts weigh in on the research-backed benefits of self-care, along with some easy ways to do more of it in your life.

Self-care helps you be kinder to yourself

Here’s one thing self-care isn’t: Thinking to yourself “I should be doing X or Y,” Rogers explains. Rather than think of self-care as ‘doing,’ view it as a shift in mindset—and putting pressure on yourself to do something is the opposite of self-care. “Too many women feel bad about themselves for not starting the book they promised themselves they’d read before bed or not getting their nails done every other week in the name of ‘self-care,’” Rogers says. “That is not the point.” Instead of thinking of active ways to practice self-care try to eliminate feelings of shame, guilt, or obligation in any way for at least an hour a day, she suggests.

Self-care enables you to respond better to difficult situations

We all go through tough times in life, from a breakup to being fired or losing a loved one. And when those situations lead to emotions such as anxiety, loneliness, guilt, or grief, many of our default reactions (such as ruminating, dwelling, or endlessly rehashing the situation) are not the most effective responses, Boyes says. Instead of moving on, those emotions become more likely to take root and endure.

Instead, turn to self-care as “emotional first aid,” suggests Boyes. Put your wellbeing first, and do things you truly want to do — whether it’s going to a yoga class or vegging out on the couch. That’s the best “cure” for dealing with those stressful situations and setbacks, she says. (Note to self: You may want to choose that yoga class. Research shows that exercise in particular helps you self-regulate, or control your emotions better, in difficult situations.)

Self-care restores your energy resources

Just like a having cup of coffee or nutritious meal ups your physical energy stores, taking time to focus on yourself replenishes your psychological energy stores. “It can easily be as simple as watching your favorite TV show that you know will lift your spirits, taking a walk around the block and listening to music, or color coding your closet,” Rogers says. “This helps reboot your mental energy by completely focusing on yourself and your needs.”

Self-care boosts your patience and efficiency

You know those days you tend to snap at everyone over every little thing? Yeah, a short fuse is a big warning sign that you need to take a timeout for yourself, Rogers says. Another one: “If you’re not enjoying the things you used to really enjoy, this is a sign stress has taken over,” she adds.

(This is also a cursory sign of depression, so do not take this symptom lightly. If this sounds familiar, talk to a professional about your current state of mind.)

Finally, another red flag is if you’re feeling too tired to take care of the little things, like being careful or allowing enough time to arrive to a destination. For example, Boyes says she knows she needs to take some for herself when she gets clumsy or starts arriving late to appointments.

Self-care has real short- and long-term effects

Research shows that cortisol, the stress hormone, can wreak havoc on your body, leading to foggy thinking, fatigue, pessimism, weight gain, and substance abuse, Rogers says. Fortunately, science also points to an antidote: taking time for self-care.

“In the short-term, you can count on methods of self-care to elevate your moods, increase productivity, curb sugar cravings, and help with sleep,” Rogers says. “In the long-term, you can see benefits such as lower blood pressure, a healthier heart, and as an overall more balanced, happier life.”

10 Simple Ways to Practice Self-Care In Your Life

  1. Say “no” to functions (and people!) that drain your energy.
  2. Eat a healthy meal. And if cooking is your thing, make it yourself.   
  3. Get a solid eight hours of sleep.
  4. Take the time to move slowly, without rushing through your day.
  5. Think kind thoughts to yourself.
  6. Go to your favorite workout class.
  7. Watch a funny TV show — without multitasking.
  8. Straighten up your home, and buy some flowers for your coffee table.
  9. Take a walk in the park. Research shows the great outdoors can help boost your mood and bust stress.
  10. Do what makes you happy!