A Simple Plan for Self-Care

Self-care rituals are all over social media: elaborate nightly skin care routines, yoga retreats in exotic locations, expensive wine and fancy desserts.

But while self-care is often depicted as an indulgence—something special that will help you escape the stress of life’s demands—the concept is much simpler and more accessible to everyone. Self-care is the process of engaging in all aspects of your health so that you can feel your best.

“Health includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions,” says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD. “Self-care is a way to attend to all of the things necessary to make us a healthy person.”

Self-care will be different for everyone, because it depends on identifying the activities you enjoy and find meaningful, but Dr. Ruff says the mnemonic CARE can help you create a plan for your own.

C Is for Community

The term “self-care” makes it sound like something you do on your own, but time spent with others is linked to better emotional and mental health.

“Relationships are important,” Dr. Ruff says. “Everyone needs some sort of community.”

Coffee dates with friends or walks with your co-workers are activities that can fall by the wayside when you’re busy, but being intentional about scheduling time to see others is an important part of self-care. Volunteering or joining a club can also help you feel engaged with a larger group.

Your stage of life also may affect how you engage in your community for self-care.

“A busy parent with little children may find that time alone isn’t feasible, but a playdate where children play together and parents can talk can be a great form of self-care,” Dr. Ruff says. “You don’t have to be in a spa by yourself to practice self-care.”

A Is for Awe

Spiritual self-care involves identifying what inspires you and gives your life deeper meaning. For some, that might be religion and prayer. For others, it may be a daily meditation practice, a gratitude journal, listening to music that moves them or building up a travel budget to explore new places.

Dr. Ruff says that one of the easiest ways to engage with awe is to spend time in nature. That can be as simple as stepping outside your office, putting down your phone, and noticing what you see, hear and feel around you.

“Studies have shown that time outside improves a bad mood and your ability to concentrate,” Dr. Ruff says. “Even just five minutes outside or looking at a picture of nature can have the same effect.”

R Is for Restore

Life is busy and full of obligations, deadlines and errands.

“We restore ourselves with a good night’s sleep and engaging in hobbies we like and enjoy,” Dr. Ruff says. “You have to identify what makes you uniquely you outside of a job.”

Dr. Ruff recommends that adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep is crucial to your physical, mental and emotional health, and consistently losing out on quality sleep increases your risk of disease and can impair your mental performance.

In addition to prioritizing sleep, you should carve out time to engage in your favorite activities, whether that’s reading, cooking, crafting, or watching or playing sports.

E Is for Energy and Exams

We draw energy from regular exercise, a well-rounded diet and drinking lots of water, says Dr. Ruff, who also notes that everyone should have annual preventive care checkups, dental exams and vision checks.

These healthy habits might seem more like chores, but the things that make you feel your physical best ultimately help with emotional and mental health as well. It’s also possible to make habits such as exercise more fun.

“Exercise doesn’t have to be going to the gym or running 5 miles,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s any way of moving your body that you enjoy. I have patients who hula-hoop or roller-skate, and that counts.”

Also, while some may consider an occasional glass of wine to be self-care, Dr. Ruff says it’s important to consider alcohol’s role in your life.

“If you feel like you have to have alcohol or if a drink is a nightly habit, then you may want to evaluate,” she says.

Seeing a doctor regularly also has a positive effect on your quality of life. Your primary care provider can ensure that you receive recommended screenings and vaccines, helping to spot diseases early or prevent them entirely.

Tips for Starting a Self-Care Plan

Not sure where to get started with your self-care? Dr. Ruff offers these suggestions:

  1. Take advantage of small pockets of time.

While you may dream of having an hour to curl up with a book or go to the gym, sometimes a few minutes is all you have—so make them count.

“If you have a 30-minute lunch break, you can go outside for a quick walk and eat your lunch there,” Dr. Ruff says. “If you’re waiting for a child to be done with sports practice, you may have 15 minutes to read or walk. It might not be a perfect scenario but take advantage of those opportunities.”

  1. Don’t try to do everything at once.

Accept that some weeks, you may not be able to accomplish everything that’s recommended for self-care.

“Try to focus on one thing that’s important to you,” Dr. Ruff says. “At some stages of life, not all of these are possible, particularly if you have little kids. Focus on the things you can control.”

Also consider that some of the recommended activities on this list touch multiple dimensions of health. Exercise, for example, can be done outside and with friends, and it can aid in sleep, reduce stress and prevent chronic diseases.

  1. Put down the phone.

You may open a social media app to help you unwind as part of your self-care only to find yourself mindlessly scrolling hours later, feeling terrible that others have accomplished more in the day than you have.

“We’re continuing to learn how social media and our phones negatively affect our mental health,” Dr. Ruff says. “These apps were designed to be addicting. Set limits on how long you use social media, and stop using your phone before bed.”

Reining in your phone use also leaves you with more time to engage in the hobbies and healthy habits that will make you feel your best.

If you’re struggling with your physical or mental health, talk to your doctor. Looking for a doctor? Find one near you.