What “Self-Care” Means Right Now, According To Experts

These days, your energy is spread pretty thin. Between social distancing, sanitizing your groceries, supporting local businesses, showing up to protests, emailing politicians, signing petitions, and donating to campaigns, it’s likely your days are busier than ever. You've got an ever-expanding laundry list of "shoulds" to tackle. And in the shuffle, you’ve probably forgotten to find windows to take care of yourself. And no, “self care” is not all bubble baths and face masks. 
“I think of self-care in various domains such as psychological, physical, professional, and personal.” says Dr. Rebecca B. Skolnick, co-founder of MindWell NYC and a licensed clinical psychologist. Maybe it’s a long run, a midday nap between Zoom calls, an elaborate home-cooked meal, or a pint of Halo Top in bed. Particularly right now, as we are adapting to new ways of living every day, we simply can’t put “self care” in a box. And as we learn our current iteration of “new normal,” we need modes of refocusing on our wellbeing more than ever. 
That’s why we tapped three psychologists to share their best self-care tips, designed to help you be kind to yourself right now — even while juggling all the "shoulds" on your list. Here’s what they had to say.

Practice Mindfulness and Meditation 

Whether you’re out protesting, juggling back-to-back Zoom calls, or promoting local community organizers and politicians by way of social media, there’s a lot going on right now. Which means it's important to find time in your schedule to relieve any building stress. “It’s critical that we engage in activities that are specific to balancing and lowering this stress,” says Dr. Shelley Sommerfeldt, an L.A.-based psychologist. “High stress levels have been linked to poorer physical health as well as effects on mental health and cognition.” As she sees it, engaging in a simple mindfulness meditation — the practice of focusing on the breath, and training our brains to remain entirely present in our thoughts and in the space we’re occupying — is a good place to start. And fortunately, this can be done in between meetings while working from home, or as a quick exercise in your bedroom in between your work day and your protest schedule. 

For further guidance, try signing up for a digital meditation class, downloading a meditation podcast or app, like Calm. Or, try breathing exercises. “When you are feeling stress, try to sit down, take a deep breath and close your eyes. Focus on your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Sitting and breathing for even just a minute can help,” says Dr. Grand McDonald, a therapist with a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology based out of Chicago. “Finding moments of peace can also be considered a relaxation technique.” To practice mindfulness in the chaos of everyday life, she recommends making time to read for pleasure, taking an (online) art class, or more generally, simply engaging in whatever brings you peace and “removes your mind from the daily stresses of life.” While working remotely, this might mean taking the time to cook your meals, draw, or pick up a book in between work calls as a way of imbuing your routine with a bit more pleasure. 
Another form of mindfulness: Gratitude. “Engaging in gratitude exercises forces us to think positively and find things In our life which we can be thankful for and appreciate,” says Dr. Sommerfeldt. “This creates a distraction from focusing on the negative stressors that we are experiencing as well as demonstrates a healthier mindset and outlook for positives that exist in our life. The research on positive thinking shows that it can lower stress, increase optimism, boost mood, and even better prepare you to cope with stress.” 
Try starting or ending your day with a list of things you feel thankful for, whether it’s clean sheets or community organizers. Consider writing thank you notes to people you care about, or community members who inspire you to voice your gratitude. 


“Maintaining good physical health is a key component to mental health,” says Dr. Sommerfeldt. “Physical exercise, even a simple walk, has been noted to increase neurotransmitters that are associated with improving mood and cognitive function. Exercise also allows an outlet for reducing stress and managing difficult emotions, which is key in self-care.”
Naturally, without regular gym access, exercise has been that much harder to incorporate into a routine. But even if it’s just a short walk between meetings or a wake-up dance before your first sip of coffee, movement can have notable benefits. “When the body is under stress it can cause muscle tension in your abdomen, consequently creating a feeling of nausea,” says Dr. McDonald. “The stress also increases your adrenaline and alters other hormones in the body like the stomach lining alter or food digestion.” She also notes that physical exercise regulates hormones, decreasing the amount of adrenaline produced within the body, which can help control levels of anxiety. 
From your home, try streaming online exercise classes, investing in low-maintenance fitness equipment like a jump rope or hand weights, or taking up running or biking. If you’re not motivated to exercise, check in with an accountability partner or group — you’re not competing to see who can get the most muscle, but rather encouraging each other to prioritize taking care of your body, and maybe sharing helpful tips or workout plans along the way. 
Another bonus to physical exercise: endorphins, the “feel good” neurotransmitters, which help to improve our mood, and, as Dr. McDonald points out, also help to control levels of anxiety. 

Prioritize Nutrition 

Whether you’ve mastered the Quarantine Sourdough Loaf or you’ve cultivated a newfound career in pickling, chances are you’ve been cooking a lot more than usual. And fortunately, how you eat can be tied inextricably to your mood. “Maintaining a balanced diet is crucial to relieving stress. Everything in the body is connected,” says Dr. McDonald. Physical health and mental health are intertwined. She recommends self-soothing with nutritious comfort foods, like warm oatmeal, which can boost levels of serotonin, a chemical which calms your brain. Other anti-stress foods she recommends are oranges, spinach, complex carbs, fatty fish, black tea, pistachios, and avocados. 
Healthy eating can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure,” she says. “Building a healthy food prep habit into your daily or weekly routine can greatly improve your overall diet, and eventually lead to reduced stress levels.” So do some research before your next grocery shop, and while you await the re-opening of your favorite restaurants, keep chef-ing at home. 
Drinking the recommended amount of water for your body (typically 91 ounces a day for women) is also essential. Try a hydration app if you need help getting started with your water drinking habit. Every time you take a sip of water, remind yourself you’re doing something especially good for you. And for those out protesting, plenty of water is certainly necessary while marching in summer heat. 

Find Balance Between “You Time” & Caring For Others

Chances are, you’ve been lacking any time strictly for yourself lately. “If you find that you spend the majority of your time working or thinking about work, it’s important to increase time spent doing other things that are important to you, such as building and attending to friendships, carving out time for your significant other, or engaging in a personal hobby that you enjoy,” says Dr. Skolnick. 
Even if you’re of the “work comes first” mindset, know that practicing these boundaries should decrease your likelihood of burnout, and help you work effectively. If you need restraint from constantly working, set limits on your work hours and tasks, take breaks throughout the day, enroll in a course to improve or learn new skills, and take vacation days, even if that just means sleeping in on a weekday and eating brunch in bed. 
“Set boundaries in your everyday life,” says Dr. McDonald. Turn your work email off when you’re done for the day, and don’t check it until you’re on the clock again. Seriously. The same goes for personal relationships. “If there are family members who demand too much of your time or friends who call during your downtime after work, it is important to set boundaries there as well,” she says. “While friends and family are people we love, adhering to what they expect from us can be very stressful, especially if you can not meet their expectations.” Letting these people know the times you are available to talk or even set a limit on how much time you can give them. Take an entire weekend to yourself if you need it. 
“It is important to use ‘I’ phrases when communicating with loved ones about what you need and why,” says Dr. McDonald. “When you set your boundaries, others usually respect them too. Setting boundaries is effective in managing stress because it relieves the amount of pressure you’re under. Sometimes the only way to minimize stress is to simply say no to requests. Taking care of yourself and your own needs in this manner is healthy.”
That said, when it falls within those very boundaries, caring for others can act as a form of self-care too. “A key component to self-care that is often overlooked is providing care and kindness to someone else. It can help us to help someone else,” says Dr. Sommerfeldt. “By giving back and supporting others, this can distract us from our own stressors and make us feel good to give to someone else. The research on altruism and volunteer work shows that people who give back to others and their communities, have improved health, social connection, and a greater sense of purpose in their life.”
Right now, that might mean volunteering for folks having trouble meeting their basic needs while the effects of COVID-19 linger, showing up to protests, donating money, or amplifying the voices of others on social media. It might also mean being an especially present friend or family member to the people in your life. Just be sure you know where your boundaries are and when you need to take a step back.

Engage All Five Senses

Surprise! Your brain connects to all five of your senses, so it’s important to be attending to all of them. “Look at pictures of nature, smell a candle, listen to calming music, put on lavender lotion,” Dr. Skolnick recommends. “Self-soothing is important for decreasing our stress and anxiety levels and communicating to ourselves that we are important and deserve to be taken care of.” And being that you’re spending an inordinate amount of time in your own home these days, it’s not a bad idea to put a little effort into making sure your space panders to all your senses (not just visuals). 
Humans learn to self-soothe as babies, but don’t prioritize it as adults. “If we don't self-soothe, we may be more stressed out and less able to deal with issues that come our way,” Dr. Skolnick says. “Soothing your senses helps you process and manage your emotions, work through unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors, and decrease negative self-judgments that do not benefit you. They can also help increase awareness and assist you in making mindful decisions about your life and behaviors.” 
So, rather than just settling in for a movie when you need to relax, try upping your scent game, getting into your softest clothes, and lining up a tasty snack (think: Halo Top's Birthday Cake ice cream). Be kind to yourself from all angles. 

Play Brain Games 

Once you’ve read through all the essential daily news, be sure to save the Sunday crossword section of your local newspaper — it’s good self-care! “Cognitive function plays an important role in our overall self-care and brain health,” says Dr. Sommerfeldt. “Engage in brain games, such as puzzles or crosswords. These types of activities serve as a distraction away from our day-to-day stressors and can provide improved focus, attention and cognitive function.” 
Not into word games? Purchase a puzzle of a calming scene or dream vacation destination and carve out some time in your day to focus on getting that 1,000-piece jigsaw finished. When you’re done, see if a friend or neighbor wants to swap puzzles. While working remotely, it can be tempting to lapse into screen-time-holes. But taking the time to get away from your TV, phone, and computer and entertain yourself while also using your brain in creative ways can be a helpful way of combatting WFH-fatigue.  

More from Mind

R29 Original Series