A Therapist's Top 5 Tips for Effective Self-Care

The Top 5 Tips for Effective Self-Care

I will be honest with you: us therapists don't always follow our own advice. A holistic approach to health is often part of our work with clients, but we are just as fallible as everyone else when it comes to taking care of ourselves. Even after years in the field, I still have times when I rationalize why I need to stay up past 2am, downplay how poor my eating habits are getting, and neglect the gym for weeks.  

It took years of stress symptoms and the risk of premature burnout for me to really start to prioritize my wellness. While I am still human, intentional and consistent self-care has become a central part of my life and practice. Below are the tips that have helped me and my clients implement effective self-care. 


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1. Redefine what it means and looks like

Many of the activities associated with self-care, whether due to pop culture or what individuals more readily share on social media, have led to a perception that self-care is an indulgent and superfluous notion. While bathing in bubbles is not a necessary human function, the act itself is. It meets intangible psychological and spiritual needs: rest; time to yourself; self-soothing and comfort; pleasure. Pampering ourselves is part of the joys of life, and we need to reframe this as self-affirming rather than silly or selfish behaviour. 

While an activity like this is to be respected for its place in wellness, self-care is not just taking baths or pampering yourself. Self-care is any activity you undertake with the intention of caring for yourself. Sometimes it helps to step back and imagine what you would do to ensure a friend or child is both cared for and knows that you care about them. Apply these two considerations to your own self-care. 

(A) What different needs do we have to take care of?

Self-care activities are usually divided into categories that address our different health and wellness needs: physical; emotional; spiritual; intellectual; social. These will overlap; journaling can address both personal and emotional needs, just as walking outdoors could be a physical, social, and spiritual activity for you. Get a sense of what different the types of self-care look like. Here is a general breakdown:


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(B) What will you consider is self-care?

Self-care is about "treating yo self." I would just clarify that really it's about how you treat yourself. What is the relationship you have with yourself? How do you talk to yourself? What non-verbal ways do you show yourself you care about and love yourself? Are you aware of behaviour you engage in that isn't kind to yourself or your body? If you are familiar with the 5 Love Languages, reflect on what your self-love language may be. What will show that you do love and take care of yourself? 

2. Know what you really need

So, you have an idea of how you can show that you care about yourself by meeting certain needs. But how do you know what those needs are for you personally? Just as self-care needs are individualized, they also fluctuate in importance. We often minimize the impact of self-care because the activities we choose don’t address what we really need. That bath is unlikely to help much if what you really need is to revamp your diet. Going for a run may release some tension but may be of little impact overall if what you really need is to set boundaries with your partner.


We also need to learn how to pay more attention to our emotional and mental needs. It's a bit easier to know that we feel sluggish and "gross" from lack of activity and too much junk food. We also need to consider what it feels like and what to do when we feel "psychologically gross." 

To assess and address your self-care needs, start by checking in with yourself regularly. Take a step back and consider your health and care more objectively, like you would with a friend. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it look like I'm taking care of myself?

  • Am I balancing my different needs?

  • What is my body trying to tell me?

  • What will make me feel better?

  • What will really help me right now?

Feeling overwhelmed? Maybe you need to implement practical self-care and problem-solving coping strategies to help lessen your stress. Maybe you would also benefit from a break and engaging in a hobby as part of personal self-care. Feeling drained? Maybe you need to address your sleep hygiene and nutrition, and find ways to nourish yourself through spiritual activities like meditation or a hike

3. Explore all your options 

Expand your awareness of activities. Self-care is more than just baths and time to yourself. Think beyond what others try to tell you is self-care. The "wellness industry" is massive and people like to promote their own views; don't dismiss activities you enjoy just because they're not as prominent on social media or blog sites. Explore and incorporate a variety of different activities to help keep things interesting and to meet your different self-care needs. Pinterest is a great place to start this search. Below is a general overview of different activities. 

Expand your understanding also of how you can implement self-care. It doesn't just have to be once a day for an hour. Maybe for you it's doing something for 10 minutes a few times a day. Or for a few hours once a week. Think of your needs and what works for your life and circumstances. 

4. Adjust expectations

Adjust your own expectations of what self-care is going to accomplish for you. It is not a panacea; it will not be able to meet all your needs or fix everything for you. Adjust your expectation that it should be ignored because your health or situation seems “beyond” self-care; a holistic approach to physical and mental health is often necessary. Adjust others' expectations of what your self-care "should" look like. Also adjust your expectations that others will understand why you need to do certain things. Some family members or coworkers still might think your weekend away or daily walk is selfish or unnecessary. Adjust the expectations of others for you. This might mean setting different rules at home or work that allow you to have more time to yourself, or to set money aside for personal use. 

5. Give yourself permission (and time)

Give yourself permission to take care of yourself. This goes hand in hand with challenging and modifying any negative perception of self-care you have internalized. Be open. Be aware of the influence of self-fulfilling prophecies: if you think painting your nails is not going to “help” you, it definitely won’t. Give yourself time: time to warm up to certain activities, and time to accept the very notion of caring for yourself. I am simplifying pieces of this here, such as viewing self-care as self-love; we cannot deny that sometimes we just don't like ourselves, and past trauma and core beliefs can make it very hard to want to take care of ourselves. Maybe self-care for you is simply starting by giving yourself permission to feel ambivalent about caring for yourself. 

Give yourself actual time. This means the logistical organization of activities; set aside time in your schedule. This also goes with adjusting your expectation of how long and consistently you need to do these things. Give yourself time to notice a difference. 

Give yourself credit. You are probably doing more self-care than you realize. Take time to commend yourself for your efforts and taking care of yourself. 

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Hi! I'm Shannon and I am a Registered Psychotherapist. I also have lived experience with mental illness. My site is geared towards the discussion of various mental health and wellness topics. The hope is to demystify some mental health concepts and strategies; to increase mental health and emotional literacy; and to continue to normalize and destigmatize mental illness. 


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