What Is Self-Care, And What Is Not Self-Caring?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated July 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Anyone can participate in small helpful habits that improve their mental, physical, and emotional health on a daily basis, but what self-care means may be different for each individual. Here’s how you can determine whether an action may be considered as self-care, how these actions affect your general well-being, and mental health, and what might not actually be self-care.

Self-care is the practice of taking action to help sustain or improve your own health. This can manifest in many ways. For example, taking care of personal hygiene, eating well, and getting quality sleep at night might be considered self-care. 

Self-care is not limited to measures that keep you alive. Instead, self-care can be practiced to improve your physical health, mental health, emotional health, or spiritual health. Many people find it helpful to practice self-care during times of stress. This could include setting aside time for activities like:

  • Reading a book
  • Exercising
  • Relaxing at home
  • Seeking the help of a healthcare professional 

Self-care can be both preventative and reactionary. Depending on your circumstances, your own personal habits and self-care may change over time. When considering what constitutes self-care in your life, it’s important to consider the way it makes you feel, and what value it brings you. Content, healthy people can still benefit from putting energy into activities that fuel self-care to help promote health, prevent disease, and feel better about themselves.

The seven pillars of self-care

According to the International Self-Care Foundation, self-care can be described by a framework of seven important areas.

1. Knowledge and health literacy

The latest evidence-based research confirms the link between proper self-care and health literacy. The World Health Organization defines health literacy as “…the level of knowledge, personal skills, and confidence to take action to improve personal and community health by changing personal lifestyles and living conditions.”

According to peer-reviewed studies, health literacy is linked to self-care, especially as it pertains to managing symptoms of a chronic disease like diabetes. Understanding what your personal goals are for maintaining your health can help you to both receive appropriate care for any chronic conditions you may have and advocate for yourself to healthcare professionals, which means you can directly impact the quality of your care.

Therapy can help you define your self-care goals

2. Mental well-being, self-awareness, and agency

Having strong mental well-being, self-awareness, and agency includes understanding your personal health status with things such as BMI, and blood pressure, and getting routine checkups to maintain good physical health. While mental well-being can be more difficult to define, it’s commonly thought of in terms of life satisfaction, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging.

Maintaining a level of awareness of your current state of health can mean knowing when it is appropriate to take more time for in-the-moment emotional self-care options such as taking time away from work or seeking medical care.

3. Physical activity

It’s probably not news to you that practicing regular exercises, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or other aerobic activity, is thought to be one of the most effective physical self-care actions you can take to maintain health. Hence, the importance of incorporating a healthy level of physical activity into your self-care routine. Physical health is also linked to mental health—for example, WHO guidelines state that regular exercise can reduce one’s risk of dementia.

4. Nutritious foods 

A balanced diet is a key part of a self-care routine. Having a nutritious diet with an appropriate caloric intake can help maintain physical and mental health. What we put into our bodies can have significant impacts on our general health and happiness; research has found that a poorly balanced diet can lead to increased feelings of guilt, depression, and anxiety while a well-balanced diet can induce a deeper sense of well-being on the mental and physical levels.

5. Risk avoidance or mitigation

To care for yourself can mean offering yourself opportunities to grow and improve, but it can also mean reducing the chances you have to be exposed to harm for both yourself and others. Risk avoidance and the mitigation of your involvement in potentially risky behaviors can be healthy practices, especially if done in conjunction with guidance from a professional healthcare provider.

For example, if you know that you are prone to staying up late and avoiding sleep, you can mitigate your risk for sleep deprivation by working with a professional to establish a healthy nighttime routine and sticking to it. Self-care isn’t only about what good we can do, but also what potential harm we can avoid both now and in the long-term. 

6. Rational and responsible use of products and services

It’s important when pursuing self-care to do so in a responsible way. For example, prescription medicines should only be made available with the help of a doctor. Various health care services, such as therapy or health programs, should only be sought from healthcare providers who have had their safety confirmed by medical professionals. The concept of moderation can be helpful to your self-care journey.

7. Physical health and self-care

While physical exercise is important for general health, self-care extends beyond exercise. For example, you may participate in self-care by focusing on getting quality sleep, stretching gently, or getting a health concern looked at by a professional health care provider.

Strengthening your physical health can be as simple as starting with a daily walk. Research shows that walking outside can boost physical health, prevent disease, help you cope with illness, maintain mental wellness, maintain healthy weight, and control blood sugar. If you choose to walk in nature, this may also count as spiritual self-care, as these walks may help boost your mood. Research has shown that people who connect with nature tend to be happier and experience reduced symptoms of conditions like depression and anxiety. 

Mental health and self-care

For some, the status of your mental health can depend on how well you take care of yourself. There are many small actions you can take to help strengthen mental health. For example, you can try engaging in positive self-talk, managing or reducing stress, and seeking support from loved ones when facing challenging times.


If you’re struggling to integrate self-care into your daily life, or wish to improve your overall mental health, consider reaching out to an online mental health professional. If you’re not sure where to begin on your self-care journey, online therapy can connect you with a professional to figure out where to start.

Additionally, online therapy has been clinically proven to be just as effective in treating anxiety and depression as in person therapy for many mental health conditions, including those affecting mood and self-image. This means that it is possible to find assistance in establishing an appropriate self-care routine through online therapy.

What isn't self-care?

Practicing self-care takes effort, but also an awareness of your own needs. In addition to knowing what self-care is, it can be helpful to know what it is not.

Self-care is not:

  1. Constantly putting others before yourself

Your well-being matters. While helping others in need can provide a boost to your mood when done in moderation, it can be harmful if you aren’t prioritizing your own needs. Remember that you are equally worthy of care and consideration. 

  1. Equivalent to self-indulgence

As suggested above, moderation may be key to appropriate self-care. While it is usually not the case that you will spend all of your time on yourself and your own care, there will be times to treat yourself, and if you’re doing so responsibly, that may count as self-care. Self-care is not inherently self-indulgence, but rather self-preservation. Additionally, taking the time you need to rest and recuperate from daily life, especially if you live with a chronic condition that affects your health, is an appropriate way of maintaining self-care.

Setting boundaries

Setting boundaries can be an essential part of any self-care plan. There may be times when what you need and what another person needs conflict. It’s okay to put yourself first and communicate your needs to that person. Learning how to set boundaries for yourself and others, and maintaining them, can be tricky at first. You don’t want to neglect the people you care for. However, neglecting yourself and your emotional health will only make it harder to be there for them. 

Therapy can help you define your self-care goals


Self-care may look different for different people. In general, self-care includes actions that promote health and personal well-being, as well as safety. There are many areas of your life where you can implement self-care to improve your physical health, spiritual health, mental health, and emotional health. If you are wondering how to incorporate self-care into your life, you may want to consider connecting with an online therapist to help guide you.
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