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Developing a Self-Care Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide

Brad Brenner, Ph.D.

Flight attendants advise passengers to put their oxygen mask on before helping other passengers. Imagine there is indeed an emergency on the plane. Your instinct might be to put your safety behind the welfare of others. However, if you lose consciousness before you can help another person with their oxygen mask, you both suffer.

The same concept applies to your everyday well-being. If you aren’t taking care of your own needs, you won’t be in the best condition to offer help to anyone else. But what does “taking care” of yourself mean? It’s more than switching to a healthy diet or getting a certain number of hours of sleep every night. True self-care incorporates not only an individual’s physical health, but also mental health, emotional health, and even social and spiritual health. Therefore, true self-care requires a comprehensive approach to achieving personal wellness. In other words, it should entail a plan of self-care activities and behaviors that help you feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Self-care is not a selfish act

The same instinct that makes one think of others before themselves leads many people to believe that self-care as a selfish act. But that’s not true. Perhaps poet Audre Lorde said it best. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” Lorde wrote. “It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care not only ensures that you’re able to take care of the ones you care for but also to meet your personal and professional commitments. Ultimately, everyone around you, be it family members, coworkers, and friends, will benefit when your quality of life improves.

Once you get past the mental barriers to taking care of yourself, it’s time to create a personalized plan for your self-care. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. Your plan should specifically address your own needs. That’s where your planning begins — in evaluating which areas you need to improve.

Physical self-care

A great way to start developing your self-care plan is to figure out where you stand and how you currently cope. Many people tackle physical self-care first because the best practices in this area are sometimes easier to define, and deficiencies are easier to identify. For example, health care providers recommend drinking at least 64 ounces of water a day, getting eight hours of sleep, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, engaging in at least 30 minutes of physical activity three times a week, and cutting out bad behaviors like smoking or overindulging in alcohol.

If you step back to evaluate your current physical health practices, comparing them to these recommendations will help you create a physical self-care plan with specific goals. For example, if you smoke, you could visit your health care provider for advice on quitting. If you don’t have enough time to exercise, plan to get up earlier a few mornings a week to start your day with 30 minutes of physical activity. Writing down your plans for improving your physical well-being or sharing your goals with friends or family members will help you stick to them.

Mental and emotional self-care

Sometimes the concept of self-care can be confusing simply because it’s difficult to determine whether your needs are physical, emotional, or mental. Sometimes prolonged mental stress can lead to negative emotions and physical symptoms like fatigue or exhaustion. This condition is most often referred to as burnout, and although it’s usually associated with the workplace, it can occur when you’re overwhelmed in either your personal or professional life. Caregivers often suffer from a form of burnout called compassion fatigue. They give so much to empathizing with and attending to the needs of the elderly, ailing, or young that they wear themselves out.

If any aspect of your daily life causes stress, your self-care plan must include methods and self-care ideas to reduce or deal with it. Start by evaluating the negatives in your life, like excessive or extended work hours, a romantic relationship that just isn’t working, or no time for leisurely activities. Then map out steps to reduce the stress these negatives cause. Talk to your boss about changing your schedule. Put an end to a bad relationship and maybe replace it with a healthy, new friendship. Make sure your self-care plan includes carving out time for things that bring you joy. Perhaps those are self-care activities like reading, yoga, long baths, sports, walks on the beach, or anything that helps you to relax and feel better. The less stress you experience, the better your overall wellness will ultimately be.

Such self-care tips will improve both your emotional and mental health. However, sometimes, self-prescribed self-care activities are not enough. Speaking with a mental health professional is an excellent addition to any self-care plan. A therapist or licensed counselor can help you to determine the best way to address your mental and emotional needs. Perhaps you suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or sadness. A mental health professional will work with you to map out self-care behaviors to improve your mental and emotional state. Adding a commitment to meet with a therapist regularly is an excellent addition to your self-care plan and a great way to deal with your self-care matters.

Social and spiritual self-care

Your self-care plan shouldn’t ignore your social and spiritual needs. In today’s world, being “social” is often equated with time spent on social media. Hardly ever will a solid self-care plan include investing more time on these channels. Social networks are essential to wellness, but not the ones found on social media. Instead, you should build a strong social support network of people to whom you can turn in times of stress or sadness.

Spiritual self-care doesn’t necessarily mean attending a religious service. Like your self-care plan, your spiritual plan should be personalized to your own needs. This could include prayers to a higher power or include meditation.

Plan your work and work your plan

Once you’ve determined what your self-care plan looks like, it’s time to put your plan into action. Take each of those self-care ideas and behavior changes and make them happen. Share your plan with your social support network and let them help you stick to it. Self-efficacy and your belief in your “capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments” is also vital. You have to believe that your self-care matters. Make your plan a priority.

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