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Self-care is about forming healthy habits, not simply “improving” or “treating” yourself. Getty Images
  • Research shows many people misunderstand what effective self-care is and how they can best benefit from it.
  • A recent Harris Poll reported that self-care isn’t a priority for consumers because 44 percent believe self-care is only possible for people with enough time.
  • About 35 percent believe self-care is only possible for those with enough money.
  • Incorporating healthy self-care practices into daily life can have lasting benefits. These don’t need to be expensive or time-consuming to be effective.

Self-care is a term thrown around a lot, but experts say it’s often misunderstood.

“Most people approach self-care from the thought, ‘I’m going to make myself better,’ and that doesn’t work,” Gracy Obuchowicz, self-care coach, told Movie Service.

She says self-improvement is often mistaken for self-care, though they’re subtly different.

“Self-improvement comes from a perfectionist mind-set, where we think there is something we need to fix about ourselves — that we’re lazy or procrastinators — all the stories we tell ourselves when we have a goal for our well-being and we don’t achieve those, so we go into a shame spiral and we tell ourselves we’re not good enough in some way,” Obuchowicz said.

She says the aspects of the self-improvement industry, such as diet and weight loss, send the message that if people work harder and find their discipline, they’ll be able to fix what feels defective, and only then will they be worthy of self-care.

“But self-care is different because it’s about allowing yourself to have a nurturing experience of life right now as opposed to when you work harder in the future,” Obuchowicz said.

She also says numbing behaviors, like drinking, eating, or surfing social media in excess, are often mistaken as self-care.

“When a lot of people think about self-care, they think about how they can feel better, and numbing in the short term makes you feel better, but self-care is a more proactive response that requires you process what is causing you to numb,” she said.

Because it can be hard to distinguish between the two, she advises people think of it in another way.

“Self-care is something that when you do it, you wake up the next morning feeling better, while numbing is something that when you wake up the next day, you think, ‘Maybe I didn’t need that extra glass of wine or dessert.'”

Dr. Wayne Jonas, an integrative health expert and family physician at Samueli Integrative Health Programs, says that within the context of health, people understand that self-care involves a healthy diet, exercise, sleep, and maintaining work-life balance.

“Research shows that the core aspects of self-care contribute to 60 to 70 percent of the chronic diseases we know in this world,” Jonas told Movie Service. “Most people understand what the basics are that they need to do in order to be healthy, or in some cases even reverse illness, and they also understand it’s not easy to do, so they need help in that area.”

According to a nationwide Harris Poll that Jonas led at Samueli Integrative Health Programs, one barrier to people getting help with self-care is that that they don’t discuss it with their doctors.

The main reason for this, according to physicians, is that they have to talk to patients about their disease and its treatment, and they don’t have time to talk about the behavioral changes needed.

Doctors also stated that they can’t bill for the time related to integrative care. However, Jonas offers a Coding and Payment Guide on his website to help doctors do so.

Additionally, Jonas says only 38 percent of physicians said they knew what to do to help patients make self-help changes.

“There is a skills gap there. Very often, changing behavior involves social and emotional issues that are going [on with] patients,” he said.

Still, he says there is a way to integrate self-care into your doctor’s visit.

“Patients need to take some responsibility in linking self-care to their medical condition with their doctor. Because the doctor is strapped for time, unless brought to the forefront of the visit, it won’t be addressed,” he said.

The Harris Poll showed that about 55 percent of people said they wish they could sit down and talk about their life goals with their physician yet they never did.

Jonas suggests asking for an integrative health visit or lifestyle visit when you schedule your doctor’s visit. During the visit, he says bring up sleep, nutrition, and social and stress management. Before your visit, he recommends writing down a set of questions for your doctor.

To get you thinking, Jonas shares a Personal Health Inventory form that can help identify your top priority areas for health and health improvement.

“It’s been shown in research that if you write down questions, when you get into the doctor’s visit, it’s much more likely you’ll get [your questions] addressed,” Jonas said. “In terms of self-care or behavioral and social determinants of health, unless you go into the visit saying, ‘These are the things I need help with,’ the physician will do their checklist or what is needed for diagnosis and may or may not incorporate the things that are important.”

The Harris Poll reported that self-care isn’t a priority for consumers because 44 percent of consumers believe self-care is only possible for people with enough time, and 35 percent believe self-care is only possible for those with enough money.

“People assume they have to do [self-care] as a separate activity rather than build them into the routines of their life, yet they’re spending time on them anyway but not doing them in a way that keeps them healthy,” said Jonas. “We all sleep and move and eat and have ways of addressing stress in positive or negative ways that come up every single day, so the most important part of self-care can be built into a routine habit that you’re already spending time at.”

Obuchowicz notes that many people believe making time for self-care is selfish.

“That’s a message we’ve received — especially for women — that we should give to others first. We aren’t told that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves, but that we should only after work is done and the house is clean and kids are in bed. But we end up depleting ourselves because we’re not giving to ourselves in the ways we need to,” she said.

She proposes that it’s actually a selfish action not to engage in self-care because in order to care about the people in your lives, you have to care for yourself.

“It’s a comfort to people around us when they see us in control of ourselves. It’s not selfish to be able to do the things that we need to do to be present and energetic and available to others,” said Obuchowicz.

As far as self-care being costly, Jonas says many activities don’t have to be, such as walking in nature, using stress management apps, and mindfulness practices.

“It can be expensive if you want to buy organic foods, but in the long run it will be less expensive because you won’t have the consequence of not doing that,” Jonas said.

Obuchowicz teaches clients to incorporate self-care practices into their lives based on the Japanese productivity philosophy, the Kaizen Method, which focuses on constant, continuous improvement.

“The idea is that you want the easiest change. For self-care, we want to create the feeling of success for ourselves, and when we try to do too much too quickly in too many areas, we feel we are falling behind,” she said.

By making changes that feel like you’re gaining some traction in your life, she says over time you feel empowered to make other changes.

She breaks down self-care into three areas.

This includes creating a routine for diet, exercise, and sleep.

Jonas agrees that these three areas are important aspects of self-care, and points to the Mediterranean diet as the healthiest diet.

“A vegetarian whole-foods-based diet with supplemental fish and quality fats and nuts and whole grains has been shown in randomized controlled trials to have an impact on multiple conditions, from mental health to physical health,” he said.

As far as exercise goes, he says think small changes.

“It doesn’t require a heavy marathon movement at the gym. That’s not what keeps you healthy — it’s routine movement,” Jonas said. “A study came out a few weeks ago that looked at the optimal number of steps that a person should take for a long life, and it showed that about 7,500 steps were ideal, and going beyond that didn’t add much longevity.”

When it comes to sleep, he says get away from things that interfere with high-quality sleep, such as lights, screens, and drinking too much before bed.

Adding things that aid quality sleep are helpful, too.

“Comfortable bedding and good pillows will enhance deep sleep, which improves the immune system, and the better sleep the less inflammation you have in your body, and inflammation contributes to disease from mental [illness] to heart disease to others,” said Jonas.

Obuchowicz refers to thoughts, emotions, and feelings.

“For some, it’s going to therapy or a 12-step program, but it’s whatever gets you to be vulnerable and practice emotional intelligence with yourself,” she said. “This is harder than [physical self-care] because there is less societal acceptance around it.”

Jonas includes stress management as part of this.

“You want to learn how to manage your emotional reactions to things in life… emotional skills can be learned,” he said.

He suggests stress-management tools, mindfulness classes, and mind-body approaches like yoga and tai chi.

“I also use heart rate feedback. You can get an app that measures your beat variability between heartbeats, which is an indication of your physiological ability to relax,” said Jonas.

Because humans are communal, Obuchowicz says nurturing friendships, family, and people in your community is essential to self-care.

Jonas agrees.

“Being with family and friends and spending time enjoying the presence of people you like and love is the kind of social support that is not attached to an agenda or need, and has been shown over and over again in multiple studies to be a key health-promoting factor,” he said.

Connecting with others to participate in meaningful activities is also part of social support, notes Obuchowicz.

“Being involved in causes and organizations you care about and that make you feel like you can be met or heard or helpful can bring meaning to your life,” she said.

This can be done through a club, church, or organization that resonates with you.

“If you’re doing something that’s not meaningful to you, like your job, rethink what you’re doing and embed a meaningful activity with others every day,” said Jonas. “The activity doesn’t have to be long — it just has to be there.”

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.