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Self-care, what it is and why you should bother

Research shows that 95% of frontline health-care workers believe that self-care is important. Do you agree? Well, apparently only 55% of us do.  

As this Sunday, 24/7, is International Self-Care Day, we want to spotlight why it is worth getting serious about self-care. In this blog we talk about what self-care is, how it’s helpful and  why you should bother making time for self-care. Our hope is that in doing so, we can help to address this worrying gap and get self-care at the top of the agenda.

What is self-care and what are the main types?

The International Self-care Foundation defines self-care as a “practical, person-centred set of activities that we should all be undertaking to maintain our health, wellness and wellbeing. Self-care can only be undertaken by individuals themselves, although the broader environment can provide vital assistance or present significant barriers.


These self-care activities can be grouped in the three dimensions of health: physical, mental, and social health.


Physical self-care

This applies to your body and relates to how you care for your fitness and activities like exercise, as well as what you eat and drink, and sleep. It also applies to aspects such as  your personal hygiene and your ability to read and respond to  physical sensations like pain, tiredness, and hunger. Do you have the skills to feed yourself well? Do you know how to keep yourself physically active in a way that’s realistic for your capacity and ability?


Mental self-care

This applies to your thoughts and emotions, like how you manage stress to lower your risk of illness, and how well you read and respond to what’s going on for you. It also applies to your knowledge – do you know how to read and respond to your thoughts and emotions? Do you know how to self-soothe and self-motivate? Are your beliefs helpful for your self-relationship or do you struggle with believing that you’re worth caring for?


Social self-care

This applies to your relationships, connections with other people, and your social skills. It also applies to aspects like your financial circumstances, education, and your access to services, including health-care and products (such as medication) that are vital for your self-care.  There’s a growing understanding and appreciation of just how important social networks are too. This year’s World Happiness Report, for example, reported on how the pandemic has shown a 25% increase in people’s appreciation of benevolence. This includes behaviours like giving money to charity, helping strangers, and volunteering.


All these factors are integral to your health and emotional literacy. This is firstly your ability to read (understand) your health and your feelings (emotions and physical sensations) as they are your primary indicators of your health. And secondly, having the knowledge, information and access to services and products to be able to respond. When you have this, your self-care and your health improve. Your ability to manage and mitigate risks that affect your health and well-being increases too.

A man running in the rain with a dog

Is self-care helpful and why bother doing it?

Self-care is now considered so helpful that the World Health Organisation  describes it as “critically important”.  The International Self-Care Foundation has written an eleven point manifesto stating in no uncertain terms just how helpful and vital self-care is.


Let us share with you Glen’s story, to illustrate in hopefully relatable terms, just how much difference practising self-care can make.


Glen’s story and his examples of self-care


Glen did not think self-care was particularly important when he came to his first consultation here at The Helpful Clinic. Getting curious about why he should bother doing anything about it, he soon changed his perspective.


Glen had come because he was struggling.  His son had called him a miserable git and he had to acknowledge that there was truth to this observation, even though he resented hearing it.  Feeling tired, overwhelmed, stressed, and in pain all the time was indeed miserable and so he vowed to do something about it.


We started by supporting him to identify his ‘why bother?’ reminder phrase, his reason for making the effort to change habits, learn new skills, and access the courage he needed to face the reality of his experience. This was: ‘I don’t want to be a miserable git’.

Definition of Shellacking


Glen was struggling with energy levels, physical pain and mood-related symptoms. He was particularly struggling with school day evenings.


Glen described how, upon arriving home after picking his children up from school, he’d rush in and start prepping dinner even before he’d taken his coat off. Using an approach called Sherlocking, he realised that the kids moaning in the car about how hungry they were stressed him out. Realising this, he decided to give them a snack in the car on the way home. This gave him the space to change out of his work clothes into comfy  clothes before doing anything else. The change of clothes then acted as a way of changing gears into a slower pace and he became more mindful and the stress eased even more.


Amazed by the transformation this made to his symptoms, Glen reflected on how he started his day too. He  remembered how mornings used to be his favourite time of the day, walking his dog Bella before the rest of the family got up.


Realising the joy had been replaced with physical discomfort, he sherlocked deeper and discovered that his feet were often cold, and damp. This was because, although his wife and children all had the best quality foot apparel for all given circumstances, he hadn’t bought himself footwear for years. His shoes had holes in them and he hadn’t even noticed.


Buying a new pair of boots turned Glen’s morning around. This got him thinking about other acts of self-care he could commit to. Stepping out of the shower that morning he realised removing towel fluff from his body hair took ages and made him grumpy. The simple act of buying less fluffy towels for his personal use brought more ease – and time – into Glenn’s daily life.


These improvements coupled with learning about how feelings are information and how to respond to them spurred Glen on to make further improvements. His pain and fatigue subsided. Feelings of overwhelm and irritability dissipated. He was more productive and was getting on much better with his family and colleagues.  The single biggest benefit was how much his relationship with his son improved. Glen was no longer a miserable git.


Self-care comes in many shapes and forms. Changing out of workwear into daywear, buying new shoes and towels did it for Glen and may not be what you need. The cost of  his ‘low-level’ stress factors had seemed negligible to him. If he hadn’t taken action though, they would have gradually become an even higher price to pay in terms of symptoms. The benefits of taking his self-care seriously and upskilling his health and emotional literacy improved his health and quality of life.  Glen no longer doubts how critical his self-care is, not only for him but for his loved ones too.


What is the meaning of self-care and what are you making it mean?

Minds are meaning making – we apply meaning to pretty much everything, all the time, including self-care.  Over the last century self-care became seen as selfish and something bad. As a result, many of us are now stuck, like Glen, not knowing how to do self-care well. We even feel guilty for considering it.


At the Helpful Clinic, we talk about putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others. We’re all familiar with this advice in terms of air-travel, but rarely do we think it all the way through, especially parents of young children whose instinct is to assist the child first. But think about it. Putting the oxygen mask on your child first, may mean they have oxygen for a while. What happens though, when you pass out from lack of oxygen? Your child is at potentially life-threatening risk.


Socrates was adamant that self-care was the first priority before all others. Audre Lourde, referred to by Lama Rod Owenas Mother Audre Lourde for her vital contribution to Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color people (BIPOC) took this even further. Lourde had a razor sharp insight into the importance of self-care, saying:  “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”  Standing sentinel to your self-care is indeed a political act and even a radical one.  It’s evident when you’re dealing with a chronic illness and need to advocate for yourself or you’re dealing with discrimination based characteristics like the colour of your skin, gender or age.  A recent spotlight in the UK on the plight of people struggling with menopausal symptoms is a case in point. The violence through health-care perpetrated on black people in the US referred to in Lama Rod’s book Love and Rage is a sobering example.  And we wrote Black Health also matters. The social component of self-care matters. You matter.  There are also the societal benefits of how increased ability to self-care decreases the burden on health systems but that’s for another blog.


How do you develop self-care?

Awareness is the first port of call.  Becoming aware and making the choice to invest in and prioritise your self-care is key. This includes making the time for self-care and planning your self-care.

We invite you to take a moment to reflect. How does this apply to you? Does anything in Glen’s story resonate?

Here are some questions to help:

  • Do you know how to do your own self-care?
  • What are you already doing for your self-care that’s helpful?
  • What would be your “why bother?”
  • What are you making self-care mean?  Have you been told it’s selfish or even narcissistic to prioritise self-care?
  • Do you know what you need? So many of us don’t actually know this and need help to figure it out. Check out the seven pillars of self-care from the International Self-care Foundation for more ideas.


There are three meditations on Insight Timer (all about 10 minutes) that can help if you’re struggling with your self-care:

One final – and reassuring  – point about self-care is that it’s more about marginal gains than big gestures.  Just one thing, just one change will help. Even if you’re not where you’d like to be in terms of your self-care, we hope that this blog will inspire you to check-in with yourself and strengthen your self-care.


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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.

All the best, Thor