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What Does Truly Productive Self-Care Look Like?

Experts share tips for identifying what caring for yourself really looks like. (Hint: It's easier — and cheaper — than you think!)

Liliboas/Getty Images
Liliboas/Getty Images

When you read the words “self-care,” what practices come to mind?

Self-care can mean many different things to many different people, and in our current cultural conversation, it teeters on the verge of cliché (think: bubble baths and bath bombs), but there is a vital difference between healthy self-care practices that nourish your body and soul, and practices that, like a sugar high, make you feel better in the moment only to send you crashing down afterwards (anyone who’s ever single-spoonedly found the bottom of a pint of ice cream can relate.)

While it’s perfectly fine to indulge every once in a while, it’s important to be aware of how your self-care choices are affecting you, and whether or not they’re truly improving your well-being. Here, experts share some of their criteria for identifying practices that serve you in the long-term — and those you should give in to sparingly.

It’s planned.

“A central problem with self-care for many people is that it’s difficult to think creatively when we’re stressed. So one key criterion is that healthy self-care is planned,” Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, author, and TED speaker, tells Thrive. “If you have a difficult meeting with your boss coming up next week… make a date in advance to get together with your best friend afterward, instead of coming home drained and annoyed, and then trying to think about what would make you feel better. In that moment, a gallon of ice cream or a bottle of wine may look more appealing, but it’s probably not the right choice.”

Both Aamodt and Ellen Bard, M.A., an occupational psychologist and author on self-care, suggest making a list of activities that nourish you emotionally, mentally, and physically, to reference in a pinch. Having a variety of readily available options will help you make a healthier choice if you need a quick boost.

It’s simple.

After a rough day, it can sometimes feel as if a grand gesture is the only thing that will pull you out of a slump. In reality, you don’t need to shell out tons of money or time — Aamodt says that the most effective self-care practices are actually low-effort (and often free!).

“Many people have a tendency to fall into black-and-white thinking when they’re upset, making them feel as though they have to make some big effort to get out of a bad mood,” she says. In fact, “starting small usually has a better success rate.”

Aamodt suggests swapping your usual commute for a walk outside, a brief meditation, or a phone call with a friend or family member who cares about you.

It’s habitual.

Self-care isn’t just for when you’re feeling down; implementing daily practices that nourish your body and soul helps raise your overall wellness and prepares you to stay calm when life throws curveballs.

“Instead of putting out fires after I’m already stressed, I try to incorporate exercise, meditation, and socializing into my life every day,” Aamodt says. “Regular self-care greatly reduces the number of emergencies that I need to deal with.”

Bard agrees. “Try to make sure you don’t ‘run your batteries down,’ and make sure you give yourself some care and support before you hit that wall,” she tells Thrive. “Ask yourself regularly, ‘what do I need right now?’ The more you get to know yourself — your deeper self — the more effective your self-care will be.”

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