“Self-Care” Going Beyond the Buzzword

By Samantha Motto 01/20/2022

In 2021, we have all become familiar with the term “self-care.” Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, an emphasis was put on this topic as millions of people were unexpectedly holed up in their homes with roommates, pets, kids, and family members. Some were expected to continue their workload when others found themselves with an excess of free time. Whether it came from a place of desperation and necessity, or out of an opportunity born from idle time, the population became more familiar with self-care.

This term as we know it today was coined in the 1950s before the dawn of most outpatient mental health services. Institutionalization was common, and for the patients who wouldn’t meet the criteria for this type of care in the present day, it often did more harm than good. Thus, clinicians tried to help their clients cultivate a sense of purpose and worth through acts of care despite their unfortunate circumstances. Often when a person cannot control the situation around them, they are encouraged to look inward and care for the only person they do have control over… themselves. Acts of grooming and hygiene motivated clients to be independent in other ways. This concept of self-care was picked up in academic circles as a way to understand post-traumatic stress in a wider population of people as clinicians saw success with their clients practicing this nurturing in the psyche units. Often when people feel self-efficacy in smaller tasks, they feel more competent to tackle tougher issues, such as their mental health.

In the 1950s, hundreds of burned-out civil rights activists adopted the practice outside of the clinical sphere. “For a long time, activists did not necessarily think that it mattered to take care of themselves in terms of what they eat, mental self-care, cultural self-care, spiritual self-care,” civil rights activist Angela Davis said in a 2018 AFROPUNK interview. The Black Panther Party took it among themselves to meet the basic needs of their community, such as food and medical care, which helped lay the foundation for greater efforts of caring for oneself.

As we’ve moved on through the decades though, there seems to have been a shift from self-care as a way to meet basic human needs toward a vague excuse for us to indulge our desires. In 1990, Foucault studied self-care in ancient Rome and Greece through the lens of sexuality. While the fulfillment of sexual desires is natural and participation in the beauty of humankind, ancient cultures still advocated for prudence and self-mastery lest a person create an immoral imbalance within themselves.

So what is the secret of self-care?

A focus on the self, that isn’t selfish. The medical model of care is assessing a patient’s problems and matching them to prescribed medical treatment. This is self-care in its most basic form; treating pain or illness to bring oneself to a functional level of health. But Lucille Kinlein in her article The Self-Care Concept realized that after years of nursing patients, people seemed to want a nurturing that transcended caring for physical illnesses. “Clients began coming to me saying, ‘I’m healthy; I’d like to stay that way; I’d like you to make me healthier.’” She would focus on daily, healthy habits and reinforce them with her patients, occasionally checking in with them to see if their goals and habits were lining up. She concluded that this contributed to the overall health of her patients, and gave nurses a unique, specialized relationship with their patients.

In the world of mental health, routine self-care has been clinically proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, reduce stress, minimize irritability, and improve energy. So, how do we get started in self-care practice? It will be different for every person and their lifestyle, but here are a handful of practices that people across the population have had the most success with:

  • Physical Activity:

    • I’m sure you’re not surprised to see exercise on this list. Honestly, you don’t need a full hour of intense workout to participate! Of course, you may reap extra endorphins from a longer workout, but dancing, gardening, and even housework produce endorphins that reduce our perception of pain and act as sedatives to help us relax.
      • For more information on exercise as self care, check out this video by Doctor Mike Evans entitled: “What is the single best thing we can do for our health?”

  • Indulging your inner child:

    • Maybe childhood was difficult for you, and you have an inner child who still needs to feel peace and nurturing. Or maybe you were a joyful child who had a wonderful sense of playfulness before you inherited the weight of adulthood responsibilities. Either way, spending time with our inner child is a great self-care practice that encourages introspection and teaches us how we can meet our own needs in times of difficulty. For some, this is an emotional process where they need to validate the emotions that were dismissed for them in their childhood. For others, it may look like jumping on a trampoline and telling funny stories to their friends. The first step is to acknowledge our inner child exists, and then to “think of inner child work as a process of self-discovery” (Raypole, 2021).
  • Mindfulness practices:

    • “Mindfulness” is probably a term you’ve heard before as it has had its moment in the spotlight over the past couple of years. This practice, when turned into a daily habit, can help people to feel more in control of themselves and their circumstances. Mindfulness.org explains, “When it comes to regulating difficult emotions, there are two ways most people respond: they act out or they suppress. If you act out with a strong emotion like anger, you will most likely create undesirable consequences in your relationships, your work, and even your play. The ripple effects of acting out usually provoke more anger around you, which leads to more difficulty. The consequences of suppressing those big emotions can be even more dangerous. What many people aren’t aware of is that there’s another way to regulate our emotions: Feel the feeling in real-time.” This can be as easy as stopping to take a deep breath, and identifying the strongest emotion you’re feeling in that moment. Others move to their bodily sensation. Yes, they feel anger, but what sensation does that create in their body? We can surf the proverbial waves of our emotions without letting them drown us. For more mindfulness meditations explore Mindful Magazine’s collection of short meditations to get started.
    • Netflix also recently partnered with Headspace to create a mini-series educating people about meditation and each episode ends with a helpful, guided mindfulness practice.
  • Dream (or future goals) Journal:

    • Why do all this work? What’s it all for? Keeping a journal of dreams and goals helps us make meaning out of all the experiences we have daily. Setting smaller, achievable goals each week may help you cross a few things off of your to-do list while also building your self-confidence. For bigger, long-term dreams we have, it helps to journal our thoughts and feelings about those goals. Sometimes we may want to re-evaluate if the goal is still something we want. Other times, we may need to reflect on what steps we are taking in that direction if it really is something we still desire for ourselves.
  • Therapy:

    • Going to a therapy session can be the last thing a person wants to do when they’re burned out. Often the work is difficult and may bring up unpleasant emotions. So why is it on the self-care list? Because therapy can uncover the source of a failure to care for one’s self. If anxiety is the cause, therapists can typically help a client work toward skills and practices which would decrease their anxiety symptoms. Decreasing unpleasant symptoms usually improves one’s mood, which will generally lead to a person having more motivation, energy, and clarity to meet their self-care needs independently.


Foucault, M., & Hurley, R. (1990). The Care of the Self. Penguin Books.

Kinlein, M. L. (1977). The Self-Care Concept. The American Journal of Nursing, 77(4), 598–601. https://doi.org/10.2307/3461863

Martha Tesema. (2020, July 23). Shine. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from https://advice.theshineapp.com/articles/how-you-can-honor-the-radical-history-of-self-care/

Stamp, N. (2019, December 10). The Revolutionary Origins of Self-care by @ReadLocalLove. LOCAL LOVE. Retrieved October 16, 2021