How Self-Care Can Help You Cope with Tough Times

Feeling stressed or upset? These DIY mental-health strategies can give you an emotional, physical, and spiritual boost.

Self-care is a buzzword lately: You’ve probably read about rock stars going on yoga retreats or seen photos of your favorite actor relaxing on a tropical vacation, accompanied by a story on the trendy topic. Those experiences are one way to ease stress and cope with life’s challenges, but there are many other approaches to self-care as well. Learn what the term really means, and how you can these techniques to feel better when you’re dealing with school anxiety, family problems, a tough break-up, or just—well—life.

What Is Self-Care?

Self-care is way of making yourself feel better during tough times that involves engaging in activities that you enjoy and are good for your health, in order to decrease stress and increase happiness. What those activities vary from person to person, but in general, they are experiences that leave you feeling emotionally, physically, and spiritually better for having done them.

You might be thinking that self-care sounds nice, but that it’s not as important as a lot of other stuff you have going on. “Teens are juggling an ever-increasing list of stressors. Between homework, building their college resumes with extracurriculars, and helping out at home, it can be easy to lose track of making time to take care of yourself,” says Dan Wolfson, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Rennicke & Associates in New York City.

But it’s really important to fit self-care into your busy life; among other reasons, it helps you learn to manage intense emotions in a healthy way. For example, instead of zoning out on Netflix or playing video games when you’re struggling, you can practice deep breathing, go for a run, do yoga, or call a trusted adult or BFF to talk it out. “These are all important ways that you can practice self-care,” says Emily Grossman, MA, an organizational development specialist at The Jewish Board’s Martha K. Selig Educational Institute. The end result is that you feel empowered after these activities, leaving you better equipped to deal with the problem at hand.

What Kind of Self-Care Is Best for You?

Self-care activities are varied: Reading, hanging out with friends, writing, listening to music, hiking, playing with pets, taking a bath, practicing yoga, and learning to meditate all qualify. When you’re engaged in these soul-nurturing activities, feel-good hormones called endorphins flood your bloodstream and give you a natural high that improves your mood.

So where should you start? There are certain basic self-care practices everyone should follow. These include getting enough sleep, receiving regular medical check-ups, spending time with positive friends, playing a sport you love, and eating nutritious meals. It may also include going to Synagogue to find a sense of peace and rejuvenation that increases your wellbeing.

What Self-Care Isn’t

It’s easy to mistake self-care for doing anything that makes you feel good, whether that’s bingeing on SNL reruns or polishing off a carton of ice cream. But these experiences, although satisfying in the short run, don’t qualify as self-care. “Many of my clients come to me thinking that self-care means getting a manicure or pedicure,” says Grossman. “But really, true self-care is about working on your ‘insides’ so that your best self can shine through.”

Self-care isn’t retail therapy, like buying an expensive pair of shoes. It’s not zoning out for hours in front of mindless TV, or eating junk food as a way to feel happier. These things are self- indulgent, but they’re not self-care. If you’re unsure whether an activity qualifies, as yourself three questions: Does it nurture your inner-self? Does it make you feel better about who you are on a deep, spiritual level? Does it improve your health? If the answer is no, then the activity does not count as self-care.

How to Practice Self-Care

A lot of people don’t really think about self-care until something traumatic happens, like they come down with mono, or have a huge blow-up with a friend. But it’s smart to start practicing it now before an illness or upsetting event happens, so you’ll be ready if life throws you a curveball. “The more stress you are exposed to—including unexpected challenges such as grief, loss, or trauma—the more important it is to take care of yourself,” says Wolfson.

To get started, try these ideas:

  • Emotional self-care: Daydream; watch clouds; help a friend; sing, play, or listen to music; read a good book; watch a touching movie.
  • Physical self-care: Play a sport; go to the gym; take a walk; practice yoga; soak in a bath; plant flowers.
  • Spiritual self-care: Go to synagogue; pray; write in a journal; talk with your Rabbi; spend time in nature; meditate.

“Although it might seem counterintuitive when you’re busy it’s even more important to take breaks for self-care because it can help ensure you have the mental, emotional, and physical capacity to manage the demands that are placed on you,” says Wolfson. It’s not a huge commitment, either. Try one of these activities for five or 10 minutes; if you like it, go longer next time. Incorporate these experiences into your daily or weekly routine. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to find a groove: Starting self-care takes energy and commitment, and it’s OK to give it a try, then take a break, and try it again. Remember, any activity that makes you feel good about yourself and improves your wellbeing is worth doing again and again.

Special thanks to our experts:

 Dan Wolfson, PsyD, staff psychologist at Rennicke & Associates, New York City

Emily Grossman, MA, CPRP, NYCPS-P, Organizational Development Specialist, Martha K. Selig Educational Institute, The Jewish Board, New York City


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