A guide for young people What is self-care?

‘Self-care’ is a phrase you’ve probably come across, but what does it really mean? Find out what we mean by self-care and how to find what works for you.

What is self-care?

‘Self-care’ is a phrase you’ve probably come across, but what does it really mean?

Judging by what we see in adverts or on social media, we might think it’s all about candles, yoga and luxury bath bombs. We might think it costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. And we might feel like it isn’t for us. But is that really what it's all about?

In its simplest form, self-care is just the little things we do to look after our own mental health. It’s about trying to listen to how we are feeling and understanding what we need, even if it’s difficult, so we can care for ourselves.

This could mean taking a timeout when we're feeling overwhelmed; it could mean making time to do an activity that we know makes us feel good; or it could be as simple as making sure to do the basics like eating and sleeping well when we're struggling.

Self-care is the little things we do to look after our own mental health

The important thing with self-care is not what it looks like, but what it does for you and how it makes you feel. When it comes to self-care it's not one thing, it's your thing.

What works for one person may not work for someone else. It also looks different depending on where we're at mentally at the time; what works for us when we're doing well might feel impossible when we're going through a hard time. But that’s okay. The important thing is that we listen to what we need, not what we think the world needs from us.

When we think about self-care, we might think of a particular activity like reading a book or having a bath. Self-care can be a single activity like this, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be setting a boundary with someone to look after your own mental health; it could be pushing yourself to do something you want to do even though you’re nervous about it; or it could be giving yourself permission to take a break and do nothing at all.

Remember, the important thing with self-care is not what it looks like, but what it does for you and how it makes you feel. Because when it comes to self-care, it’s not one thing, it’s your thing.

Watch: What does self-care really mean?

We took to the streets to speak to young people and find out what self-care means to them. Here's what they said.

Despite what we’re often told, self-care isn’t all face masks and films. If they work for you, great. But if that’s not what works for you, that’s fine too. Self-care is still for you. Own it.
Elsa

Purple text on a white background. The text says: Self-care is simply the little things you do to look after your mental health. The word self-care is highlighted in yellow.

Purple text on a white background. The text says: Self-care is not a replacement for getting help. And it is not about having to fix your problems on your own. But it is an important part of maintaining good mental health. The words 'not a replacement' are highlighted in yellow.

Purple text on a white background. The text says: In the same way that a car needs maintenance, we need to practise self-care to look after our mental health and wellbeing. The words 'look after our mental health' are highlighted in yellow.

Purple text on a white background. The text says: We all face challenges in life. Self-care is a way of ensuring we're in the best possible headspace to take on those challenges. The words 'best possible headspace' are highlighted in yellow.

Purple text on a white background. The text says: There is no "right" way to practise self-care - what works for you may not work for someone else. The words 'no "right" way' is highlighted in yellow.

Purple text on a white background. The text says: Make looking after your mental health a priority. Discover what self-care looks like for you. And remember that when it comes to self-care, it's not one thing, it's your thing. The words 'a priority' are highlighted in yellow.

How can self-care help?

Graphic by @daylightillustrations. On top of a cream background, there is bold text that says self care in grey. Beneath that, to the left of the image, there is a multi-colour pie chart with six equal slices that say: face masks, candles, bubble baths, spa day, ice cream, and shopping. There is text with an arrow pointing to this that says: what people think it is. Below and to the right is another multi-colour pie chart with six equal slices that say: saying "no", therapy, setting boundaries, asking for what you need, getting a full night's sleep, and taking a break. Next to this pie chart is text with an arrow pointing to this that says: what it actually is. At the bottom of the graphic in grey it says @daylightillustrations.

Self-care is not a replacement for getting help from friends, family or professionals, nor is it about having to fix your problems on your own; but it is an important part of maintaining good mental health. In the same way that a computer or a car needs maintenance, we need to check in with ourselves and practise self-care to look after our mental health and wellbeing. We all face challenges in life, and self-care is a way of ensuring we’re in the best possible headspace to take on those challenges.

You may feel as though:

  • you don’t need to practise self-care
  • you don’t have the time to practise self-care
  • practising self-care is a waste of time

But taking time for yourself is even more important when you’re busy with other things, and if you are able to look after your own needs, other areas of your life will feel more manageable.

A student wearing uniform sits on a desk lost in a thought with their hand over their mouth, they sit next to another student who is focused on the lesson.

For example, if you’re worried about exams, you may feel like you need to spend all of your time revising. While it is of course important to revise, if you don’t take the time to look after yourself by doing things like eating and sleeping well, and you don’t give yourself time to unwind by doing something you enjoy like gaming or seeing your friends, you will find it harder to revise. We are not machines – we all need a break sometimes!

You may feel like doing self-care is selfish, especially if you have responsibilities like caring for a friend or family member. But there’s nothing selfish about looking after yourself, and actually doing so will make you better able to do the other things you need to do. Remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Finding what self-care works for you

If you’re not sure what to do for self-care, or how to figure out what works for you, you could start by asking yourself these questions:

  • What can I do within my power that will make me feel better?
  • What helps me recharge when I'm feeling drained?
  • What helps me forget about my problems?
  • If my best friend were in my position right now, what would I encourage them to do?
  • Are my needs right now emotional, physical or practical?

Finding the self-care that works for you may be a case of trial and error. If self-care isn’t something you normally do, then it might feel strange at first – you might even feel guilty or like you’re being selfish – but stick with it. You deserve to take time to look after yourself.

Top tip

Making self-care a habit

Self-care doesn’t have to be a big event. You don’t need a whole evening with scented candles and relaxing music to practise self-care. It can be as simple as asking yourself if there is anything you need to do to look after yourself or your mental health. If you're struggling to check in with yourself or find that you don't have the time, try setting a calendar reminder on your phone. This can help you make time in your day to practise self-care.

What does self-care look like?

Judging by what we see in adverts or on social media, we might think self-care is all about candles, yoga and luxury bath bombs. We might think it costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. And we might feel like it isn’t for us. But is that really all there is to it?

Here are some activities that are commonly suggested for self-care, as well as the principles that underlie them and some other examples of things you can try if they're not for you.

A nice long soak in the bubble bath?

It’s great to do something that feels good for your body, but not everybody likes the bath – or has one!

Instead, you could try gently stretching, putting on your comfiest pyjamas, or applying some moisturiser or body lotion – whatever works for you

A yoga class at sunrise?

It’s great to do something that makes you feel calm, but not everyone is able to take yoga classes.

Instead, you could try doing a guided meditation using Headspace or Calm, listening to some soothing music, or doing something creative you can lose yourself in like colouring. Find what makes you feel grounded.

Sweating it out on a run?

Getting active can be great for our mental health, but there’s more than one way to do it.

Instead, you could try having a dance to your favourite tunes, going for a long walk, or even just shaking your limbs out on the spot. It’s about getting out of your head and into your body.

A cosy night in with a good book?

There’s lots of different ways to unwind and escape from your problems – it doesn’t have to be with a book!

Instead, you could listen to a podcast, watch your favourite TV show or movie, or call up a friend for a chat. Think about the last time you lost yourself in an activity and try that.

Getting out into nature?

Changing our surroundings can be a great way to shake things up, but getting out into nature isn’t always possible.

Instead, you could try cleaning your bedroom or living space, moving rooms, or even watching a nature show on TV. If we can’t change our physical environment, sometimes a change of mental surroundings can help instead.

A nutritious home-cooked meal?

It’s important to take care of our physical needs, but that doesn’t have to be anything fancy.

Instead, it could be as simple as getting a glass of water to stay hydrated, getting to bed early, or even just getting up and going to the loo. Listen to what your body needs.

A long talk with friends?

Speaking to someone about your worries is a great way to feel less alone with what you’re going through. But we know it’s not always easy.

Instead, you could try writing a journal, to get some of your worries out of your head and onto paper. Or sometimes just doing something sociable - a kickabout in the park, a coffee with a friend - where you don't talk about anything deep at all can be just what you need.

Real stories from young people

medium shot of a boy wearing black jacket smiling as he looks to a friend beside him
Try not to compare your actions with what other people are doing. Remember, It’s about what helps YOU feel more able to manage your mental health.
Elsa
a girl with shaved head wearing with shirt and black trousers looking on the ground thinking while she lean on a green brick wall
Once I started making sure I did at least one thing solely for myself every day, I really started to notice a difference in how I felt.
Lorna
  • It can help to ask yourself how you would support a friend in your position or what you would suggest they do, then trying to show yourself the same care.
    Lorna
  • We all struggle with different things and have different lifestyles, so self-care naturally looks different for us all. Try not to compare your actions with what other people are doing.
    Elsa
  • Self-care is about taking time to maintain your mental health.
    Rachael
  • Cleaning my room is a form of self-care, as I deserve to be in surroundings that make me feel safe and comfortable.
    Luca

When self-care feels difficult or impossible

Sometimes when we’re struggling with our mental health, self-care can feel really difficult or even impossible. We may feel bad that we aren’t able to get enjoyment or comfort out of things we used to do to feel good. This is completely normal and it is temporary. In the meantime, the important thing is to adjust your expectations of self-care. Try to focus on the basics and think about little steps you can take to look after yourself. This might include things like:

  • meeting basic needs – eating, drinking water, washing, sleeping
  • celebrating the small achievements
  • trying to focus on yourself and not compare yourself to others
  • asking for support and help from others

For those of us with a health condition or disability that impacts our ability to do certain things, a lot of the activities that get recommended for self-care may be a challenge, or may not be possible at all. This can feel alienating and frustrating, but remember that when it comes to self-care, the important thing is to find what feels right for you. Because ultimately it’s not about the form your self-care takes, it’s about the way it makes you feel.

Graphic by @artsyillustrations. On top of a light red background there is text, with each line written on top of a different brushstroke of colour, that says: Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love. Beneath this there is text that says Brene Brown.

Purple text on a white background in large font. The text says: What to do when self-care feels impossible. The phrase 'self-care' is highlighted yellow.

Text on a white background. Highlighted yellow is a heading that says: Try to meet your basic needs. Beneath that in purple is text that says: Eat regular meals, drink plenty of water, wash daily and get a good night's sleep if you can. There may be some days when this feels difficult - and that's okay. But you will often feel better if you're able to meet your basic needs.

Text on a white background. Highlighted yellow is a heading that says: Celebrate the small achievements. Beneath that in purple is text that says: Celebrate getting out of bed, sending that message to a friend or going downstairs to get a glass of water. Small progress is still progress. And you can aim to do a little more each day. Be patient with yourself and take one day at a time.

Text on a white background. Highlighted yellow is a heading that says: Try to focus on yourself and not compare yourself to others. Beneath that in purple is text that says: What you are going through is unique to you. Although some people may have shared similar experiences to you, no one has been through exactly what you have. You may be going through a difficult time right now, but things can get better. Now is the time to focus on you.

Text on a white background. Highlighted yellow is a heading that says: Talk to someone you trust. Beneath that in purple is text that says: You don't have to go through this alone. Talking to someone you trust can feel like a weight lifted off your shoulders. There is no shame in asking for help. We all need it from time to time - and that's okay.

Purple text on a white background. The text says: If you're really struggling and these steps feel impossible today, that's okay too. Being kind to yourself is also a form of self-care. Go easy on yourself and try again tomorrow. The phrases 'Being kind to yourself' and 'self-care' are highlighted yellow.

If a shower is too much, could you wash your face and use dry shampoo? If a walk sounds impossible, could you do some simple stretches?
Lorna

What is community care?

Sometimes we may be unable to practise self-care as we understand it. This could be because we’re really struggling with how we’re feeling, or it could be because we have other issues occupying our headspace, like a bereavement, discrimination we’re experiencing or financial stresses. In these cases, we might need the people around us to help look after our needs. This is called community care.

Community care is about showing the people in our lives that whatever they’re going through, they’re not going through it alone. It can be as simple as texting a friend who’s seemed a bit down lately to let you know you’re there for them, or asking if there’s anything you can do to support them. But this can also mean raising your voice in support of your community, for example by attending a protest.

For more information and advice, have a look at our page on supporting a friend with their mental health.

Supporting a friend with their mental health

Graphic by @selfloverainbow. On a yellow background, there is black text. The title says: Positive Self-Talk. Underneath the title, the text says: Instead of beating yourself up when you make a mistake try...Beneath this there is a bullet point list of text, which says: I don't need to berate myself like this; I am trying my best; I am learning how to do this; It's okay to make mistakes; It's okay to be frustrated; If someone else made this mistake I would forgive them.

Where to get help

Self-care can't fix everything. Below is a list of organisations and helpline services that can offer support when you're struggling.

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