Research shows the importance of having a routine, exercising, and meditation
We all know that self-care is important. When we practice self-care it sends back the message that we are worth the time and effort. Yet somehow, it’s still hard to carve out time for ourselves. If you could fit just one self-care activity into your schedule, what would it be? We asked 6 psychologists to share the self-care strategies they use themselves in good times and bad. Here are the tips psychologists recommend you use to look after your mental health:
1. Check in with yourself
Ana M. Rodriguez, PhD
The Self-Care Practice, New York, New York
What: One simple self-care strategy I turn to daily is checking in with myself. I like to pause at different points in my day and practice mindfulness.
Why: I think it’s important to cultivate practices that we can easily sustain in our daily lives. It is so easy to get wrapped up with everything that we have going on in our lives and finding time for self-care can feel like another item to add to our to-do list.
How: I take time to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and bring awareness to my emotions, physical sensations, and thoughts. Based on what I notice, I respond accordingly. I also ask myself, “What can I do in this moment to support myself?” This can involve moving my body and stretching for several minutes, spending 5 minutes in meditation, or reaching out to a friend for support.
2. Set time to exercise you can’t back out of
Natalie Christine Dattilo, PhD
Founder, Priority Wellness Group; Instructor, Harvard Medical School
What: Exercise is my non-negotiable self-care activity. I exercise not only for my physical health, but for my mental health, too. It helps me regulate my emotions better and reminds me that I am strong and capable. Exercise tells us we can push ourselves and do hard things.
Why: Decades of research has shown exercise can be one of the most effective behavioral antidepressants out there. We used to attribute this to the release of endorphins, but it turns out that regular exercise also releases endocannabinoids, which enhances our sense of social connection and our sensitivity to pleasure.
How: Working out in the morning boosts my energy and I start the day with a feeling of accomplishment. A benefit of group fitness classes is that I have to book them in advance and block the time in my calendar.
3. Spend more time in nature
Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD
Director, Alvord, Baker & Associates, Rockville and Chevy Chase, Maryland
What: I get outside to walk 3 to 4 miles almost every day, rain or shine. During the week, I fit in short walks whenever and wherever I can. On Sundays, I schedule a longer walk with a friend.
Why: There’s a lot of literature on the benefits of spending time in nature. In addition to the physical benefits of walking, I get so much relaxation from being outdoors. Noticing the sounds, the movements, the textures, all the different shades of green around me. Being outside clears my mind, helps relieve stress, and gives me a break from technology.
How: I have a busy schedule, and it’s just not realistic to walk for an hour at a time. I make sure to squeeze in lots of little walks during the day. Even if I just walk for 15 minutes at a time, it all adds up. I also pair it with enjoyable things, like listening to an audio book or talking to a friend.
4. Lean on your friendships
Thema Bryant, PhD
2023 APA president, professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, and ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church
What: Social support is an important part of my daily self-care routine. As psychologists we are often acting in service to others, so it is vital for me to be intentional about creating mutual, reciprocal caring friendships.
Why: Researchers have found that social support—positive friendships—can be a protective factor for psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
How: I create boundaries with work to protect time to nourish my personal relationships. It’s so enjoyable to talk with good friends who love and care about me. We don’t want to neglect or take for granted those who are close to our hearts. I would encourage everyone to make it a priority to build and nourish their friendships.
5. Understand how you fit into the bigger picture
Laura Boxley, PhD, ABPP
Director of Clinical Neuropsychology Training & Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, The Ohio State University
What: I try to be mindful of the culture I’m participating in and contributing to. Self-care strategies that ignore systems of power tend to have minimal effectiveness long-term. Use your professional capital to be vocal against pressures that reward and promote unhealthy boundaries.
Why: Get yourself a seat at the table. The benefit of addressing larger barriers to well-being is that you can have a powerful, multi-generational impact. For example, the boundaries I keep and fight for are the norms that my students observe and can expect for themselves.
How: Look for opportunities to advocate for each other. The benefits you have today were once hard-fought by someone who preceded you. If you can, pay it forward.
6. “Righting the pyramid”
Thomas Doherty, PsyD
Sustainable Self, Portland, Oregon
What: I like to use an exercise I call righting the pyramid. Over the last couple of years, so many of my patients have come in to see me feeling really overwhelmed. Social justice, the economy, politics, climate change, weight of the world—it all felt like a big upside-down pyramid looming over them. All of that was balanced on this little triangle of resources at the base.
Why: The reframe is to flip the pyramid so it’s steady at the base. Life is long, there’s a lot to work on. If you take care to have a secure base over time, you’ll be able to tackle the big things at the apex of the pyramid.
How: Imagine key bricks in the foundation: healthy behaviors you do to be your best self. Some are things everyone should do: Sleeping, eating, exercising, social support. Some are unique to you: Making art, practicing your spirituality. Some happen everyday, some occasionally. At the end of every day, draw your pyramid and think about whether you’ve hit on most of your bricks.