10 Science Backed Practices for Your Self Care Routine

woman in a field of yellow flowers stretching her arms upward

Most people engage in self care without even thinking about it. The automatic nature of it means that it doesn’t have to be fancy or instagrammable. I’m here to reinforce that almost any habitual self-guided act that helps you feel better physically or emotionally is “self care.” Problems arise when we’re under a lot of stress, and our self care regimen seems to suddenly require a ton of energy. This is particularly true if our busy-ness has to do with taking care of people important to us. 

I’m here to motivate you to get back into the saddle! It’s during these challenging times that it’s even more important to flip the switch from survival mode to unabashed ‘me time.’ This is important for your own wellbeing and for that of the people receiving your care. We can only care for others in a way that’s healthy for us (and them), if we’re grounded and moving from our center. In this way, the receivers doesn’t have to get off balance to receive — and we don’t get burned out in our giving.

Below I’ve highlighted 10 free-ish self care practices - backed by science - that will help renew your mind, body and spirit. If any of these habits are already a part of your self care regimen, take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate what you’re already doing for you. Good! That extra bit of gratitude helps you feel happier in the moment, which motivates you to do whatever you did again, so that you can feel happy all over again. Lather, rinse and repeat.

1. Praise yo’ self!

woman with an i am a badass ring.jpg

Treat yo’ self to some praise. It turns out self affirmations are not all pop psychology woo-woo.  Research examined neural activity of people assigned self affirmations and found increased activity in key regions of the brain known to be involved in expecting and receiving reward-- the dopaminergic reward circuit. (Sounds dope!)  Self affirmations work  because they are rewarding and pleasurable, and because they act as a defense mechanism by reminding us of the things in life that we cherish. The latter broadens the foundation of our self-worth. Self affirmations can be more impactful when they involve future-oriented value scenarios (visualization). Take a few calming breaths, look at yourself directly in the mirror and say your affirmations three times daily. I use the ThinkUp mobile app to help organize my affirmations and get reminders. 

2. Unplug for at least an hour each day.

Digital addiction can be bad for your sleep, relationships, and self esteem. Give your mind a break from the digital world each day. This means turn off your phone. Close your laptop. Turn off the TV. Go for a walk, read a book, meditate, or talk to a real, live person. Whatever you do - step away from the screen!

3. Get more sleep.

woman practice good sleep hygiene by using an eye mask to block out light

Scientists agree that most of us are sleep deprived! That’s a shame as sleep is our superpower and is implicated in mood, memory, weight gain, and other cognitive and metabolic processes.  Most of us know the importance of sleep and still fail to get enough. If you aren’t a sleep deprived parent, the next culprit is poor sleep hygiene. Establishing good sleep hygiene is easiest by having an evening routine that consists of setting a bedtime, turning off electronic screens a couple hours before, engaging in positive talk or thoughts before bedtime, having a warm bath/shower and maybe a nice cup of tea. Good sleep hygiene is difficult in the age of hand-held devices. Since good quality sleep is tied to so many other health outcomes, improving sleep hygiene is worth a try.

4. Eat healthy comfort foods.

Eating a healthy diet is tricky in the best of times - and can be downright guerrilla warfare when times are tough. Sometimes the strongest food cravings hit when you're feeling emotionally tired, stressed or vulnerable. You may consciously or unconsciously comforting yourself with food. The bad news is that emotional eating can sabotage all  other self care efforts - especially the ones aimed to maintain a healthy weight. Not that we need proof, because we’ve all been there and done it, but one  study found that stressed emotional eaters ate more sweet high-fat foods and more energy-dense meal than unstressed and nonemotional eaters. The good news is that Mama Nature has us covered. Instead of reaching for junk food, try healthy stress-busting foods such as dark chocolate or oatmeal.  Drinking chamomile or mint teas can help reduce stress and anxiety. It’s also helpful to remove temptations from your house - that’s why I don’t have chips, ice cream, cookies, chocolate bars or sugary drinks in my kitchen. Borrrring, I know. But it works!

black woman hand holding smoothie bowl against pink backdrop

5. Solve a jigsaw puzzle.

Work your brain in a way it’s not used to working. It could be a jigsaw puzzle, crossword, Sudoku, or whatever mental challenge appeals to you.  Research found that solving jigsaw puzzles can enhance cognitive flexibility - the ability to adjust your thinking from old situations to new situations, and the ability to overcome responses or thinking that have become habitual and adapt to new situations. Jigsaw puzzles can  potentially be protective against cognitive aging - impairments in reasoning, memory and processing speed that can arise during adulthood and progress as one gets older. Working both sides of the brain simultaneously also shifts the brain from a Beta state, the wakeful mind, to an Alpha state, the same mental state experienced while dreaming or meditating.

6. Walk amongst the trees.

woman walking in forest bathing

Forest bathing - or taking in the forest atmosphere -  is a traditional Japanese practice characterized by taking a trip to a forest environment, observing it and breathing its air. In Japan, Shinrin-yokui is considered an art or meditative practice. Studies found that taking in the forest atmosphere can boost immune system functioning by increasing  the number and activity of natural killer cells responsible for anti-viral and anti-tumor activity, and increasing relaxation and stress relief by reducing levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your body. The good news is that you don’t have go to Japan to engage in this practice - all you need is  yourself, some trees and a bit of free time. 

7. Eat mindfully.

It’s good to combine a digital detox hour with a meal. If you approach mealtime as an activity that requires your undivided attention, you’ll notice remarkable changes in your appetite and waistline. Mindful eating takes a little practice but it’s well worth the effort. It involves eating smaller portions, appreciating your food, savoring your food - chewing slowly, bringing all five senses to the table -  and paying attention to the flavor. Eating mindfully can help with binge eating and other behaviors associated with weight gain and obesity. Try mindful eating before wrecking your metabolism with a fad or starvation diet.

african american woman holding out a green apple

8. Spend time with someone that loves you.

There’s nothing better for your heart and soul than spending time with someone that adores you. As an FYI, pets qualify. Animals can help with depression, anxiety, and stress. In addition, they provide companionship and ease loneliness. If you don’t have a pet, it’s easy to volunteer at a nearby rescue shelter. A study found that just 15 minutes of quietly stroking a dog caused the release of the feel good hormone serotonin.  Puppy love has also been shown to reduce depression and loneliness, promote a positive mood, and reduce stress hormones such as cortisol. Maybe that’s why Old MacDonald had a dog!

9. Stretch your body.

Stretching is good for physical and emotional health. When you stretch, your body releases endorphins the feel good hormone implicated in ‘runners’s high.’ These endorphins not only help you feel more joyous, they also interact with the receptors in the brain that reduce perception of pain. If you’re cubicle bound you can stretch from your desk or stretch in the bed just after waking up.  A good time to stretch is after you’ve sat or lie down for some time. You don’t need to be flexible, just start where you are. 

10. Take a hot bath.

Woman taking a hot bath to reduce stress

Showers save time and water. However, there’s something unique about a bath.  A study found that taking a bath at 102 for 10 minutes after a stressful event reduced the stress hormones cortisol and chromogranin more than taking a shower.  Stretch out and soak for at least 10 minutes in a hot bath. You might turn out the light or read a book. You can close your eyes and just relax. Give yourself this treat at least once a week.

Life can sometimes feel overwhelming, and it’s important to slow down, breathe and tune into your needs and recognize your limits. They are all free in the sense that you don’t have to buy any fancy gadgets or supplements. The cost is the resolve to stick to new behaviors until they become a habit. I would recommend starting with three areas: eat (mindfully); stretch and move (daily); and sleep (fully). I believe that these three areas of self care can greatly reduce stress levels and prevent burnout.

Click here to download and print my free guide:

10 Small Science Backed Practices to Build Into Your Self Care Routine

Post it where you can see it as a reminder of a few small habits that you can help you take better care of you.