The term self-care describes the actions that an individual might take in order to reach optimal physical and mental health. Mental health professionals often use the term self-care to refer to one’s ability to take care of the activities of daily living, or ADLs, such as feeding oneself, showering, brushing one’s teeth, wearing clean clothes, and attending to medical concerns. Physical self-care, such as sleep and exercise, is also an ADL.

Self-care can also refer to activities that an individual engages in to relax or attain emotional well-being, such as meditating, journaling, or visiting a counselor. Because an extended failure to care for one’s self can result in illness or hospitalization, individuals who find themselves unable to take care of their own needs may find it helpful to speak to a therapist.


Self-care can include activities such as getting a haircut or massage, taking a trip, or eating at one’s favorite restaurant, as well as attending to one’s basic daily needs. An individual may experience difficulty with self-care for several reasons:

  • Depression can sometimes inspire a lack of care for one’s condition: a loss of appetite or motivation, a lack of energy, or a sense of self-loathing. All of these can impair the ability to care for one’s self.
  • Survivors of abuse or violence may find it challenging to maintain good self-care habits.
  • Cognitive declines associated with dementia can impair self-care skills.
  • Psychosis, a split from reality that may include hallucinations or delusions, can often have an affect on one’s ability to care for oneself.

People all have different requirements for self-care, but in general, the goals of self-care are to find a state of good mental and physical health, reduce stress, meet emotional needs, maintain one’s relationships, both romantic and platonic, and find a balance between one’s personal and academic or professional life.

Self-care, beyond that which refers to ADLs, is not a selfish act. Individuals who do not take care of their own emotional and physical needs before attempting to resolve those of others may begin to experience a decline in their own emotional or physical state. Those individuals who care for others, either professionally or in personal life, may find themselves especially drained if they do not devote enough time to self-care. Once they have met their own needs, they may often find themselves better able to assist others in meeting their needs.

Taking care of the emotional self by managing anxiety, anger, sadness, and other feelings is also an important aspect of self-care. This type of self-care can often be accomplished by setting boundaries with people, especially those people who are not positive or supportive and may have a negative effect on one’s mental state. Good, healthy relationships can help an individual maintain a positive frame of mind, but friends who only want to fulfill their own needs or family members who leave an individual feeling exhausted or depressed will likely not help an individual’s mental or emotional state to improve. An individual who has trouble meeting emotional self-care needs may find it helpful to limit time with people who are neither supportive nor helpful.


Sometimes people attempt to meet the needs of family members, employers, children, friends, or society in general before meeting their own needs, and working to please and care for others often interferes with one’s self-care routine and can take a toll on a person’s well-being. People who have dependent personalities or experience depression, codependency, or anxiety may also fail to meet their self-care needs. However, self-care is often considered to be an important aspect of resiliency: those who are able to adequately meet their needs are often able to better cope with everyday stressors.

Because people who are able to meet their own physical and emotional needs are typically better equipped to care for others, it may be especially important for parents of children with behavioral challenges or other special needs to maintain a self-care routine. Fatigue, stress, anxiety, and worry may have a significant effect on well-being, but attending to physical and emotional needs may help prevent or reduce the effects of these issues, foster self-compassion, and leave parents more able to meet the needs of their child.

Self-care behaviors may also help mental health professionals and other health care providers avoid compassion fatigue, which can often result from work in a high-stress or traumatic environment and may lead to self-doubt, self-blame, and ethical or legal complications.

Individuals in a transition phase or those who are facing changing circumstances may neglect self-care. College students, for example, may experience excitement when first leaving home, but as they adjust to life in a different environment with new behaviors and responsibilities, they may experience significant stress, anxiety, and other emotional turmoil. However, those students who engage in behaviors that promote health—exercising, sleeping and eating well, and keeping in touch with loved ones—have been shown to face less stress during their transition, and research shows they are less likely to develop anxiety or depression or drop out. These self-care skills may also lead to resiliency that continues to have a positive effect throughout life.


Therapy can often uncover the root of a failure to care for one’s self. If depression is the cause, therapy can typically help relieve symptoms of depression and improve one’s mood, which will generally lead to one becoming able to meet self-care needs once again.

In the case of dementia, therapy can often help in the early stages by teaching new coping and communication skills. Therapy might also be useful in helping families learn how to cope with a loved one’s dementia: In therapy, the family can learn ways to help their loved one maintain some level of self-care skills. Medication and a high level of care, such as daily activities at a hospital or community mental health center, might also help one’s self-care skills improve.

The failure to care for oneself due to wanting to please or care for others, which might be seen of an individual in a codependent relationship or in the case of overly demanding family members, can indicate some difficulty with self-image and/or with setting boundaries. Therapy can help an individual develop a stronger self-image and become better able to say no to those who ask for too much.