20 Best Self-Care Ideas and Activities for Mental Health

The last few years have been an uphill climb for many of us, and this new level of stress doesn’t show signs of stopping. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, depression among U.S. adults jumped from 8.5% to 27.8%, according to an October 2021 study. Indeed reported in March 2021 that 52% of all American workers were feeling burnt out.

But what do these stats mean for you? Like many of us, you’re probably feeling a lot more stressed these days and burning the candle at both ends is taking its toll.

Enter: self-care. It’s a buzzword term you’ve likely heard in recent years, but what is it exactly? And does it really help in the grand scheme of things?

“Self-care is the different ways we take care of ourselves that lead to increased well-being, and health — physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Hope Weiss, LCSW, tells TODAY.com. And keep in mind that while self-care is incredibly important for those who have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, it’s something that can benefit everyone, whether you’re struggling with a specific condition or not.

“Self-care helps us be more resilient,” Weiss says. “ It provides a strong foundation so that we are not knocked down as easily by the stresses, challenges and experiences that we have in life.”

That’s why it’s key to establish a daily routine that emphasizes self-care so that when challenges inevitably pop up, you’ll feel even more capable to take them on.

“It’s not a fad. It’s not a one-and-done experience. We don’t do it once or twice, and then we’re done with self-care. It is a life-long process. It’s something that we build into our lives so that it becomes a routine — just like brushing our teeth,” Weiss says.

Need some inspiration? Here are 20 self-care ideas that can lift your mood and make you feel better — mind, body and soul.

Care for houseplants

If you find yourself in a cheery mood when you’re surrounded by houseplants and all-things-green, it’s not just in your head. For example, in one study that focused on participants staying at home at the start of the pandemic, those with indoor plants reported considerably fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. You know what that means: Go to your local plant shop and outfit your home with plants to bring the outdoors in. As a bonus, you’ll feel good every time you care for each plant.

Read a book from your childhood 

Perhaps a warm and fuzzy dose of nostalgia will make you feel better. Think of a few of your favorite books from when you were little, and head to the library or Amazon to pick them up. Curl up in a chair with a snack of your choice and read your worries away.

Increase self-compassion

“Self-compassion is an internal way to practice self-care,” Weiss says. Start by talking with “kindness, understanding and warmth” — just like you would a good friend.

Over time, you’ll become more in tune with your own thoughts and feelings. “You can then put a hand on your heart and say to yourself things like, ‘This is really hard for me right now,’ ‘I am dealing with a lot,’ ‘May I be happy’ or ‘May I be free from pain.’”

Have an at-home spa day

One classic way to practice self-care is by pampering yourself, and for good reason. If you haven’t had a free minute to yourself lately, an avocado mask, bubble bath and pedicure can feel amazing right in the comfort of your home. Not to mention you can do it all on a budget if heading to an actual spa isn’t in the cards for you right now.

Don’t have enough time for a full spa day? Take a hot shower with a lavender or peppermint-scented shower steamer instead for a quick pick-me-up.

Spend time by water 

“If you are in a body of water, your internal state just becomes calm,” Dr. Natalie Azar, NBC News medical contributor, said on the 3rd Hour of TODAY.

Simply being near water can drastically improve mental health, whether it’s a walk next to a lake, looking at a creek in your backyard or even watching YouTube videos full of seaside views. Make some time in your day for an H2O boost, even if it’s just watching a two-minute video of the ocean during your lunch break.

Eat something whole and fresh 

Feeling stressed and eating every processed food in sight? No judgement from us, but your body and mind might feel a bit better if you reach for something whole and nutritious. Even if it’s an apple that you eat in between bites of cookie dough, it’s a step toward practicing good self-care.

Attend to basic needs

Sometimes, it’s best just to back to the basics.

“Are you taking care of your basic needs?” Weiss asks. “I see this so often get neglected when people are dealing with stress. Are you taking time to eat? If this is a challenge, perhaps set an alarm to remind yourself to get something to eat. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you drinking enough water? Are you moving your body during the day? These are all things that provide us with fuel to move through our days.”

Cuddle a pet

According to a 2020 study from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 74% of all participating pet owners said that they’ve experienced mental health improvements from having a pet. If you’re in need of a little self-care, cuddle with your cat or dog and feel the stress lift with each pat — which, by the way, is beneficial for you and your furry friend. If you don’t have a pet, volunteer at an animal shelter or pet sit for a friend.

Move your body 

Get those endorphins going with a workout, even if you don’t feel like it at first. You’ll feel better as soon as your blood starts pumping, whether you’re going for an all-out run or lifting some light weights. If you’re having a tough mental health day, know that even five minutes of walking around the block or marching in place can have an uplifting effect.

Snuggle up in a “nest”

When in doubt, put yourself in your very own “nest.” Pile on tons of blankets, wear a hooded sweatshirt and cozy up on the couch.

Throw on a weighted blanket to mimic the feeling of being hugged. “Many people like the feeling of pressure against their body and do find this pressure to be quite relaxing,” behavioral sleep psychologist Lynelle Schneeberg tells TODAY.com.

Go on a solo vacation

Even if you’re overwhelmed at the thought of traveling solo, it can be good for your spirit to get some grounding and perspective on your own. Book a “self-care vacation” to a place you’ve always wanted to go. While there, spend some time in nature, make a couple spa appointments and bring a journal along to get your thoughts down on paper.

Take time off from social media 

Social media can, at times, be a real drain on one’s mental health, especially when you’re comparing your life to others, read negative comments or become involved in less-than-nice political debates. Commit to one week or month off from social media when you really need a break. Or practice social media self-care by controlling the types of posts you see, muting certain people or stepping away from scrolling if you find yourself doing it for way too long.

Have a movie marathon 

Thank goodness for Netflix and Hulu, right? Hunker down for an evening of self-care with a couple of your favorite movies, ones that make you feel good right down to your toes. Don’t forget the blankets and comfort food, too.

Listen to records 

While music is certainly therapeutic in general, there’s something about listening to records that can make you lose all sense of time in the best way possible. Take yourself back to another era (or imagine what it was like to live during that time) by playing some old-school albums, with the sounds of pops and crackles for extra ambiance.

Book time with a therapist

Therapy is absolutely a form of self-care, whether you’ve already been diagnosed with a mental health condition or simply need some extra support these days. Ask for recommendations from friends, receive a referral from your primary care doctor or turn to virtual therapy if staying at home rather than going out is your form of self-care. 

Set boundaries

Setting boundaries, even with those you love most, is an underrated form of self-care. Saying “yes” to too many things might make you feel like a superhero who’s come to save the day, but you’ll be stretched thin before you know it. Practice saying “no” in a way that feels kind and right to you to make sure you have plenty of time for self-care in your schedule.

Lose track of time

“Have you ever had an experience where you don’t know where the time went?” Weiss says. “A wonderful way to provide self-care is to participate in an activity where you get so focused that you lose track of the time.”

Of course, this differs from person to person, but Weiss recommends “being out in nature or doing some kind of creative pursuit, such as art, baking or writing.”

“These activities often feel bigger than ourselves. They fuel us and can help us feel both peaceful and inspired,” she adds.

Wear your coziest outfit

Even if you’re going out, devise a way to put together the coziest outfit possible so you can feel good from top to bottom. Wear jeans that feel like velvety leggings, rock your softest oversized sweater and put on flats, preferably ones with cushioned lining. Or if you’re staying at home, spend the day in your favorite sweats and don’t feel bad about it — even if someone’s coming over.

Meditate

Time and time again, and study after study, meditation has been proven to do wonders for mental health. The good news: You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to harness its benefits.

Have a meditative self-care session with a meditation app, practice some yoga, or simply sit quietly in a room and take in everything around you, noting the sights, sounds and smells to help you live in the moment.

Take a nap

If all else fails? Close the blinds and take a nap. Whether it’s 15 minutes or a couple hours, don’t feel guilty for attending to your needs when your body is telling you to rest. In fact, never feel guilty for any type of self-care activity. The world can wait, but your well-being can’t.

Put yourself first, always

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