It can be easy to romanticize self-care, but self-care isn’t always fun. It isn’t just massages and pedicures, vacations, or meals out with people who make us feel good. It is – at its core – taking care of ourselves; taking care of those things vital to our overall health and wellbeing.
The same way I stress the fundamentals of movement, I want to stress the fundamentals of self-care above all else. Are those other things like vacations and personal care and time with friends important? Ab-so-lutely. BUT, they are not a replacement for – or more important than – attending to these seven fundamentals.
Now without further ado, and in no particular order, those seven fundamentals are:
- Healthcare appointments
- Personal Hygiene
- Environmental Upkeep
- Intentional Movement
- Productive Self-Expression
- Balanced Nutrition
These probably don’t sound like self-care at first because we’ve been swept away with outside ideas of self-care, which, to be quite honest, usually mean forking over money. But if I were to ask most people what they would improve in their daily lives to contribute positively to their health, it will probably be something that falls under one of these categories. And the truth is, these aren’t luxuries – these are the areas that are foundational to maintaining and improving our physical and mental health – and many (admittedly, not all) of them can be achieved for free.
The harsh reality is that a consistent lack of attention to any of these essentials of self-care may be an indication of something more serious going on physically or mentally. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ever expect adjustments in these areas – it becomes problematic when the disruptions turn more permanent without a clear end in sight.
The other harsh reality is that some of these vitals may be lacking due to things completely out of our control (see: newborn and lack of sleep). Normal disruptions are temporary, not permanent – and this is where coping also becomes vital to essential self-care, but I digress.
All right, let’s get into the less sexy side of self-care with a bit about what these categories entail.
This category includes both essential and preventative healthcare. Essential healthcare relates to previously diagnosed/existing issues, and preventative care relates to regular appointments for standard medical screenings as a means of diagnosing disease before reaching advanced stages. The most important annual preventative care appointments are: primary care physician, OBGYN/urologist, dentist, dermatologist, and optometrist (non-MD, general care) or ophthalmologist (MD, specialized care).
This category also includes mental health. At the least, a primary care physician should ask about signs or feelings of depression, but this is an area where we must be especially diligent though often made more difficult by various stigmas. The reality is, our emotional and mental health has a direct impact on our physical health – and vice versa – so we have to prioritize it in the same way.
Last, we must address issues of concern as they arise – as scary as it may be. This may include things like chiropractors, physical therapy, or more serious issues related to disease/illness. Regardless, an essential part of self-care is addressing these issues as soon as possible, and preferably with a professional… not by scouring WebMD for hours on end.
Now look, especially after the last couple of years, I want to be clear: this isn’t about missing an exam one year. This isn’t about things that are more of an exception than a rule. Sh*t happens, right? This is about routinely missing these important appointments year after year – in any of these areas. If we don’t prioritize the basic health of our brains and bodies, nothing else matters. Really. So as difficult as this category can be – and as unfun as MUCH of this stuff is – we have to do it. Not enough celery juice or digital detox in the world can replace a mammogram or insulin.
To be clear, this is the category most susceptible to barriers of all types, especially related to vision, dental and mental care. These barriers are often prevalent in the form of lack of insurance, access to care (distance/transportation), lack of finances, fear, and shame. If you are struggling with any of these barriers, please reach out to someone you know to be knowledgeable and trust, a physician, or a health coach. Or reach out to me, There may not be an easy solution, but there are likely unknown resources available, which is a great start.
This area includes the categories of bathing and basic skin care (moisturizing & SPF – every dang day!), dental care (flossing, too), and minimum hair and nail care. For bathing and basic skin care, the most important thing to note is removing heavy makeup before sleep, moisturizing (everywhere – our skin is our largest organ – think of it as barrier protection) and applying SPF every single day regardless of skin tone. And did someone ask about flossing? I know, it sucks… but, we have to. Last, when I talk about hair and nail care, I’m sure most of us immediately think about hair color/treatments, manicures and pedicures, etc. Those are great, for sure, but the essentials for hair care relate to promoting health and preventing unnecessary damage like trims and basic care for your specific hair type. For nails, we’re just talking about keeping them free of debris under the nails, and filed/trimmed to be safe for your lifestyle.
I realize this seems obvious, but a habitual lack of self-care in any one of these personal hygiene areas may be an indication of emotional distress. I also want to illustrate these essentials because it can be easy to look at something like a haircut as unnecessary, frivolous, or indulgent. So as much as I’m here to talk about what we need to do for ourselves from an unfun perspective, I also want to give allowance and validation for some of these other things that we may instinctively view as indulgent, but are actual quite vital (intentional movement is another example of this).
Even worse, lack of care in some areas can result in serious physical damage – like to the teeth, gums, and skin. I mean, I don’t think anyone likes getting dental work done, right? I 100 percent love my dentist, but I’m not excited for her to get in there and work away. And I think most of us would admit that we’d rather brush and floss and slather on that SPF, than to have a full set of dentures or skin cancer.
Everyone is affected differently by their environments. Some need it more clean and organized than others, but there are minimum levels when it comes to health and safety. This category includes basic cleaning like: dusting, sweeping, disinfecting, vacuuming, and mopping; laundry (clothing and bedding); organization; and home safety.
None of these is… fun. But they’re all forms of self-care because they are vital to our overall health and wellbeing. And you know what? The truth is, we usually feel better when it’s taken care of. Aside from the more obvious with cleaning and laundry, I want to touch on organization and home safety. When I say “organization”, I’m not talking about cute TikToks of someone’s pantry or refrigerator… I’m talking about making sure we don’t acquire too many things with nowhere to put them. Clutter can have a drastic impact on our mental health – and if that clutter sits long enough, it can collect dust and mold that will impact our physical health. Last, home safety relates to clean HVAC filters, working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and ensuring quick resolution of other structural or physical safety concerns (mold, water, etc.).
Physical activity is one of the best things we can do for our minds and our bodies. This isn’t about fitness or physique goals – I’m talking about intentional movement for the primary purpose of promoting health. Hey, if you want to set other goals, that’s great – but the reason to get moving should always be rooted in feeling rather than seeing change.
I’ve previously talked at length about how much physical activity we need, and how there is no one way for us to achieve that goal – it’s completely dependent on where we currently are and where we’d like to go. The only thing that matters is we do something for at least 150 minutes each week. And we don’t have to trade time with family to do this either. This can include anything from chasing after little ones – 2 or 4 feet – outdoor activities like hiking and sports, gardening/lawn care/farming, brisk and hefty shopping trips (I’m looking at you, Target), and creative activities like trampolines, rock walls, scavenger hunts, etc.
Self-expression as essential self-care? Yep, I said it. Our ability to know and effectively advocate for what we need is vital to our emotional wellbeing. The first step in productive self-expression is possessing self-awareness of our strengths, weaknesses, triggers, and reactions. Without understanding these fundamentals of who we are, we cannot determine what we need and how to handle a situation.
We also need the ability to actively listen to others and express empathy. Effective communication means the ability to communicate our wants and desires without unnecessarily offending or harming anyone else. If our goal is to communicate our message to be understood, we must have at least a general understanding of who we are communicating with, right? There is always a best way to convey our message, and that way is determined by the person on the receiving end.
This isn’t just about personal relationships either. Our ability to effectively communicate and express ourselves has an impact in nearly every facet of life – work, personal, family. The ultimate way to advocate for ourselves is to understand ourselves, and make an effort to understand others.
And guess what? Much of the inner work that needs to be done to truly understand who we are and what we need, and the grace it requires us to empathize with some, is not easy. It’s not fun. But that doesn’t make it unimportant or less essential to our overall health and wellbeing.
Oh, nutrition. Always such a hot topic. Everyone has an opinion on best eating styles and meal plans are a dime-a-dozen these days. Look, I’m not here to tell you specifically how to eat or meal plan or prep, but I am here to emphasize how important nutrition is… important enough that I’d classify it as fundamental self-care.
Regardless of how you do it, planning and prepping meals, shopping for groceries, and cooking are necessary. Eating out sometimes? Great. Do it. But as a rule, it’s going to be much less expensive and nutritious to prepare food in your own kitchen. Beyond any of this though, I want to hone in on the fact that balanced nutrition isn’t about eating perfectly. It isn’t about eating one person’s version of “healthy”. It is about understanding our bodies’ basic nutritional needs, how to incorporate those into our diets, and most importantly, how to eat for fuel and feed our souls when they need it.
Last, adhering to specific dietary restrictions based on medical diagnoses is often anything but enjoyable, but again, it’s a fundamental part of self-care. All the meditation in the world can’t make a dent in blood pressure if what we’re eating is working overtime in the opposite direction.
Last, and arguably most important aside from healthcare appointments, is sleep. Sleep is our foundation. It sets the tone for everything. It impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. It can completely undo and derail progress in other areas. But it’s also something that many of us struggle with. We struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, being tired when we shouldn’t and vice versa.
We don’t all need 8-9 hours of sleep – and even getting a few can be a massive success for some – but we do need to prioritize it in our schedules. Trying to get 7-8 hours is ideal, but aiming for 6+ is great if that’s much more reasonable for you. Part of prioritizing sleep is having an established bedtime routine – yes, even as an adult. It also means having a comfortable and safe sleeping environment. This can be especially tricky when our comfort or safety are impacted by someone else. At best, it may mean a difficult conversation with a partner about their snoring (try the hug and roll method – anyone get the reference?). At worst, it may mean risking current safety levels to get safer (please reach out if you need resources). Last, it’s important to know our own sleep styles and what works for us to address a restless body and mind. It takes trial and error, and it can change over time and depending on circumstances, but it’s an integral part of a healthy sleep routine.
Since this topic is so important, I’m going to dive into it a little more deeply next week in a few ways. Stay tuned.
Wrapping It Up
Did you know certified health coaches are specifically trained to address these fundamental areas of self-care? We’re also trained to understand when things are outside of our scope of practice and/or warrant a referral, and to whom that referral should go. We are sort of a one-stop-shop when it comes to health; we’re trying to simplify what can feel really complicated.
On a personal note, essential self-care is my primary focus as a certified health coach. I’m not interested in the old binary idea of health – nutrition and activity alone – people are so much more than that. My passion is in helping others build their own solid foundation rooted in these fundamental sources of self-care, especially when life is making that as challenging as possible.
The point here isn’t to strive for perfection. It’s about balanced consistency. It’s about understanding the forms of self-care that are vital, and those that are ancillary, and combining them in a way that works for us. But never, NEVER, ignoring any one of these essentials for too long.
Do you have questions? Are you struggling with any of these areas?
I would love to help. Send me a message. Let’s chat.
Let’s help you find a way to incorporate these essentials into your life along with your other feel-good self-care of choice.