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What does self-care really mean?

One of our Youth Participation Programme Assistants wrote this blog on what self-care means following research involving young people.

Self-care. It’s a term thrown around in our day to day lives. The idea of avoiding burnout, treating ourselves or relaxing, but what does it really mean? Self-care is more than just bubble baths and face masks, it is an integral part of a balanced lifestyle and so much more. At Anna Freud, Alex Truscott has been doing PhD research to create a young people’s definition describing what self-care really means.

To gauge a sense of what self-care is to different people, we gathered our Young Champions and ran a session to understand the essence of it. Alex gathered several concepts that researchers had previously used when defining self-care for young people’s mental health. During a workshop, we asked the Young Champions to sort these concepts (e.g. the monitoring of wellbeing and self-compassion) by how relevant they were from a youth’s point of view.

You might be wondering, why young people? The age range targeted really represents the transition to adulthood and the age at which people struggle with balance the most. According to NHS Digital, one in six children and young people, aged 6 to 19, in England had a probable mental disorder in 2021.1 Hence, hearing opinions of a concept such as self-care that promotes positive mental health from this group, is representative of those who would most benefit from it. Our findings were quite interesting. The definition of self-care had to consider many aspects mentioned by the Young Champions such as:

  • Self-care is unique to the person e.g. meditation may be a form of self-care for one person, and a burden for another.

  • The form of self-care taking place depends on the mental circumstances of the individual at the time. If a person is more mentally healthy, they would spend time in different activities than if they weren’t mentally healthy.

  • In order to spend time doing the right self-care, you need an element of self-awareness. Knowing what you need at any given time allows you to maintain balance.

I think it is important to acknowledge that self-care isn’t just a form of recovery. One scenario posed by the Champions and I, was the hypothetical of getting out of a ‘slump’. Forcing yourself to go for a run or get back to work isn’t the most pleasant experience, but it is self-care. When Alex presented words such as relaxation or purpose as a possible definition, it didn’t resonate with this very real aspect of self-care.

Rather, some key concepts the Young Champions found encapsulated self-care were:

  • Self-compassion

  • Monitoring wellbeing

  • Self-awareness

  • Personal care

  • Balance

  • Meeting mental health needs

Taking all these points and many more into consideration we have concluded that:

Self-care is a continuous, individual process that uses specific strategies guided by self-awareness to meet mental health needs. Self-care will be unique to each person, involving a self-compassionate approach to find emotional balance and develop positive strategies to promote mental health and wellbeing.

With help from the Champions to create this inclusive definition of self-care for young people, we can now work towards attaining and incorporating this as an element of every young person’s life as they adjust into the realms of adulthood.

You can find the full research paper published online.

We have a self-care page that includes over 90 self-care strategies young people have said help them when feeling low or anxious.