Science of Self-Care: What is Self Care?

What is self care?

Over the past few years, the concept of self-care and its benefits have gained widespread publicity, especially across the internet and on social media platforms. Influencers and celebrities are promoting practices used to help them manage stress and anxiety and prioritize their mental and physical well-being, raving about the advantages of “self-care.” But what exactly is self-care? What is the science behind this term that we have come to hear so often?

There appears to be very little standardization when it comes to the definition of self-care or relevant theories. One meta-analysis consisting of only 26 pieces of self-care literature found that several different theories were used to inform background research and study design (Matarese et al., 2018). Another literature review consisting of 233 studies regarding self-care discovered the use of 24 different theories altogether. Only one-third of the studies, however, relied on theories at all to support the rationale of the procedure or to discuss the results (Jaarsma et al., 2020b). 

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Given the abundance of theories in this area of research, it is recommended that researchers clearly communicate their goals and findings by selecting theories based on the scope of the study (Jaarsma et al., 2020b). Additionally, several questions should be answered by the conclusion of each study, such as: How did the researchers define self-care? What theories were used to inform the study? How did the researchers measure the construct of self-care? (Jaarsma et al., 2017). This way, there is no ambiguity regarding the significance or relevance of the findings, and the outcomes can be appropriately applied to the relevant theoretical frameworks. 

It turns out that most of the literature on self-care, though, refers to its use in the medical field, specifically when it comes to people with chronic illnesses. In this context, the phenomenon refers to the necessity for patients to monitor and regulate the symptoms of whatever ails them, usually by employing the following methods:

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Research on medical self-care also tends to focus on different levels of intervention, which refer to the various resources available to chronic illness patients. Levels of intervention can range from micro (which refers to the patient, i.e. self-care at home) to meso (which typically refers to the families of patients, i.e. transportation to procedures or appointments, moral support) to macro (which has to do with the healthcare system as a whole, i.e. medical insurance) (Jaarsma et al., 2020a).

As demonstrated by these three levels of intervention, an individual’s capacity for self-care is not only dependent on their personal life, but also on the ways in which they interact with and are supported by the people around them: loved ones and healthcare professionals alike. As many are losing such social support while sheltering in place, managing loneliness during COVID-19 has also become part of self-care.

This general notion that an individual’s surroundings can greatly impact their ability to practice self-care leads us to the discussion of the concept in a more holistic health setting. Although the majority of the scientific literature refers to self-care as a medical practice for people with chronic illnesses, there are also several definitions and theories that rely on self-care as an all-encompassing method of self-growth and personal well-being, not just for those with chronic health conditions.

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Self care for holistic health

1. Self-care as a tool for self-preservation: Especially when our primary form of exposure to modern concepts of self-care come from celebrities, it is common for people to view self-care practices as self-indulgent luxuries associated with a certain level of privilege. Proponents of self-care from a holistic perspective, though, claim that it’s something we all have the ability to do for ourselves, regardless of wealth or status (Kruger, 2018). 

2. Self-care as a way to maintain: When it comes to people with chronic illnesses, self-care is often viewed as a way for them to maintain the best living conditions possible under their circumstances. The same is true for healthy individuals, as well, but to a greater extent. From a holistic lifestyle perspective, the objective is for people to maintain a desired level of well-being, one that is commensurate with their personal goals. In this way, self-care is viewed as a method by which to maintain all types of well-being, not necessarily just physical (Matarese et al., 2018).

3. Self-care as a form of self-awareness: Some theorists view self-care in a more literal sense. Instead of promoting specific practices, they advocate a certain attitude of caring, one meant to be directed inward. This often involves self-reflection, encouraging people to determine what they need to feel most fulfilled and then seeking out the appropriate resources. In this way, people are tasked with making a conscious effort to prioritize their well-being, but in a way that is viewed as a personal necessity rather than as a luxury (Posluns & Gall, 2020).

While it’s clear that there are many different perspectives when it comes to self-care and that there is a need for some kind of standardization for the sake of future research, there have been significant findings that support the use of the practice. Researchers who were able to create concrete forms of measurement have been successful in finding positive correlations that validate the claims that self-care is a useful tool.

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Self care and self confidence

One study of 200 participants with diabetes found that people who are more confident in their self-care abilities were indeed more proficient in the aforementioned areas of maintenance, monitoring, and management (Ausili et al., 2017). This finding demonstrates the potential impact of proper resources, both for individuals with chronic illnesses and for those without.

When people have access to information that allows them to develop effective self-care practices, they become more confident in their self-efficacy and can therefore become more independently responsible for their own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, becoming more self-sufficient and feeling more empowered in the process (Mills et al., 2020). Tools that promote self-efficacy, such as through DIY therapy or self therapy apps, can also be tools for self-care.

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Practice Self Care with these Self Care Activities

While self-care can look very different depending on the person, there are some activities that work for a wide variety of people when it comes to de-stressing or self-reflection. Here’s a list of 10 activities that you can try today:

Self-care is something that can help every single one of us. In order to become our own best caretakers, we first have to get in touch with ourselves in order to determine what we need in order to maximize our well-being. One way to do that is via self care app LIFE Intelligence. LIFE Intelligence is an all-in-one guide to your self, career, and relationship development. It encompasses 9 core "missions," or topics, ranging from mental health, to self awareness, to goals and decisions, to relationships and leadership. Mission 6 of 9 is dedicated to bettering your holistic health, guiding you to focus on different elements of your life and how you can make healthy changes to develop self confidence from the inside out. As a first step on your road to fulfilling self-care, check out Mission 6.7 today to tune into your most confident self. 

Abby Stark
January 8, 2021


Ausili, D., Barbaranelli, C., Rossi, E., Rebora, P., Fabrizi, D., Coghi, C., Luciani, M., Vellone, E., 

Di Mauro, S. & Riegel, B. (2017). Development and psychometric testing of a theory-based tool to measure self-care in diabetes patients: The self-care of diabetes inventory. BMC Endocrine Disorders, 17(1).

Jaarsma, T., Riegel, B., & Strömberg, A. (2017). Reporting on self-care in research studies: 

Guidance to improve knowledge building. European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 16(5), 364-365.

Jaarsma, T., Strömberg, A., Dunbar, S. B., Fitzsimons, D., Lee, C., Middleton, S., Vellone, E., 

Freedland, K. E., & Riegel, B. (2020). Self-care research: How to grow the evidence base? International Journal of Nursing Studies, 105.

Jaarsma, T., Westland, H., Vellone, E., Freedland, K. E., Schröder, C., Trappenburg, J. C., 

Strömberg, A., & Riegel, B. (2020). Status of theory use in self-care research. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(24).

Kruger, E. (2018). A grounded theory of ECD principals' self-care and workplace 

wellness-promotion practices. Bulgarian Comparative Education Society, 16, 112-118. 

Matarese, M., Lommi, M., De Marinis, M. G., & Riegel, B. (2018). A systematic review and 

integration of concept analyses of self‐care and related concepts. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 50(3), 296-305.

Mills, H., Mulfinger, N., Raeder, S., Rusch, N., Clements, H., & Scior, K. (2020). Self-help 

interventions to reduce self-stigma in people with mental health problems: A systematic literature review. Psychiatry Research, 284.

Posluns, K. & Gall, T. L. (2020). Dear mental health practitioners, take care of yourselves: A 

literature review on self-care. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 42, 1-20.

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