Better Self-Care: Because There is “Only One You”

Most of us know in theory what we should be doing to take care of ourselves: eating regular meals, exercising, getting enough sleep – but knowing and doing can be two different things. Even when we are obviously  suffering negative effects of self-neglect, it is easy to indefinitely delay simple changes that could substantially improve our physical and emotional health.

When asked why they don’t take better care of themselves, people usually cite issues of time and convenience. Indeed, basic self-care is often the first casualty of our over-committed schedules and responsibilities to everyone else. But it can also become a habit to ignore one’s own needs, so that even when circumstances allow for better self-care, it does not happen. Of course, one’s basic physical needs should not be “negotiable”. The bottom line is that no meeting, work assignment or personal obligation justifies skipping meals, delaying bathroom breaks until you are beyond uncomfortable, or trying to function on too little sleep. These common tendencies toward self-neglect can trigger chronic or acute health conditions, exacerbate stress and depression, and invite vocational and social adjustment problems.

Failure to take care of ourselves no doubt makes us feel bad physically; over time, it can also take a toll on our relationships and self-esteem. A friend, romantic partner, or parent who is always drained and depleted has little to give emotionally. Self-neglect often leads to irritability, frustration and resentment…none of which facilitate good communication. And by continually ignoring our own needs, we send ourselves the message that everything and everyone else is more important. This message can have a corrosive effect on self esteem and undermine our efforts to live happy, productive lives. It can also fuel old feelings of helplessness, anger and deprivation – keeping us stuck in unhealthy patterns that make it impossible to get our needs met.

So what’s the solution? Resolve to make basic self-care a top priority. Make an agreement with a close friend or family member to work together and help each other with this goal. Below is an “Inventory” that outlines some big and small ways in which you can start giving better attention to your needs….


  • learn to recognize if you’re holding your breath to suppress certain feelings
  • “belly breathe” so that your diaphragm and belly expand and contract
  • imagine yourself breathing “relaxation” in and “stress” out


  • be sure to eat three full meals per day or the equivalent
  • if your appetite is poor, find something nutritional that you are able to eat
  • keep a supply of fresh & dried fruit, nuts and other portable foods to snack on
  • substitute water, juice or decaffeinated tea for soda, wherever possible
  • if you have eating disorder symptoms, get professional help!


  • pay attention to your body’s wake/sleep cycle, and arrange your schedule so that you can get adequate sleep
  • make your bedroom a safe, comfortable place
  • institute soothing rituals at bedtime, e.g. , having a bath, drinking herbal tea
  • avoid traumatic or distressing stimuli near bedtime, e.g., violent TV shows
  • get appropriate assessment and treatment if you suspect a sleep disorder or have emotional symptoms (depression, anxiety) interfering with your sleep

Physical Safety

  • take appropriate precautions to protect yourself and your property
  • pay attention to your surroundings and avoiding unnecessary risks
  • ask for help if you feel you are in danger


  • identify physical activities that are enjoyable and that fit well with your lifestyle
  • make regular time for exercise and protect that time from other demands
  • pay attention to your body’s signals, e.g., pain, fatigue, so that you can make needed adjustments in your exercise routine
  • take opportunities to move, e.g., stairs instead of elevators, even when you don’t have time for formal exercise

Substance Use/Abuse

  • avoid smoking or minimize it to the greatest degree possible, and ask your doctor for help with smoking cessation if necessary
  • moderate your use of caffeine and alcohol
  • abstain from alcohol use (and other drugs) if you have addictive tendencies
  • get appropriate treatment for anxiety, depression or other psychological symptoms, rather than “self-medicating” with alcohol and illegal/prescription drugs

Medical Needs

  • get all recommended health screenings for people of your gender and age
  • slow down and take preventative measures if you seem to be getting sick
  • get medical attention before an illness/injury gets serious or debilitating
  • follow through with your doctor’s recommendations, and ask for more help (or get another opinion) if you don’t seem to be getting better as expected

Victoria Balenger, Ph.D. for COPE Employee Assistance Program 202-628-5100