Self Care Isn't Selfish

It Might Sound Dramatic: Self-Care Is Essential for Survival

But it is true. Self-care is connected to both physical, mental, and emotional wellness. And stress is one lifestyle factor that can wreak havoc on them all. While there are countless tools and resources that can help us combat stress in our daily lives, sometimes the one tool we need most is a change in attitude. Let’s explore some of the common myths surrounding self-care and why they aren’t accurate.

  1. “I have to earn self-care.”

You don’t, but you’re not alone in feeling that way. Let’s consider why this attitude is so prevalent. For one, our Western, American culture is one in which we partially determine our sense of self by what we do for a living and how and what we buy. We very easily confuse what we do/earn/own with who we are. And on a day when we are tired and don’t get around to doing a whole lot, why would we deserve to take even more time for ourselves to sit for 15 minutes and meditate? Because you deserve to live, that’s why.

Let’s look at similar questions related to self-care: Why do I deserve to eat? Because you deserve a body that is healthy. Why do I deserve to sleep? Because you deserve a mind that is rested. Why do I deserve time for myself to restore and reduce stress? Because you deserve an emotional experience of life that is not defined by stressors. At a time in which we are all concerned about immune health, self-care is more important than ever. For example, the more we learn about the gut microbiome—that is, the connection between our digestive system and other systems in the body—the more we learn how what we eat affects everything from our mood[1] to our immune system.[2]

  1. “Self-care is a luxury I can’t afford.”

For most of us, self-care is something we do for ourselves with whatever is left over after we expend our time, money, and energy trying to create more time, money, and energy. And if that’s the case for you, you are not alone. But the fact is, the fundamentals of self-care include things like nutritious food, clean water, adequate rest, an active lifestyle, strong immune system, and a healthy mind. Those sound a lot more like basic human needs than frivolous luxuries reserved for the rich and famous. And they don’t have to cost a fortune.


We can’t be “on” all of the time. Sleep is essential for the body and brain to restore, and without it, our systems begin to respond with the release of hormones like cortisol—the stress hormone—that is associated with inflammation in the body and neurological disruption in the brain. In one study on sleep quality and stress, as little as 90 minutes of sleep loss one night was shown to result in increased levels of the stress hormone the following evening.[3] Prolonged periods of poor sleep quality can contribute to metainflammation, a systemic immune response that leads to chronic diseases over time.[4] And the cost of chronic disease? Now that is something very few people can afford—even with a reasonable healthcare insurance program. Self-care is not a luxury; it is a basic human right.

  1. “Self-care is selfish.”

This one is interesting because while self-care isn’t selfish it is centered on your sense of self and that is important to every aspect of your life. Researchers have explored where self-esteem lives in the brain and have determined that self-esteem is the result of neural connections between the amygdala (our reward system that includes things like positive motivation, when healthy) and our dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (where our sense of self, our identity primarily operates from).[5]

What makes this discovery even more interesting is understanding how the connection between these two parts of our brain can be influenced by something like inflammation in the body.[6],[7] Increased inflammation—caused by a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and disrupted sleep schedule—damages the connection, resulting in lowered self-esteem. On the other hand, physical activity, a diet rich in whole foods, and a regular pattern of restorative sleep strengthen the connection between these two parts of the brain. For those who experience mental health challenges like anxiety and depressive symptoms, negative effects on self-esteem can be even more detrimental to sense of self.[8]

What’s important—and positive—about this discovery, however, is that we now understand that taking care of ourselves is directly connected to how we feel about ourselves—and vice versa. At least some part of maintaining a healthy self-esteem—an essential for psychological wellness—is supported by how we care for ourselves, particularly our physical health.

  1. “Self-care is glamorous.”

Bubble baths, white beach vacations, and hot stone massages can be fantastic opportunities for relaxation. But there are so many other ways to experience inner peace. The truth is, if we lived more balanced lives, we wouldn’t have the need to escape them as often as we do. And you have the capability to do so for yourself, any time you want.

Think about something in your life to which you are 100% committed. This can be a small task or gesture you do on a daily basis, no matter if it’s raining, you’re tired, work is overwhelming, or there is strain in your personal relationships—stretching before getting out of bed, getting the mail, brushing your teeth, prayers before bed. Any number of tasks in our daily lives are present because we made the decision that they are important to us. It’s not glamorous; it’s a commitment.

 What is one self-care practice that you could commit to now? Let’s start small. Maybe you could…

Every single one of our suggestions listed above can support physical health, reduce stressors, and help you establish self-care habits that can improve your quality of life. Where could you start, today, to take better care of your self?

[1] Winter, G., Hart, R. A., Charlesworth, R. P., & Sharpley, C. F. (2018). Gut microbiome and depression: what we know and what we need to know. Reviews in the Neurosciences29(6), 629-643.

[2] Kau, A. L., Ahern, P. P., Griffin, N. W., Goodman, A. L., & Gordon, J. I. (2011). Human nutrition, the gut microbiome and the immune system. Nature474(7351), 327-336.

[3] Leproult, R., Copinschi, G., Buxton, O., & Van Cauter, E. (1997). Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep20(10), 865-870.

[4] Munni, J. F. (2016). Impact of Chronic Diseases on Quality of Life (Doctoral dissertation, East West University).

[5] Eisenberger, N. I., Inagaki, T. K., Muscatell, K. A., Byrne Haltom, K. E., & Leary, M. R. (2011). The neural sociometer: brain mechanisms underlying state self-esteem. Journal of cognitive neuroscience23(11), 3448-3455.

[6] Muscatell, K. A., Dedovic, K., Slavich, G. M., Jarcho, M. R., Breen, E. C., Bower, J. E., … & Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Greater amygdala activity and dorsomedial prefrontal–amygdala coupling are associated with enhanced inflammatory responses to stress. Brain, behavior, and immunity43, 46-53.

[7] Muscatell, K. A., Moieni, M., Inagaki, T. K., Dutcher, J. M., Jevtic, I., Breen, E. C., … & Eisenberger, N. I. (2016). Exposure to an inflammatory challenge enhances neural sensitivity to negative and positive social feedback. Brain, behavior, and immunity57, 21-29.

[8] Yin, L., Xu, X., Chen, G., Mehta, N. D., Haroon, E., Miller, A. H., … & Felger, J. C. (2019). Inflammation and decreased functional connectivity in a widely-distributed network in depression: Centralized effects in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Brain, behavior, and immunity80, 657-666.

Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D.
Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D.

Molly J. Scanlon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Writing and a student in the M.S. Family Therapy Program at Nova Southeastern University. Her research interests include identity construction, experiential learning, and mindfulness. She is a contributing editor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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