A Guide to Realistic Self-Care

When you search through the “selfcare” tag on Instagram, you’ll find 7.9 million posts, most of which are motivational quotes, gym selfies, and the occasional “healthy recipes from home” link. A Pinterest search yields 30 day self-care challenges, and Twitter boasts glow up threads for back to school and weddings and every event in between. I scrolled through the Tumblr self-care tag for about minutes and counted over 20 reminders to “take a break and hydrate."

It’s not that these aren’t important things to take note of, or that they aren’t helpful in the right situation. The main problem is, as college students, many of us don’t have the time/energy/inclination to follow some of these tips. And yeah, it might not be hard to fill up your water bottle on a good day, but as we all know, not every day is a good day. Sometimes you might have a string of bad days and you don’t feel particularly motivated to eat a healthy, well-balanced meal or have a face mask night with your roommate.

We have to approach self-care realistically. If you know that you have trouble making it to your morning class on time, setting your clothes out the night before might be a good goal, not an elaborate morning skincare routine. Making huge changes at the beginning sounds good, but more often than not, you end up setting yourself up for failure because your goal is too big of a change from your current lifestyle.

Another thing we have to remember: self-care looks different for everyone. Taking a mental health day may be beneficial for someone who will be able to use it to catch up on work and relax, but if you’re going to worry about missing class all day, you might be better off going to class.

So how do we effectively practice self-care? All of the things on Instagram and Pinterest aren’t entirely wrong. If you don’t drink water at all, carrying a water bottle with you to class will help your physical health and will make you feel better in the long run. That’s obviously not the only way to practice self-care, so I’ll put things under 3 categories.

Bad/Busy Days

  1. No matter how simple or elaborate your bathroom routine is, wash your face and brush your teeth (or use mouthwash). A fresh mouth will make you feel 8% better even if the rest of the day sucks.
  2. Drink some water. I know this is the stereotypical self-care suggestion, but even stopping at a water fountain a few times over the day is better than nothing. It won’t fix all of your problems, but it might make you feel a little better about yourself.
  3. Eat something within 3 hours of waking up. Maybe you were late for class and now it’s noon, and you’re so hungry you’re nauseous. If you don’t think you can stomach a full meal, try something small from the C-Store or get a smoothie. Something is better than nothing.
  4. If you have time for a break, or if you’re having problems focusing, taking a shower or washing your arms and face can help you feel a little fresher and give you a quick mental break, especially if you have a ridiculous amount of work to do. Text or Snapchat a friend who will make you feel better because it’ll make you feel a little more human.
  5. I’ve always found that the music I listen to goes along with my moods for the day. When I’m having a bad day, I usually listen to sad music, and happy music just makes me cynical and angry. If you like listening to music, know how it affects you and try to be prepared.
  6. Some people like to wear nice clothes to class, some enjoy leggings and a t-shirt, and some are in between. If there’s an outfit that will make you feel more confident and capable, and you have the mental energy and the time to wear it, go for it!

Okay/Average Days

  1. Keep your workspace clean. Whether this means stacking your books on the shelf when you’re done using them or making sure your chair is pushed in, if your space is clean, it makes everything run a little more smoothly.
  2. If you have enough laundry for a full load and there’s time (and a free washer) to do it, just go ahead and do it. It gets it out of the way, and that’s one less thing on your mental weekend checklist.
  3. Self-care is also about recognizing and stopping bad habits, not just creating new good ones. You know that scrolling through your Twitter feed at 11 PM isn’t helping your sleep schedule, but putting down the phone is hard. I’ve found that once I’ve set my alarm and turned the sound on, I’m more likely to go to bed.
  4. There are things that will only help in the immediate future. Putting on soft socks. Making your bed before you leave in the morning. Using your favorite pen to write down your homework. Even if you have a big problem during the day, minimizing the little problems will help overall.

Good Days

  1. These days are for enjoying yourself and preparing for the next few days. Having a good day does not necessarily mean you have free time, but if you do, use it to do something that makes you feel good! Go to the gym, get a haircut, do homework in Starbucks. To quote Parks and Rec: Treat. Yo. Self. (This doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be cheap, like taking a long shower or watching Netflix. You deserve some relaxation.)
  2. Try to get as much homework done as possible when you can. If there’s time to start a first draft of an essay due next week, or go over your bio notes from the last class, it can’t hurt to do it. When you’re in a good headspace, homework is typically easier to complete, especially if the mental energy is there.
  3. Do things you might not get to on bad days. Hang up your laundry, shave your legs (if that’s your thing). Do the readings for your classes for the week. Even if you have a lot to do, you can get a sizable chunk of it done and feel really productive!
  4. If you do have a really elaborate skincare routine, this is when you should do it.
  5. Keep bad habits to a minimum. Yes, you should relax and have fun, but there’s a big difference between one and five episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. Know where the line is.
  6. Good days aren’t just for big acts of self-care. Smaller things like eating and drinking, washing your face, and stretching are still valid. Baby steps to feeling better are essential.

One huge aspect of self-care is that a lot of it is being aware of your feelings. There are a lot of big life events that self-care tips simply can’t cover. Breakups, fighting with friends, doing poorly in a class, and other things that don’t happen daily can screw up your rhythm and make it harder for you to stay mentally and physically healthy. These things happen, but by maintaining a realistic level of self-care, we can make our lives a little better.