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  • Writer's pictureSarah Santiago

Self-care in college

I have a pet peeve to confess: the term "self-care" has been used and abused by businesses to make consumers feel pressured to spend money on themselves because "it's self-care".


But the truth is that self-care doesn't have to cost a dime. When I ask people what they think of when they hear the term "self-care" the most common answer I get is something like "bubble baths and spa trips". Don't get me wrong, bubble baths and spa trips absolutely can be a form of self-care for some people, but the world of self-care is SO much bigger! In fact there are FIVE areas of self-care that we should be nurturing to help feel our best.


As a therapist, I am passionate about educating college students about the importance of self-care. College students are often extremely busy trying to juggle a new dose of independence, classes, work, social relationships, and extra curriculars. On top of that, most college students are grappling with the stress of the impact of the pandemic, the current political climate, devastating national news, a stressful economy, environmental concerns... etc. The world is a heavy place and in order to keep moving (or to simply just stay afloat sometimes) we have to ensure that our basic needs are being met.


The incredible activist, and poet, Audre Lorde said it best when she said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”


I like to use the analogy of a bike tire to describe self-care. Imagine that the tires on your bike are broken up into 5 separate pockets of air; each needing to be inflated separately. If all 5 pockets are properly inflated, it will be the easiest to ride your bike.


Now imagine that only 2 pockets were properly inflated, 1 pocket was inflated half way, and 2 were completely empty. If you've ever tried to ride a bike with flat tires then you know it's possible to ride a bike with flat tires but it take a significant amount of effort to sustain movement compared to riding a bike with properly inflated tires.


Yes, riding up a big hill may still be challenging, but having enough air in all 5 pockets of the tire is going to be much easier than trying to ride with empty tires.


I use this metaphor to try to explain how it's necessary for each of us to invest in all 5 areas of self-care on a daily basis. For most of us we tend to be naturally good at 2-3 areas of self-self care, and struggle with the rest. This is why you may be feeling like you have good self-care but are still struggling to feel your best; you may not realize that you're only investing in a few areas of self-care and ignoring the other important areas of self-care.


So, what are the 5 areas of self-care? Great question, I'd love to tell you!



A woman lays in bed on another woman, smiling and looking at her cell phone. This image is intended to represent how college students can focus on improving their mental health through self-care. Sarah Santiago, LPC in Michigan provides counseling to college students and helps them improve their self-care.


Five types of self-care you absolutely need as a human:


1) Physical- taking care of our physical body. This includes movement, nourishing our bodies with food, getting enough nutrients, drinking enough fluids to hydrate our body, taking our medications as prescribed, practicing basic hygiene like brushing our teeth and bathing regularly, embracing our body image, consensual and safe sex, seeking medical attention when necessary, getting restful sleep each night, etc.


2) Mental- balancing our mental engagement with mental rest. This involves keeping our minds active and sharp through learning new information and skills, solving puzzles, critical thinking, and giving our minds permission to tune out and turn off through things like meditation, coloring, video games (yes, video games can be a form of self-care!), unplugging from technology, reading for fun, watching shows and movies that we enjoy, listening to music, etc.


3) Emotional- embracing the fact that all humans experience a wide spectrum of emotions and allowing yourself the time and space to recognize, explore, sit with, feel, and process your emotions.


4) Social- as humans we are social creatures; even the most introverted of us require some form of social interaction with others. Social self-care involves keeping connected with people who make us feel good, who love us, who treat us with respect, who take interest in us, who cheer us on and support us. It also involves recognizing toxic relationships and people who drain us and setting boundaries. Social self-care also involves having a healthy relationship with social media and limiting access to accounts that make us feel bad about ourselves.


5) Meaningful- Each of us has a unique set of values, ethics, passions, and purpose. It's important that we know what matters to us and gives our life meaning. What do you care about most? Why do you wake up each day? What do you hope to achieve in your lifetime? What causes are important to you? Are you spiritual? What do you believe in? This area of self-care is one that looks the most unique to each individual so it can be challenging to explain in a blanket statement, but this area of self-care is extremely important and an area that many people forget to engage in on a regular basis. Meaningful self-care for a religious person may include regular prayer and attending religious services. For someone who is passionate about nature and sustainability it may involve regular hikes and getting involved in causes that promote sustainability. For someone who loves children it may mean regular contact with young relatives and babysitting. Doing something regularly that sparks passion, purpose, and gives your life a sense of meaning is very important.


Does your self-care include each of these areas regularly? Which of these is easiest for you? Which of these is a challenge for you? What does your self-care look like if it includes all 5 areas?

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