The science of self-care: How tiny habits make a big difference

If it feels like your “get up and go” got up and went some time ago, it may be because your energy has been poured into taking care of others and you’ve forgotten to take care of yourself too.

If you haven’t got self-care routines and rituals in place, advice to “make time for self-care” can feel like just one more thing on your endless to-do list. Here’s the good news: self-care doesn’t have to be complex, time-consuming, or expensive. It doesn’t require special equipment or a guru to tell you what to do.

But what does “self-care” mean anyway?

It’s tempting to say that self-care is anything that makes you feel good, but as we all know, what feels good isn’t always good for us. Pouring another glass of wine, opening another bag of chips, or binge-watching all eight seasons of Game of Thrones might be fun once in a while, but it’s unhealthy to make these things daily habits. Likewise, self-care isn’t just taking a spa day now and then or splurging on a tropical vacation (though these things are lovely!).

The key to self-care is learning what simple but meaningful actions you can take on a daily basis that will help you thrive.

Self-care activates the four “happiness chemicals” in healthy ways

Well-being is influenced by many things: healthy diet, time outside in nature, loving and being loved, accomplishing goals, feeling recognized and appreciated by others, and much more.

The good feelings we experience when we hug our children, eat a great meal, or score a goal on the soccer field are linked to four brain chemicals. Knowing what they are can offer some clues to identify activities for meaningful self-care.

Each of these “happiness chemicals” are connected with specific feelings and actions. Here are just a few to think about:

  • Dopamine is linked to motivation and reward when you complete a task, eat good food, or achieve a goal.
  • Oxytocin flows when we feel love and friendship and spend time with people we care about.
  • Serotonin is connected to pride, loyalty, and recognition. You feel it when you perform acts of kindness, or simply notice and take pride in the good things you and your loved ones do.
  • Endorphins are released through persistence and feats of strength when you engage in vigorous physical activity, push your limits, or experience intense sensations.

If you notice you’re spending too much time addictively scrolling through social media, drinking or eating too much, or watching too much TV it could be because your brain is looking for ways to trigger the good feelings produced by these chemicals.

This is why self-care is so important: it triggers these important feelings in ways that build you up instead of breaking you down.

How to create simple and meaningful “tiny habits” for self-care

When you put self-care on the backburner for too long, it can lead to burnout. Trying to change this all at once with one big dose of “self-care” is like brushing your teeth for a full hour once a week. It sounds like a huge task, but it’s not enough to prevent decay. It’s much healthier to brush for two minutes, twice a day, every day. Likewise, you’ll feel happier if you develop small daily habits of self-care.

One powerful way to practice self-care is through physical activity. Not only is it good for your body, but it’s one of the most effective ways to give your mood a boost.

You can reap the benefits even if you don’t consider yourself a “sporty” person. Researchers have found that just walking around the block, taking the stairs, or pacing while folding laundry had a measurable benefit when it comes to mood.

How to amp up the good vibes

The reason why physical activity has such a big impact on mood is that exercise releases dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. But you can amp up the good vibes even more by incorporating other things that trigger the release of happiness chemicals too:

  • Get active with a buddy: Spending time with the people you care about releases oxytocin and serotonin. Plus, when you create a routine such as a daily family walk, or a weekly hike with a family member or friend, you’ll get a dopamine reward for following through on your plans.
  • Spend time outside: Researchers have found that the mental health benefits of physical activity are even stronger in natural settings.
  • Look for ways to be kind: Doing something kind for someone else will give you a serotonin boost. Shovel your neighbour’s walkway, cycle to the mailbox to send a letter or postcard to a friend, go “plogging” and pick up trash while on neighbourhood walks, or participate in a backyard bird count or shoreline cleanup.
  • Enjoy active, silly play with your child: For many parents, much of the time they spend with their kids is during caretaking: cooking and cleaning, driving them around, helping with homework. Amid all the busyness, we sometimes forget how good it feels to just have fun with them too. Plus: big belly laughs also release endorphins!
  • Add your favourite music: Researchers have found listening to music you enjoy will make your brain produce more dopamine.
  • Mark an X on the calendar each day you follow your new routine: It’s not easy to start a new habit, so you deserve to celebrate it! Crossing off a calendar is an easy and visual way to recognize your achievements, and triggers a dopamine reward for making progress on your goal.

Self-care isn’t just something to turn to when times are stressful, of course—though it can certainly make tough times easier to bear.

Whether you’re feeling stressed out, or feel like you’ve got it all under control, if you haven’t yet developed habits of self-care, there’s no better time to start than now.

Pick one super simple thing that fills your cup, and a time when you can do it every single day: walk around the block after dinner, dance with your kids or partner (or alone!) when you do your daily clutter pickup, do a five-minute yoga flow when you wake up, or just find a quiet place where you can breathe deep for a 60-second mini-meditation after the kids go to bed.

Keep it simple. You’ll be surprised at what a difference a tiny habit can make.


Further reading:

How to fit self-care into your day, even when short on time

A beginner’s guide to meditation for calming the mind and emotions

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