13 Self-Care: Strategies for Personal and Professional Success

“It seems that our relationship with our Self is most critical to all other aspects of healing work. It starts with Self and moves in concentric radiating circles out to all whom we touch.”

Nurse Theorist and Professor Jean Watson (2005, p.133)

Introduction to Self-Care

Before exploring the contents of this chapter about self-care, take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you? How are you feeling – physically and emotionally? What’s on your mind? Take a brief moment to answer these questions for yourself…

Now, do you have an idea of how you are and what is going with you at this moment? Great job! You have just practiced self-care! With a quick self-care practice complete, let’s take a look at self-care. What is self-care? How does one practice self-care? And why is self-care important for social work students?

As you move forward, keep in mind that self-care is a lifelong practice. Consider each section of this chapter thoughtfully, give yourself time to self-reflect as you go, and continually develop and use self-awareness to guide your experience. Self-care is not a destination; it’s a journey.

Why Self-Care?

First, being a social worker and pursuing a degree in social work is demanding and, at times, stressful. Taking care of yourself, being mindful of and nurturing your health and well-being, supports academic performance and physical, mental, and emotional resilience.

There is an expression relevant to helpers, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Self-care is about being a healthy and vital person to serve as a model for well-being and to best help everyone for whom you will give care. In fact, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, helping others is best accomplished when one’s own needs are being cared for.

The Basics of Self-Care

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the learner will:

  • Learn basic strategies for self-care (sleep, exercise, diet).
  • Review how they currently perform self-care activities.
  • Begin to engage in planning self-care by evaluating personal needs.

Definition of Self-Care

If you were asked to describe self-care, what would you say? Most often, people talk about the health trinity: sleep, exercise, and diet. If you think back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, those are certainly very important components of self-care. However, self-care can be so much more –  an idea that is explored in more detail later in this chapter. The most useful definition of self-care may be: self-care is anything that makes you better. To explore this idea, let’s first look at self-care through the lens of the health trinity.


Why Is Sleep Important?

Sleep is an essential part of your daily routine. Sleep allows your brain to “reset” and your body to remain healthy. The sleep-wake cycle consists of roughly 8 hours of nocturnal sleep and 16 hours of daytime wakefulness. This cycle is controlled by two internal influences: sleep homeostasis and circadian rhythms. More than 25% of the U.S. population report occasionally not getting enough sleep. Nearly 10% have chronic insomnia (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2009). These can be serious problems for a college student.

Sleep loss results in a “sleep debt.” Sleep debt is the accumulated loss of sleep that is lost due to poor sleep habits. Like any other debt, sleep debt must eventually get repaid, or there will be consequences to personal health and well-being. For example, staying awake all night results in a sleep debt of 7 to 9 hours. Our bodies will demand that this debt be repaid by napping or sleeping longer in later cycles. Even loss of one hour of sleep over several days can have a negative effect.

Insufficient sleep is associated with a number of chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. As well, daytime sleepiness can affect mood, performance, and memory. One research study found that students who stayed up all night simulating “pulling an all-nighter” studying scored 40% lower on a general test compared to students who got the recommended amount of sleep (Walker, 2019). That means that getting a good night’s sleep can be the difference between making an A and a D on an important test.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends:

  • young adults aged 18–25 years sleep 8.5 to 9.5 hours every night
  • adults should sleep 7–9 hours every night (National Sleep Foundation, 2009).

The National Sleep Foundation has many resources including sleep facts and tips for restful sleep: www.sleepfoundation.org

Sleep Hygiene Tips

  1. Avoid caffeinated drinks after lunch.
  2. Go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning.
  3. Avoid bright light in the evening. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and relaxing.
  4. Avoid arousing activities around bedtimes such as heavy study, text messaging, prolonged conversations, and heavy exercise.
  5. Avoid large meals before bedtime.
  6. Avoid pulling an “all-nighter” to study.
  7. Sleeping in on weekends is okay. However, it should not be more than 2 to 3 hours past your usual wake time to avoid disrupting your circadian rhythm.

National Sleep Foundation, (2009)

Sleep Activity

Sleep Activity: What’s your Chronotype?

All of our bodies follow a 24-hour sleep-wake circadian rhythm. However, not everyone’s rhythm is the same. Some are more alert earlier in the day, while others come to life a bit later. This variation is known as your chronotype.

A simple way to classify chronotypes are: morning lark, day dove, and night owl. Morning larks are, naturally, early to bed and early to rise. Night owls, by contrast, get going and may have an alert and productive period later in the day. Day doves seem to fall somewhere in the middle.

  • Which chronotype fits you?
  • What’s your best sleep/wake schedule?
  • What might that mean for your most productive time of day?

Based on your answers, This might be a good time to do more important and challenging work, like writing a paper or doing more focused studying.


Regular Exercise: Health for Life

The importance of getting regular exercise is probably nothing new to you. The health benefits are well known and established. Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits by reducing your risk of many health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and it can also increase your chances of living longer, help you control your weight, and even help you sleep and think better.

As a busy college student, you may be thinking, I know this, but I don’t have time! I have classes and work and a full life! What you may not know is that—precisely because you have such a demanding, possibly stressful schedule—now is the perfect time to make exercise a regular part of your life.

Getting into an effective exercise routine now will not only make it easier to build healthy habits that you can take with you into your life after college, but it can actually help you be a more successful student, too. In addition to keeping your heart healthy, helping with weight loss, and helping you live longer, regular exercise can also improve your mood and help keep depression and anxiety at bay. Exercise is a powerful tool for stress management and improving one’s mental health and memory—all of which are especially important when you’re in school.

The good news is that most people can improve their health and quality of life through a modest increase in daily activity. You don’t have to join a gym, spend a lot of money, or even do the same activity every time—just going for a walk or choosing to take the stairs (instead of the elevator) can make a difference. Studies continue to show that it’s never too late to start exercising and that even small improvements in physical fitness can significantly improve overall health.

You can be successful with the inclusion of an exercise regime in your new life, but it is very important to find an activity that you like. Setting a schedule is advisable for success in your program. Also, doing a variety of activities will result in less boredom, and incorporating fun activities with family and friends can be very encouraging. The Maverick Activities Center (MAC) offers a wide range of exercise options from free-play sports, exercise equipment, swimming, indoor track, and more. Getting involved in intramural sports can also increase your activity level while meeting some social needs. Also, you will have the opportunity to walk on campus to contribute to your exercise activity, so don’t be so concerned with finding the closest parking spot available.

Being Active Throughout the Day

In addition to formal exercise, there are many opportunities to be active throughout the day. The more you move around, the more energy you will have. The following strategies can help you increase your activity and energy levels:

  • Walk instead of drive whenever possible
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Work in the garden, rake leaves, or do some house cleaning every day
  • Park at the far end of the campus lot and walk to class
  • Take regular breaks from your computer and desk to stand up, stretch, and walk around


Workout or Work in?

Fitness expert Paul Chek says that the best workout is the one that you will do repeatedly.

  • What is your favorite exercise or exercise routine?
  • How often do you like to do it?

Paul Chek also has a concept of working out vs. working in. A workout is a strenuous exercise session like weightlifting, sprinting, or intense cardio. Working in, on the other hand, is doing more gentle, energy-building movement and exercise; it’s not energy depleting but energy generating. Examples of working include yoga, tai-chi, qi gong, stretching, and walking.

  • How much working out do you need?
  • How much working in?


A diet is anything that you consume on a regular basis. If you drink Diet Coke for breakfast every day, that’s part of your diet. When people talk about “going on a diet,” they usually mean changing their existing dietary habits in order to lose weight or change their body shape. Everyone is on a diet because everyone eats!

Having a healthy diet means making food choices that contribute to short- and long-term health. It means eating the right amounts of nutrient-rich foods. The right mix can help you be healthier now and in the future. Developing healthy eating habits doesn’t require you to sign up for a gimmicky health-food diet or lifestyle; you don’t have to become vegan, gluten-free, “paleo,” or go on regular juice fasts. The simplest way to create a healthy eating style is by learning to make wise food choices that you can enjoy, one small step at a time.

Healthy Eating in College

College offers many temptations for students trying to create or maintain healthy eating habits. You may be on your own for the first time, and you’re free to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. You may not be in the habit of shopping or cooking for yourself yet, and, when you find yourself short on time or money, it may seem easier to fuel yourself on sugary, caffeinated drinks and meals at the nearest fast-food place. Cafeterias, all-you-can-eat dining facilities, vending machines, and easy access to food twenty-four hours a day make it tempting to choose hyper-palatable, nutrient-deficient unhealthy foods and overeat.

Ideas for healthy eating

  • If personally tolerated, eat foods from all the major whole food groups
  • Whole, natural foods generally are the most nutrient-dense
  • Plan ahead and schedule a time to shop for groceries, prepare, and cook
  • Pack your lunch and snacks to better ensure healthy eating on the go
  • Drink plenty of water

There are a wide array of healthy foods and ways of eating. Like exercise, find the healthy foods and dietary approach that you like, that makes you feel good, and that you can naturally and easily sustain your lifestyle.

As you find what works for you, it’s important to remember that it’s common for people to overeat (or not eat enough) when they feel anxious, lonely, sad, stressed, or bored, and college students are no exception. It’s incredibly important to develop healthy ways of coping and relaxing that don’t involve reaching for food, drink, or other substances. While self-care does involve the health trinity, there are other important elements, including stress management.


Planning a Healthy Day

It’s been said that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Take a few minutes and write out what a full day of healthy eating looks like for you.

  • What would you eat? What would you not eat?
  • How much would you eat?
  • How often would eat?
  • What would you drink? What would you not drink?
  • How much would you drink?
  • What, if anything, do you need to do to help you do this on a daily basis?

Use your findings as a way to begin to design a healthy eating meal plan for yourself.

Stress Management and Your Best Self

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the learner will:

  • Identify problems associated with chronic stress.
  • Describe a personal definition of ‘Your Best Self’

Stress Management

If you’re a college student, it may feel like stress is a persistent fact of life. In fact, a wide range of research from the last two decades finds that one of the top challenges to academic performance is college student stress. Scott (2009) notes that academic stress is caused by the different workload in college, challenging classes, and an independent learning structure. Freshmen face social stresses such as a new social network, less parental support, being away from home, living with a roommate, part-time jobs, and the dynamics of relationships. Other stresses include day-to-day chores, time management, and the developmental tasks of young adulthood. If not managed, stress can result in feelings of being overwhelmed, which can result in unhealthy habits like heavy drinking, weight issues, and the possibility of dropping out of college.

Sometimes stress can be good. For instance, it can help you develop skills needed to manage potentially challenging or threatening situations in life. However, stress can be harmful when it is severe enough to make you feel overwhelmed and out of control. While everyone experiences stress at times, a prolonged bout of it can affect your health and ability to cope with life. It’s not only unpleasant to live with the tension and symptoms of ongoing stress; it’s actually harmful to your body, too. Chronic stress can impair your immune system and disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, leading to increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

The potential health problems associated with stress reflect why it’s so important to learn healthy ways of coping with the stressors in your life. The best strategy for managing stress include taking care of yourself in the following ways:

  • Carefully use drugs and alcohol -They may seem to be a helpful way to feel better, but in the long run, they can create more problems and add to your stress—instead of taking it away.
  • Manage your time – Misra and McKean (2000) found that time management behaviors had a greater buffering effect on academic stress than engaging in leisure activities. (Be sure to review Chapter 2: Successful Time Management).
  • Slow down and disconnect technologically – Try a short or extended digital fast. Take a break from your phone, tv, email, and social media from time to time.
  • Connect socially – Make time to enjoy being with classmates, friends, and family, and try to schedule study breaks that you can take with other people.
  • Find support – Seek help from a friend, family member, partner, counselor, doctor, or clergy person. Having a sympathetic listening ear and talking about your stress really can lighten the burden.
  • Take care of your health – Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Exercise regularly. Get plenty of sleep. And build and maintain a normal routine… Sound familiar?

If the self-care techniques listed above aren’t enough and stress is seriously interfering with your studies or life, don’t be afraid to get help. The student health center and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are both good resources.

Stress Management

Stress Management: What Works for You?

How might you use the stress management techniques mentioned above? For example:

  • How is your relationship with alcohol and drugs? Is there a change you feel would be good to make? If yes, how do you do it?
  • How can you better manage your time? Are there aspects of your day that are most important to work on? If yes, what are they? And how do you make that change?

Your Best Self

Returning to our definition of self-care – self-care is anything that makes you betterthere is an addition that may help direct you in further developing your approach. Humanist Psychologist Carl Rogers described the healthy and vital individual as a fully functioning person. According to Rogers, this person strives to and may act in congruence with what they envisioned as their ideal, best self. This was the process that Rogers referred to as self-actualization, and as a precondition to authentically helping others. Based on this understanding, a revised definition of self-care could be: self-care is anything that makes you better and helps you live more like your best self.

Previously mentioned was the idea that self-care says, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” If self-care is, in part, about realizing our best selves, it matters what you fill your cup with. There may be times when getting food-to-go and watching Netflix is the best thing for your mind, body, and soul. Other times, those same things could just be more junk that isn’t serving you or your development towards your best self. Therefore, when you think about your self-care needs, it may be crucial to ask:

  • “What does my best self want?”
  • “What does my best self need?”
  • “What can I do now that my current self and future self will both thank me for?”

To help guide you in recognizing and acting in alignment with your ideal self, self-awareness and self-compassion may be essential.

My Best Self

My Best Self

Describe your best self. At your best, according to you:

  • What is your best physical self? What can you do with your physical body? How do you feel?
  • What is your best mental self? What do you think? What is your mindset? How do you care for a healthy mind?
  • What is your best emotional self? What do you to support positive emotional states? How do care for yourself in negative emotional states? How do you develop greater emotional intelligence?
  • What is your best social self? What are your social networks? Who are your most important relationships? How do you nurture them?

Find a time to give yourself 20 minutes or more of uninterrupted writing.

Self Awareness and Self Compassion

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the learner will:

  • Develop skills to practice self-awareness and self-compassion.
  • Summarize self-care techniques.


It’s been said that in order to grow yourself – grow towards your ideal self – you must know yourself. That’s self-awareness. Self-awareness is being consciously aware of yourself, your feelings (physical and emotional), your thoughts, motivations and drives, and your behaviors. Developing self-awareness may go by many names and take many forms.

Greater awareness of self can be accomplished through self-reflection, introspection, mindfulness, or meditation, to name a few. This is the more internally-focused form of self-awareness. Self-awareness can also be gained through feedback from other, trusted people in your life. This is a more externally-focused form of self-awareness. Both forms of knowledge about self are useful and can lead to an array of improvements in your life. To embark on a well-balanced journey of self-awareness consider the following actions:

  • Search yourself – Experiment with different mindfulness, meditation, and self-reflective practices.
  • Share yourself – Share with those you trust the many parts of yourself, including your ideas, thoughts, feelings, concerns and worries, motivations, and passions.
  • Look outside yourself – Seek feedback from those you trust and who see you in action in a range of different contexts.
  • Challenge yourself – As you begin to know more about yourself, your limits, your challenges, and your desires, challenge yourself to step beyond your comfort zone and experience new things. You will discover new things about yourself and grow at the same time.

As you explore self-awareness, you may notice that you can be tough on yourself, overly negative or critical, and begin feeling insecure. Pastor Steven Furtick said, “the reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Not only can taking seriously the feedback of others be helpful, adopting a self-compassionate perspective can help, too.



A great way to begin to explore and know yourself is journaling. While there are many ways to do this, the most important aspect is simply to do it. You can write on paper, type it out, or even dictate notes on your phone. You can do it in the morning to prepare for your day. Journal throughout the day as a way of checking in with yourself. Or you can journal at night to clear your head, release the stress or the day and day upcoming, and more fully relax and rest! You can write for a long time or you can simply make notes or bullets about things you want to get out of your head and onto paper.

Try journaling for a day or two. Come back to class and report how the experience was, how you did it, what worked, what didn’t, what you learned, and learn from others.


While you may be familiar with self-awareness, self-compassion may be newer to you. Kristen Neff, a leading self-compassion researcher, explains that compassion for yourself is no different for the compassion and patience you have for others. According to Neff (n.d.), compassion has three parts: (1) noticing suffering, (2) being moved by and responding to that suffering, and (3) recognizing that suffering and imperfection is something we all share in common. Therefore, self-compassion is responding to your own struggles and imperfection the way you would a good friend or loved one: with kindness.

To begin your practice in self-compassion, consider the following questions:

  • What is one healthy thing I can do to support myself when I’m sad or stressed out?
  • When I am hurting – physically or emotionally – the kindest thing I can do for myself is?
  • What is one story I tell myself that doesn’t support me which I can reinterpret?
  • What would I say to someone I deeply care about who was struggling with the same issue I am?
  • If I loved myself fully, how would I treat myself every day?
  • What’s one small way I can start doing that today?

(Tartakovsky, 2018)

To learn more about self-compassion and for exercises to develop it, visit Self-compassion.org

Ultimately, Neff explains that “self-criticism asks: are you good enough? [while] self-compassion asks: what’s good for you?” Self-compassion seen through this lens aligns perfectly with the best self-care: self-care done your own way and always with a conscious aim to make yourself better!

Reflect and Share

Reflect and Share

Take a few minutes in class to answer the self-compassion questions above and discuss your findings with a partner, small group, or as a class.

Self-Care Summary

Being a social work and school can be stressful. The healthier and more vital you are, the better your work and academic performance will be. Better yet, you can only give what you have. The healthier and more vital you are, the more health and vitality you will have to help, support, and give to others. Self-care is not selfish. Self-care is an essential foundation to most authentically helping others. As nurse theorist and professor, Jean Watson, so beautifully shares, self-care is the most important aspect of healing work. Healing, health, and vital life for all starts with you!


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Introduction to Social Work: A Look Across the Profession Copyright © 2022 by James Langford, LCSW and Craig Keaton, PhD, LMSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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