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How Researchers Define Self-Care

by Marianne Navada
self-care definition scientific

Defining self-care can be confusing. For instance, self-care can mean staying away from alcohol or getting enough sleep. On the other hand, I’ve read articles that prioritize socializing over rest. If staying up late, drinking, and being with friends make you feel good—then that’s self-care.

In a recent piece about self-care and businesses from The Washington Post, self-care practices range from lip fillers to eating doughnuts as a way to find comfort. 

Essentially, what we know benefits our mind and body (eat less sugar), might not agree with what we believe we need to make us feel good (cake makes me happy). Therefore, self-care becomes doing what feels right for us. And this means the practice varies for each person. 

A Reliable Measure for Self-Care 

Increasingly, medical institutions offer wellness and self-care “practice and interventions.” Having a reliable and valid metric for measuring self-care is important. In contrast, unlike brand marketing, which can equate lighting a candle with self-care, medical institutions need a more solid ground when promoting self-care.

The good news, a paper published in BMC Public Health attempts to address the issue.

The Three Pillars of Self-Care: Defining the Self-Care Inventory 

To provide clarity as to how we define and practice self-care, researchers from Italy and the United States have come up with a way to reliably measure self-care. The process involves using the Self-Care Inventory (SCI). 

Divided into three scales, SCI measures self-care maintenance, monitoring, and management. I provide an overview of the three. 

  • Maintenance: Incorporating health promoting behaviors. This includes getting enough sleep, physical activity, a balanced diet, and managing stress.
  • Monitor: Checking in with how we feel purposefully. This means listening to our body and mind. 
  • Management: Being proactive in addressing any problems we detect. This can translate to changing our activities and habits, taking medications, and getting medical help. 

Who Is Most Likely to Practice Self-Care

Here’s what we know. People:

  • who are more likely to feel confident about their ability to achieve their goals in life are more likely to practice the three pillars of self-care. 
  • with more positive outlook are more likely to engage in “self-care behaviors.”
  • who feel stressed are more likely to take on self-care management.

The Lessons

As a society, we have progressed from advocating self-care specifically for people who are ill. Rather, we recognize the importance of self-care for everyone. Studies like these allow us to choose the tools we use for daily self-care.

Although imperfect, the three pillars of self-care give us focus. Sure, practices can always conflate. Such as, it’s possible that activities to help us destress (cutting back on sleep to read a book) has its pros and cons. The point is to be aware of these gray areas and to not be too hard on ourselves. In the end, the process of self-care shouldn’t be a burden when we incorporate it in our lives thoughtfully.

Title: Measuring self-care in the general adult population: development and psychometric testing of the Self-Care Inventory (2022).

Commit to living.