What is Self-Care for Occupational Therapy Students and Practitioners?

What is Self-Care?

The term self-care has been on the rise. On Google Trends, there was interest around 2004 which decreased. It has been on the rise again starting around 2018 and appears to be at peak interest on Google searches. 

This suggests that interest on self-care is on the rise. The top related term for self-care is ‘what is self-care’. Self-care seems to be gathering interest everywhere, and that is a great thing!


The Oxford dictionary definition of self-care is “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”

The WHO released a guideline for self-care on sexual and reproductive health and rights. The WHO’s working definition of self-care is “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.” The part of the definition ‘with or without the support of a health-care provider’ is very interesting because it shows how broadly, self-care can be part of one’s daily life in terms of personal long-term management. Although the target audience of this article was for policy makers, research makers, and healthcare workers, the WHO mentions that it is also expected to support ‘persons taking care of themselves and caregivers’.

Due to limited access to healthcare worldwide, learning to practice self-care independent of healthcare providers and services can be very beneficial during times of illness, disability, and stress. 

Why Do Self-Care?

Studies show that individuals who engage in self-care that is holistic experience higher levels of life satisfaction and overall wellness. 

How I Define Self-Care

Self-care is the things that you do to take care of your mental and physical health and well-being. As each individual is unique, what self-care means to someone can be very personal and different than another person’s. 

OT and Self-Care

Occupational therapists address self-care as part of their interventions indirectly through interventions such as activities of daily living (ADLs), leisure, social participation. One would wonder then, as sexual participation and activity is an ADL, if that itself is self-care as well? I would argue yes! Play is another activity that can fall under self-care, e.g., playing with your children.

As each person’s life experiences and circumstances are unique, these categories are not one-size fits all interventions. For example, excess rest and sleep can lead to decreased participation in other activities. Too much exercise, such as due to eating disorders can be maladaptive. Social interaction can lead to anticipation anxiety and work against improving one’s mental health towards better health and wellness — the goal of self-care. The key to self-care is balance and doing enough of it, but not so much that it is maladaptive (behavior that interferes with an individual’s activities of daily living or ability to adjust to and participate in particular settings).

Combined with professional healthcare help and services, a holistic approach to and the practice of self-care can help people to live richer and more meaningful lives through better mental, physical, and spiritual health. Before all this, it starts with 1) one’s education and understanding of the concept of self-care, and 2) the ‘why’ to practicing self-care.

Aside from the actual definition of self-care, the concept of it is not well understood globally. For example, self-care can have different meanings in different countries.

The WHO further defines the scope of self-care to include:

  1. Health promotion
  2. Disease prevention and control
  3. Self-medication
  4. Providing care to dependent persons
  5. Seeking hospital/specialist/primary care if necessary
  6. Rehabilitation including palliative care

On a systematic level, the WHO also advocates that self-care should also be addressed from a law, policy, and human rights perspective.

A Policy Outcome Measure for Self-Care

The Self-Care Readiness Index (SCRI 2.0) is a “research and policymaking tool which explores the key enablers of self-care in support of designing a better model for healthcare systems.” This is a great initiative from a public health perspective and I wonder if there are even specifically self-care outcome measures that practitioners can use in practice. While I did not an outcome measure related to healthcare or occupational therapy, there are related outcome measures that measure similar variables.

Self-care as a Student & Healthcare Professionals 

Being a student can be stressful and demanding. Psychosocial concerns for being a student include anxiety, depression, and burnout. “In a sample of 47 students, almost half of whom were in OT programs, participants repeatedly reported that their social and physical activities had decreased since starting graduate school“. OT students in the United States (and likely students in general) reported stress levels to be 7 out of 10. As much as 66% of OT students (that’s basically more than half) rated their stress levels as above average or even the highest in their lives!

Studies have shown that self-care in other professions such as for nursing students helped to significantly improve their life. Other similar positive outcomes were found among other healthcare professional students. Self-care itself can be a personal practice, but people and groups such as students would likely better from even better outcomes based on a supportive culture of self-care, despite uncontrollable factors such as projects, exams, deadlines, and failure (e.g., doing poorly on an exam).

The same likely applies to workplace settings such as in healthcare where stress levels have been amplified by other factors such as the pandemic.

How to Do Self-Care

Managing one’s mental and physical health:10 11 12 13 14 

  • Getting proper rest and sleep
  • Exercise and activity
  • Proper nutrition
  • Social connections
  • Leisurely engagement
  • Stress management

Of course, these are not the only ways to manage one’s self-care. To practice self-care, one can simply make a mental or physical list of activities that makes them generally feel better. The same activities that you use to manage your stress can be used. Some specific examples of self-care include:

  • Breathing – slow & deep; often when stressed
  • Reflecting on things you are grateful or thankful for
  • Praying & meditating
  • Taking breaks from stressful activities and screen time
  • Changing your position – stand, lie-down, walk, stretch out
  • Yoga
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Refueling and eating healthy snacks
  • Listening to music or your favorite podcast
  • Playing and instrument; singing
  • Dancing
  • Watching a movie
  • Reading a book
  • Taking a bubble bath/shower
  • Shaving or putting on make-up
  • Cooking or baking
  • Getting a massage
  • Going for a walk/hike
  • Interacting with your pets or take them on a walk
  • Calling or texting a friend
  • Practicing Mindfulness – noticing your environment, e.g., nature

You can also Google ‘self-care activities’ to find additional ideas that interest you.

Things to Avoid

Although some activities may make you ‘feel better’, at least temporarily or instantly,  they may not be necessarily best for you in the long-term. Some activities may even work against you in terms of your health. This can be motiviation for you to change your habits and quit some of these activities! Examples of activities to avoid include:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Eating excess junk food
  • Smoking
  • Recreational drugs and illegal substances
  • Abusing prescription medications
  • Idle positions for too long, e.g., binge watching Netflix


  1. WHO Consolidated Guideline on Self-Care Interventions for Health: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2019. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544164/
  2. Gray, S.A.O. (2013). Maladaptive Behavior. In: Volkmar, F.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1698-3_239
  3. https://www.selfcarefederation.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/2022-10/GSCF-Self-Care-Readiness-Index-2-Executive-Summary-digital-051022.pdf
  4. Kernan, W., Bogart, J., & Wheat, M. E. (2011). Health-related barriers to learning among graduate students. Health Education, 111(5), 425-445. https://doi.org/10.1108/09654281111161248
  5. Longfield, A., Romas, J., & Irwin, J. D. (2006). The self-worth, physical and social activities of graduate students: A qualitative study. College Student Journal,40(2), 282-292.
  6. Grab, J., Green, M., Norris, J., Pilchik, K., & Fisher, G. S. (2021). Exploring occupational therapy student stress: Professor and student perspectives. Journal of Occupational Therapy Education, 5 (1). https://doi.org/10.26681/jote.2021.050103
  7. Pfeifer, T. A., Kranz, P. L., & Scoggin, A. E. (2008). Perceived stress in occupationaltherapy students. Occupational Therapy International, 15(4), 221-231. https://doi.org/10.1002/oti.256
  8. M. A., Manning-Walsh, J., & Vliem, S. (2005). Caring for self while learning to care for others: A challenge for nursing students. Journal of Nursing Education, 44(6), 266-270. https://doi.org/10.3928/01484834-20050601-05
  9. Benfante, A., Di Tella, M., Romeo, A., & Castelli, L. (2020). Traumatic stress in healthcare workers during COVID-19 pandemic: a review of the immediate impact. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 2816.
  10. Bono, T. (2018). When likes aren’t enough: A crash course in the science of happiness. Hachette Book Group.
  11. Cook-Cottone, C. P., & Guyker, W. M. (2018). The development and validation of the mindful self-care scale (MSCS): An assessment of practices that support positive embodiment. Mindfulness, 9(1), 161-175. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0759-1
  12. Chatterjee, R. (2017). The four pillar plan: How to relax, eat, move and sleep your way to a longer happier life. Penguin Life.
  13. Lee, J., & Miller, S. (2013). A self-care framework for social workers: Building a strong foundation for practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 94(2), 96-103. https://doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.4289
  14. McCormack, D. (2003). An examination of the self-care concept uncovers a new direction for healthcare reform. Nursing Leadership, 16(4), 48-62. https://doi.org/10.12927/cjnl.2003.16342