Self-Care and Wellness: The Important Difference That May Affect Your Mental Health

by: Terry Griner, LPC, ACS


“Self-care” and “wellness” are hot topics these days, and if you’ve spent any time browsing the interwebs of late, you’ve likely come across an article or two (or twenty) about the things to start doing to achieve self-care and wellness perfection. The problem with this is that self-care is often confused with self-indulgence, leaving us thinking that something is wrong with us after we’ve splurged on that luxurious massage – even allowed ourselves to enjoy it – yet are left feeling just as stressed and un-cared for by the next day.

It’s tough to develop a great self-care regimen if all the information floating around cyber space leaves us uncertain about what self-care actually IS. Let’s tease apart the difference between self-care and self-indulgence, and pinpoint a few steps that will leave us feeling a bit more well.

When it comes to self-care, think about the things that nourish us physically, emotionally and psychologically in an intentional and consistent way. Self-indulgence, on the other hand, might feel more mindless, and often provides temporary and fleeting pleasant feelings (and sometimes even has a counter-productive long term impact). Let me be clear – self-indulgence is not bad. I love a good hot fudge sundae, a day at the spa, binging the newest Netflix series, or hitting that “purchase” button as much as anybody. In fact, our brains give us a little jolt of feel-good chemicals when we do these things, so it would be unusual if we didn’t enjoy them! While “treating ourselves” is perfectly fine if we have the means to do so from time to time, it isn’t necessarily self-care.

Self-care is a practice, an ongoing effort to attend to our needs in ways that may seem boring or mundane, but can also be quite fun and satisfying. Self-care helps to reduce our vulnerability to unpleasant emotions and improves overall feelings of well-being. In other words, self-care consists of the specific choices and behaviors that over time lead to improved wellness.

Most of us are familiar with the importance of tending to our physical wellness –  getting enough sleep, drinking water, eating nutrient-dense foods, and moving our bodies. To understand wellness in a more comprehensive and meaningful way, Dr. Peggy Swarbrick, PhD created a model of wellness that includes 8 overlapping dimensions. This integrated model gives us a framework to address the multi-faceted dimensions of our health and well-being.

Take a look:



Here are just a few examples of how we can use the eight dimensions to improve our wellness and create some new self-care habits:


Physical – make that doctor appointment you’re been putting off; explore ways to exercise and move your body that you enjoy, and do that; Take a few mindful breaths; and yes, drink some water!


Intellectual – listen to a podcast that interests you while you’re driving or doing mundane chores around the house; read for 15 minutes before bed; take a free course on Coursera or Skillshare; ask someone you respect for their thoughts about a topic that interests you


Occupational –  disconnect from your job (cell phone, email, etc.) after dinner or on the weekend; set boundaries surrounding work (or school, or home responsibilities if you stay at home); list your career-related goals, put that list somewhere visible, and take one step at a time towards these; update your resume


Spiritual – Spend some quiet time in nature; download one of the many mindfulness apps out there (Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, etc.) and try it out; send kind thoughts, a note, or a prayer (if that’s your thing) to someone who means a lot to you


Social – call that friend you haven’t heard from lately; do something kind for a member of your neighborhood or community “just because;” say “yes” to that lunch date and make the time to go (or set one up via zoom); respond to the text you’ve been putting off; join a meetup group in your area (check out for this)


Financial – track your spending for one week and review it (you may be surprised at what you find!); talk to a financial advisor; go on a spending “fast” for 1, 2, or 7 days; create a personal or family budget


Emotional – list three things that you are grateful for each morning; reflect on the things that went well during the day before bed; start a journal; identify and name your moods (therapy can help with this one if it’s difficult for you); carve out time to do one thing you enjoy each day or week, and do this mindfully


Environmental – set a timer for ten minutes and pick one area in your space to de- clutter; add live plants or color to your office or bedroom; clean out your car; recycle old, unnecessary documents


Pick ONE area to start with. Maybe the one that you’ve been putting off, or maybe the one that sounds like the most enjoyable. None of us are going to be 100% in all eight dimensions at the same time. They wax and wane as life happens. The key is to understand that true self-care isn’t a one shot deal; it takes ongoing commitment to yourself, a commitment that you deserve and are well worth. And hey, enjoy that massage, too.

I have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Swarbrick at Rutgers, and I reached out to her prior to publishing this piece. Not only did she graciously give permission to reference her work, she also shared some additional resources to support us on our quest toward becoming our own wellness gurus:


Want to see where you stack up on the Eight Dimensions? Try this quiz:

Wellness Inventory


Here are some additional suggestions and resources for boosting your wellness, grouped by dimension:



Need  some extra support implementing some of these ideas? You’re not alone! This stuff may seem simple, but it isn’t easy. Give us a call at Center for Anxiety and Behavior Management (908-914-2624) or email us to see who may be the best fit to support you.


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