What does self-care look like?

© Yukyung Kang & Melanie Leung

Healthcare professionals are often faced with difficult situations and multiple stressors, which can impact their well-being. An essential skill to develop in order to preserve a certain level of wellness is self-care. Self-care is defined as activities performed independently by an individual to promote and maintain personal well-being (Sanchez-Reilly et al.)

The evidence on self-care for healthcare professionals remains limited and mostly consists of qualitative studies based on surveys distributed to students and staff (see studies referenced below). From 2015 to 2016, Ayala et al. evaluated the wellness strategies of 871 American medical students. They grouped students’ answers into 10 clusters of self-care: physical activity, nourishment, hygiene, balance/relaxation, pleasure/outdoor activities, time for loved ones, hobbies, spiritual care, intellectual/creative health, and big picture goals. Some of these domains were also found in other published articles. Ayala et al. published another study in 2018 that interrogated how self-care moderates stress, psychological quality of life and general quality of life. Their findings suggested that engaging in self-care is associated moderates the role of stress and it’s impacts on quality of life amongst medical students. It also indicated that students who practiced self care throughout their training demonstrated high resiliency and lower risk for distress throughout their training. 

Although self-care will vary from person to person, listed below are the kinds of activities that students in this study were using as their form of self-care. Hopefully this will inspire your own self-care activities! Of course, this list is non-exhaustive, but provides multiple ideas of how we can care for ourselves.

  • Loved ones: family, friends inside and outside of study programs, pets
  • Acceptance: less comparison with others, accepting failure, managing expectations, finding positivity in every course/rotation, acknowledge your own limits, reward yourself
  • Personal health: sleep, medical/dental/aesthetic appointments
  • Nutrition: hydration, healthy food, occasional treats, cooking
  • Relaxation: mindfulness, breathing, podcasts, taking pauses
  • Hobbies: anything you enjoy!
  • Creativity: music, photography, writing, reading, visual arts
  • Nature: hiking, gardening, camping
  • Spiritual care: finding meaning in life and in activities
  • Physical activity: regular exercise, group/classes, gym, sport events

So the bottom line: self-care means different things for different people and can exist across a broad spectrum of domains – and there seems to be some suggestion that it is useful for medical students. So, take the time to explore what self-care means to you, and work that into your routine as a medical student. [Warning: potential side effects include joy, laughter and a greater sense of calm]

© Yukyung Kang

This article was written by Melanie Leung, a third year medical student at McGill University and member of the McGill Med Mindfulness team


Sanchez-Reilly S., Morrison L. J., Carey E., et al. Caring for oneself to care for others: physicians and their self-care. The journal of supportive oncology 2013: 11(2): 75.

Ayala E.E., Omorodion A.M., Nmecha, D., et al. What do medical students do for self-care? A student-centered approach to well-being. Teaching and Learning in Medicine 2017: 29(3): 237-246.

Ayala EE, Winseman JS, Johnsen RD, Mason HR. US medical students who engage in self-care report less stress and higher quality of life. BMC medical education. 2018 Dec 1;18(1):189.

Kushner R.F., Kessler M.S., & 3McGaghie W.C. Using behavior change plans to improve medical student self-care. Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges 2011: 86(7): 901.

Weber J., Skodda S., Muth T., et al. Stressors and resources related to academic studies and improvements suggested by medical students: a qualitative study. BMC medical education 2019: 19(1) 312.

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