Moment-to-Moment Self-Care: What Do You Really Need?

Self-care is important. Anybody in the mental health field will tell you that. Practicing good self-care is a part of any healing or recovery journey, but how do you know how to practice good self-care if you’ve spent a lifetime either practicing really bad self-care or no self-care at all?  That’s what this post is all about. We’re going to slow everything down and look at feelings, needs, and self-care practices.

Maybe you’ve never thought of feelings as messengers, but they are, or they can be if you’re willing to listen. Feelings can tell you a lot about whether your needs are being met in the moment, and they can help you determine what needs aren’t being met too. Now, if you did an internet search, you could find long lists of feelings, and if you searched a little deeper, you could find long lists of needs too. We’re going to keep it really simple today. We’re going to work with just a few examples of feelings and related needs, and then we’re going to give you specific examples of healthy self-care practices that can help meet those needs in the moment. At the bottom of this post, you’ll also find a short exercise to help you get in touch with your feelings.

Before we go too far, let’s clear up what we mean when we talk about needs. One of the best places to look for this information is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You can learn all about Abraham Maslow and the history of his hierarchy by plugging his name into your favorite search engine, but for our purposes, the important thing to know is that Maslow did a lot of research, and he determined that human beings are driven to get certain needs met in order to survive.  Those needs are physiological, security, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.  Whether you’re engaged in unhealthy or healthy behaviors, from Maslow’s perspective, You’re trying to get your needs met. When you’re on a healing or recovery pathway, knowing what you need is both (1) important and (2) sometimes difficult. Tuning into feelings can help.

Positive feelings, like grateful, joyful, and exhilarated are signs that your needs are being met.  On the other hand, feelings like fear, confusion, tension, and annoyance can be flashing lights signaling that your needs are not being met. Learning to first recognize your feelings and then connect your feelings to your needs can help you figure out what kind of self-care practice would be most beneficial in the moment. Below, we’ve listed some feelings and the unmet needs they may be alerting you to as well as some healthy self-care practices that you can try:



    • Fatigue is pretty common in our culture, and oftentimes rather than practicing healthy self-care techniques, exhausted people will fight their exhaustion with caffeine and other substances, more work, and less rest. Some people resist their fatigue so strongly that they don’t realize their bodies are exhausted until they collapse. When you feel fatigued, at least one of your physiological needs is not being met. The physiological needs include your need for air, food, water, elimination, and rest. Fatigue, that feeling of extreme tiredness or exhaustion, is signaling that you need to do something for your body. Here are some ideas:
      • Eat a healthy snack or meal.
      • Drink some fresh water.  
      • Have a warm bath.
      • Practice gentle yoga or stretching.
      • Get some fresh air.
      • Take a nap.

*If your fatigue is long-lasting and doesn’t improve, please see a medical professional. 



    • You may have heard that worrying doesn’t do anything to change the future and wastes the present moment. That may be true, still though, everyone worries sometimes. Worry has both a mental and a physical component. Both are important. The mental component tells the story of your worry and usually says something bad may happen, while the physical component is your body’s voice. Your body speaks through an upset belly, jitteriness, sometimes tears, and many other symptoms. Worry signals that your need to feel secure isn’t being met in the moment. When worry rises for you, here are some things that may help meet your need to feel more secure:
      • Reach out to a friend; connection is an important part of security for a human being.
      • Make a list of things you can control about the situation, and start taking action on those things.
      • Get present because the present moment is generally safer than the current story of the future. Try this: Open your eyes and count 10 things that you can see, then count five things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Repeat this as many times as you need to. You might even move to another room and try the exercise there.
      • Organize a cupboard or closet. This may seem silly, but structure and order are important parts of security, and sometimes, taking care of a chaotic closet or even just making the bed, can help us feel more secure. 

*If you are currently in an unsafe environment or in any kind of danger, please seek help from an outside source to establish physical safety.   



    • Feeling lonely, whether you are actually alone or in a crowd of people is a signal that your need for love and belonging is not being met. As you may know, you may be alone in a cabin in the woods and feeling just fine in your own company, and you could find yourself at a crowded party feeling the depths of loneliness.  The need for love and belonging is not necessarily the same thing as a need to be around people, though sometimes that’s the case. The need for love and belonging is certainly related to the fact that human beings are social animals, but usually, it has less to do with the number of people and more to do with an internal sense of being seen, understood, and cared for. When you feel lonely, here are some healthy self-care actions you might take:
      • Call a friend or family member who “gets” you, meet a friend for coffee, visit someone at their house, or invite someone to come to yours.
      • Join a church or meditation group.
      • Go to a local 12-step meeting or hit a meeting online to hear stories from people who can relate to you.
      • Take up a new hobby or sport. Improv, sewing circles, pottery classes, drum circles, and bowling leagues or softball teams are examples.
      • Find a way to do service for another human being. Meal delivery for the elderly or housebound and volunteering at local homeless shelters are possibilities. So is staying after a 12-step meeting to help clean up.
      • Seek out therapy or counseling to begin building strong boundaries and communication skills.

*If you are thinking of harming yourself, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to your nearest emergency room.



    • Embarrassment can hit anybody anytime. For some, embarrassment is a passing feeling that happens rarely. For others, especially those who struggle with internalized shame, embarrassment can actually lead to anxiety and depression, and it can feel like a near-constant state of affairs. Embarrassment is a signal that your need for esteem has to be met. Both the esteem of others and your own self-esteem are important, but when it comes to embarrassment, the easiest way to meet an esteem need is to work on your own self-esteem. Here are some ideas for healthy self-care actions in the face of embarrassment:
      • Talk yourself through the event first and check-in to make sure you are being realistic about what actually happened. Sometimes, and especially if you struggle with internalized shame, you may find that your version of your mistake or misstep is magnified and needs a little resizing. Calling a friend for a reality check can be a good bet.
      • Do something you’re really good at. When esteem is a little fragile, after a bump that causes embarrassment, doing something you’re good at can help ease the discomfort.
      • Take direct action to mitigate any harm your mistake may have caused.  While doing so might be a little painful, avoiding the issue will result in more discomfort later. Stepping toward your values rather than away from discomfort is a good way to meet esteem needs.
      • Step into your values by doing service, showing compassion for another person, tidying your house, or whatever value-based actions speak to you. Again, stepping toward values rather than into self-sabotage or avoidance, gets those esteem needs met.
      • If embarrassment, guilt, or shame linger and make it difficult for you to function in your life the way you’d like, seek out a professional.  Counseling and therapy can be helpful.

*If you are thinking of harming yourself, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to your nearest emergency room.



    • Boredom is a signal that our human need to actualize – to feel expansive, engaged, playful, energized, connected, and committed – isn’t being met. From Maslow’s perspective, this particular need, called self-actualization, is uniquely human. In his studies, he also found that few people ever become fully actualized; that is, few manage to meet this need 100% of the time. That may be true, but here’s some really good news. Human beings are capable of experiencing the feelings associated with actualization, thus, on a moment-to-moment basis, you can meet your self-actualization needs, and boredom tells you it’s time to do just that.  Here are some ideas:
      • Go outside and play. If you have a dog or a child, they can be happy companions. If you don’t have a companion, try a run, a bike ride, roller-skating, hula-hooping, or going and playing on the jungle gym at the nearest playground. Play is an important part of actualization.
      • Learn a new skill. If you can, take a class.  If that’s not available to you at this time, search for something on YouTube. Learn to change your oil, fix your sink, or build shelves. It can be anything as long as it’s new to you.
      • Create a vision board. Grab a magazine and tear out any images that excite you. Paste or tape them all to a piece of poster board and make plans to make some (or all!) of them come true.
      • Meditate. You might choose a mindfulness practice like focusing on your breath or search for a guided meditation that sounds interesting.
      • Watch comedy live or on the internet. Laughter helps us feel more expansive and open, and both are associated with actualization.
      • Visit a museum, a gallery, an aquarium, or an amusement park.

Your feelings are signals that, if you pay attention, can help you move forward on a healing or recovery path by letting you know that you have unmet needs in the moment. They can even tell you which needs are unmet. This kind of self-awareness helps put you in the driver’s seat of your own life. If you practice tuning in to feelings, sorting out your needs, and using healthy self-care behaviors, you can really tap into your own wellness. You will be stronger and more capable of moving forward on your journey toward greater health and wellbeing.


Here’s a simple practice for beginning to tap into your feelings.

You can do this practice standing, sitting, or lying down. Simply find a comfortable position.  Close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so. If not, soften your eyelids and gaze down slightly. Begin at the soles of your feet and slowly, let your awareness move up and over your body until you reach the crown of your head. Notice any sensations: tension, heat, cold, openness, tears, pain, movement, or shakiness…  And ask yourself, “how am I feeling right now?”

If you can’t identify the feeling by name, that’s ok. You can start with comfortable or uncomfortable. If you feel uncomfortable, look at the feelings in this post, and see what seems closest. Try one of those self-care practices. If it works, you will notice a shift in your feeling.  Stay open to experimenting with healthy self-care practices, and keep going. You’re gaining powerful tools for a well-balanced life.