It’s no big secret that things are… pretty bad right now. Our political landscape is chaotic and many communities are experiencing increased peril under the Trump administration. So it’s good timing that today is International Self-Care Day, giving us all a chance to think about how to take good care of ourselves during trying times.

While some people hear “self-care” and think of mani-pedis or a day out with friends, truly caring for ourselves is about creating lasting habits that prioritize our mental and physical health (though, of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a spa day or hanging with friends). While it can sometimes feel selfish to really invest in self-care, doing so is necessary in order to have the energy to be of service to others. And it turns out that being of service to others is one of the most potent forms of self-care available, in itself. In fact, studies have shown that volunteering can improve mental health, while also making a contribution.

A 2013 study by the Exeter Medical School compared findings from 40 studies pertaining to volunteering and mental health, and it found that volunteering can increase depression and improve a person’s overall well-being. But the reasons why aren’t hard to guess. Volunteering helps ease depression by connecting people to one another, for one. The less isolated people are, the less likely they are to experience depression or have their depression worsen.

Other psychological benefits of volunteering include changes in thinking. Making new connections with new people while everyone collaborates to create positive change can help volunteers to see issues and their communities in a new light. Volunteering was also shown in one of the studies cited by Exeter to be connected to better self-esteem.

Not only does volunteering promote togetherness and community, it can also improve your physical heath as well. Volunteering outdoors or with animals can help get the body moving. Further, other studies show that spending time in nature and hanging out with animals can reduce stress in their own right.

Of course, one known flipside is that long-term activism and organizing can lead to significant stress and burnout. People who work on ongoing activist campaigns, organize in their communities, and otherwise dedicate a lot of time to enacting social change can become frustrated, exhausted, and struggle with their mental health. Experts recommend that activists stay mindful of the workload they’re taking on, set limits to how much they’re able to invest in activism, and maintain meaningful relationships.

All of this can be easier said than done at times. Those who volunteer regularly or take up activism often want to do as much as possible to make the biggest difference. But it’s no use getting completely drained to the point that it’s impossible to keep going. By taking care of themselves, activists can make it somewhat easier to maintain the stamina necessary for long-term work.

Self-care can take many forms, whether that means volunteering with others to make a difference and form meaningful connections or stepping back and taking a break from volunteering and activism. As many studies indicate, engaging in volunteerism and activism helps both activists and their communities, and it’s important to find the right balance.

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(Images via Getty Images)