Self-Care or Self-Medication: Which Path are You On?

I’m beginning to believe that every person and every leader, whether they intend to be or not, is on a path.

One path is a conscious choice. The other subconscious.

One path is healthy. The other is unhealthy.

One path leads to life. The other, ultimately, doesn’t.

So which path does every leader find themselves on?

I believe each of us is either on the path of self-care or self-medication.

I had never heard of the term ‘self-medication‘ until I got married. But my wife Toni is a health care professional and she uses it to describe what people do to cope with the stress, anxiety and difficulty in life.

When stress and life overwhelm you, you will either choose to respond to it in a healthy way (self-care) or an unhealthy way (self-medication).

And when you think of self-medication, don’t just think of pills or alcohol. As we’ll see below, there are some very ‘socially-acceptable’ ways even for Christians to self-medicate.

But the results are still numbing.

The choice is yours, but the first reality is this:

Self-care beats self-medicating.

The second reality is just as important:

If you don’t intentionally choose the path of self-care, you’ll likely end up on the path of self-medication.

That’s why it’s so important for you as a leader to choose which path you’ll walk.

Here are 5 ways Christian leaders self-medicate:

1. Food. Being overweight or even obese is almost normal in some Christian circles. As someone who has to watch my weight very carefully (and who does not understand how anyone can be a natural bean pole), I empathize. And I also know I often eat when I’m not hungry, but when I’m upset or just bored. Food is the drug of choice for many Christian leaders.

2.  Overwork. Again, working too many hours is socially acceptable, even rewardable in some circles. As a recovering workaholic, I know. But all work and no play doesn’t just make you dull, it makes you disobedient.

3. Gossip. It’s just a theory, but I think when we feel bad about ourselves, we say bad things about other people. And that’s just sinful.

4.  Shopping. Whether it’s retail therapy at the mall, the bigger house, the better car, the latest tech, the designer brands, Christians can easily numb their pain by joining the endless accumulation of things that end up in a landfill site one day.

5. Substance Abuse. Whether it’s a drink every day when you get home, an ‘overuse’ or misuse of your legitimate prescription, or even the use of illegal drugs, Christian leaders can fall into the classic pattern of turning to a substance rather than turning to God for relief.

So if you don’t want to end up self-medicating, what do you do?

Here are 10 healthy options for self-care:

1. A great daily time with God. Whatever method you use (here are some ideas), time with God matters. And your personal walk with God is often a casualty of ministry. Why is that? Shouldn’t be!

2. Exercise. Being out of shape physically means you will never be in top shape mentally or emotionally. I don’t like exercise either, so I invested in a road bike. I get asked all the time what I ride, so here you go: a 2009 Specialized Roubaix. And I bought it used (1/3 of its original price). It doesn’t have to break the bank.  And yes, I love it!

3. Healthy diet. You are what you eat. Dumping the processed foods for whole foods can make a big difference.

4. Proper sleep. If I don’t get 7-8 hours semi-regularly, I feel it. Sadly, sometimes others do too.

5. Intentional white space in your calendar. You can schedule time off and down time in the same way you schedule meetings. Just do it! I wrote a post on time management that links to many time management tips here.

6. Healthy friendships. Ministry can be draining. When was the last time you hung out with a friend you didn’t need to ‘minister to’? Who makes you laugh until you cry? Go hang out with them. Regular doses of life-giving relationships can make such a difference.

7. Margin. I am at my most kind when I have the most margin. This is true in terms of my calendar, but also true of finances. How can you be generous if you spend all your money on yourself?

8. Hobbies. Writing and blogging are my hobbies these days. You can be much more interesting than that. Take some pictures. Take up hiking. Get crafty. Study the constellations.

9. Family Time. Take a road trip, go out for dinner. Have some fun! Play hockey in the driveway or shoot hoops.

10. Coaching and counseling. For about 10 years I’ve had coaches and counselors who have helped me get through road bumps and life issues. Invaluable. Yes I pay them money, but it’s an investment in my family, my church and my life. I’m different and better for it.

I know at the end of my life, I will be so much better for pursing the path of self-care rather than the path of self-medication. One takes intentional planning, but it’s so worth it.

What are you learning about self-care? How have you seen people self-medicate?

I’d love to hear what you’re learning on this!


  1. Ralph Yeager Roberts on October 12, 2014 at 2:49 am

    I think there may be something telling in the allusions here to the Robert Frost poem “The Way Lest Traveled” and given the poems often overlooked point that the road less traveled is in fact no better or shorter etc. I thought about the possibility that our self care might be more self medication than we would sometimes like to think. And what mioght that leave us with – well the call to attend to the cause of the burn out which may not lie fundamentally in the minister but somewhere else?

  2. Pastors and NyQuil Addiction | Fallen Pastor on June 23, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    […] “Self-​Care or Self-​Medication: Which Path Are You On?” by Carey Nieuwhof (includes help­ful tips for self-​care) […]

  3. N Good on December 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I’m right there with Charles. I found myself with a merciless gaming addiction and after months of working through it realized that the heart of the issue was a lack of self-care.

  4. Anna Njiru on November 23, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you for the wakeup call. Self care is no longer part of us which we ought to go back to. This will enable us to tell the people we lead on the same

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      So glad to hear that Anna. Stay healthy!

  5. Mary DeMuth on March 10, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Well done, good and faithful self care guy! 🙂 Really great post.

  6. The Saturday Assortment #7 | More Grace on March 9, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    […] Self-Care or Self-Medication: Which path are you on? – Carey Nieuwhof  […]

  7. cnieuwhof on March 9, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Charlie..thanks…that’s a good one. Hadn’t thought about that one. And Derwin, thank you! That means a lot coming from you my friend.

  8. Derwin L. Gray on March 9, 2013 at 5:35 am

    Great blog. Thank you.

  9. Charles Hodsdon on March 8, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I tend to self medicate with entertainment. When I am stressed a video game or Netflix marathon is my drug of choice.

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