How often has someone greeted you and asked how you’re doing, and your answer has been a harried, “Busy. Really busy,” because that’s the only response you can muster? If you’re like most of us, it’s been too many times to count.In today’s fast-paced world, our days are filled with work demands, family responsibilities, commutes and carpools, volunteer commitments, constant interaction with electronics, and the seemingly never-ending chores and challenges of everyday life.
Stress has become a constant companion in our lives, and it takes a toll on both our physical and our mental well-being. Although stress has always been an inevitable part of life, our modern world seems to have elevated it to epidemic proportions.
Most of us don’t experience the dramatic and instant spikes of stress and trauma that occur when our lives are threatened, as happened much more frequently to our ancestors, although many still experience this today. That type of stress and trauma requires much more than simple self-care.
The stress we experience in society today is often a constant presence, a low, slow burn that, over time, begins to feel like our normal state of being. Still others experience stress that peaks and subsides with repeated crises at work or at home.
It’s no wonder that “stress” and “burnout” have become some of the most used buzzwords of our day, and “stress management,” another popular buzzword, has become an essential, yet somewhat elusive, life skill.
To effectively manage our stress, it’s important to understand its origins and how it affects our bodies. Stress is the natural human response to challenging situations. From an evolutionary perspective, stress is the mechanism that motivates us to take action in times of danger.
The stress response triggers the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare your body to either fight the threat or flee from it, the “fight or flight response.”
In moderation, stress can be adaptive and motivate us to accomplish necessary tasks. It can even sharpen our focus and memory in some situations. In moderation, stress isn’t all bad. However, chronic, or excessive stress often leads to physical and mental health issues.
Chronic stress can manifest in a variety of forms, including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, digestive disorders, sleep issues, substance abuse, inflammation, and weakened immune function. It can also exacerbate preexisting health conditions, impair learning, memory, and work performance, and impact personal relationships, reducing our overall quality of life.
Considering the potential health risks of living stress-filled lives, managing stress is essential for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Thankfully, regular self-care practice can greatly reduce the negative effects of stress.
The power of self-care.
Self-care encompasses a variety of activities and practices aimed at nurturing our emotional, physical, and mental health. Magazine articles and social media posts often equate self-care with massages, spa visits, and pumpkin spiced lattes, but self-care can be practiced by anyone, not just those who can afford a bi-weekly mani-pedi, a $7 coffee, or have abundant leisure time.
Most self-care is free, and many self-care practices take less time than scrolling through social media. Too often we think of self-care as a luxury, rather than a necessity, but it is necessary if we want to sustain life balance and build resilience while facing the challenges of life.
However, if self-care feels like a burden, it’s not self-care. One person’s self-care is another person’s chore. Here’s why practicing self-care that fills you up is so powerful in reducing stress:
Reduction of physiological stress response:
Engaging in self-care activities like deep breathing, yoga, eating a balanced diet, exercising, maintaining good sleep habits, and spending time in nature, helps reduce excessive production of hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), fostering relaxation and a sense of calm.
Production of the “feel-good hormones”:
Dopomine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin are sometimes called the “feel-good hormones” because they can produce happy and, at times, even euphoric, feelings. The self-care practices of exercising, eating a healthy diet, mindfulness, and spending time with loved ones can boost the production of these hormones and improve our mood and feelings of emotional well-being.
Improved physical health:
The self-care activities of exercising and eating a healthy diet directly benefit your physical health and allow our bodies to fight off the negative impacts of stress. Many other forms of self-care improve our physical health, as well.
Better coping skills:
Self-care practices like mindfulness, prayer, going for a walk or run, and journaling are healthier ways to cope with stress and can reduce the urge to practice less healthy habits like overeating, drinking heavily or abusing other substances.
Regular self-care builds resilience, helping you to feel less impacted when stress does occur.
Self-care practices promote a more positive outlook on life, which improves mental health and overall wellbeing.
A holistic approach.
When we think about holistic health, the ideas of “mind, body, and spirit” or the “biopsychosocial model” may come to mind. Likewise, to truly be effective, self-care should be holistic, as well, tending to all aspects of the self. At first, that may seem overwhelming, especially if you try to tackle everything all at once. Instead, choose one or two areas to focus on, practices that sound less like a chore and more like a respite or a joy.
Many of the suggestions below may be things you are already doing without even acknowledging them as self-care. Celebrate that. And celebrate each new practice you attempt, even if you decide not to pursue it. Some will resonate and others will fall flat. And that’s OK. If possible, try aspects in each of the five elements of self-care below.
Spiritual self-care: self-care as stewardship.
Self-care has a spiritual component that is often overlooked, even in religious communities. As Christians, we’re taught to put others before ourselves and serve God by serving others. So, it may seem that self-care is self-serving or self-indulgent. Yet, how can we take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
As Christians, we are called to be stewards of God’s creation, which includes our own body, mind, and spirit. So, if self-care makes you feel selfish, remember that taking care of yourself is a form of stewardship, tending to God’s creation.
Just a few practices that nurture us spiritually include waking to a morning routine or ritual that connects us with God and our purpose, talking with God throughout the day through prayer and meditation, evaluating our priorities, spending time in scripture, devotions, Christian fellowship, retreats, being present in nature, intentional rest, and practicing gratitude.
From the perspective of self-care, incorporating spiritual practices into our daily routine is not only deeply fulfilling and provides needed connection to God, but attending religious services, and spending time in spiritual reflection, prayer and meditation have the added benefit of reducing stress and fostering inner peace.
According to a Mayo Clinic study, there is “a direct relationship between religious involvement and spirituality and positive health outcomes, including mortality, physical illnesses, mental illness…health-related quality of life…and coping with illness (including terminal illness).”
Nourish your body.
Choose healthy foods that you enjoy, eat mindfully savoring every bite, eat regularly and in moderation, and treat yourself occasionally.
Move your body.
Choose physical activities that you enjoy. Get moving, even if it’s only a walk around the block, getting out in your garden, or playing a game of tag with your kids. If you’re able, aim for 30 minutes a day, 3 to 4 days per week, but any movement is better than no movement.
Rest your body.
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night, knowing that this may not be attainable at first. Establish a consistent sleep schedule if possible, and create a relaxing bedtime routine, preferably turning off screens at least 30 minutes before going to bed. Rest when you get sick.
Practice preventative care.
Schedule preventative physicals, dental appointments, mammograms, and colonoscopies as indicated for your age. Although this isn’t the most pleasant aspect of self-care, it’s important for maintaining your physical health.
Give and receive physical touch.
Hold hands, hug a friend, snuggle or pet a furry friend, get a massage, or even embrace yourself. Physical touch releases oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, the “feel-good hormones” mentioned earlier.
Touch also stimulates the vagus nerve, which slows down the nervous system, decreases our heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces stress and fear. Touch even has potential healing effects and the ability to decrease pain, as well.
Psychological and emotional self-care.
The beauty of mindfulness (one of the many) is that it can be practiced anywhere and at any time, and it doesn’t cost a penny. Mindfulness is the act of drawing your attention to the present moment with an attitude of curiosity and without judgement.
It can be simply the awareness of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, noticing the warm sun on your face while taking a walk, or admiring the colors of a sunset or autumn leaves. Take time to be in the moment and appreciate your surroundings with all your senses and to be truly present with friends, family, and coworkers.
Express and share your feelings through conversation, journaling, creating art, playing music, singing, or cooking. Learn photography, garden, or start scrapbooking. Develop new hobbies. Take time to play. The options are endless.
Take time off.
Take a day trip, vacation or stay-cation. Escape to a museum for the afternoon or go to a movie with a friend. Any break from your regular schedule or time away from work or daily obligations can provide a much-needed break.
Going outdoors increases our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. Studies show that spending time outside decreases anxiety and improves our sleep, focus, creativity, and memory. Spending time in nature boosts our immunity, energy levels, and stimulates vitamin D production. It even increases levels of self-worth.
Do something comforting.
Wrap up in a blanket, read a book for pleasure, make a cup of tea, watch a favorite movie, take a bath, look at a photo album, or think about a favorite memory.
Treat yourself as you would treat a friend. Affirm your strengths and challenge negative self-talk. Ask yourself, “Would I say this to a friend?” Accept that you are human and imperfect and were created by God to have the freedom to choose, knowing that at times you would fail, yet granting you grace when you do.
It is through our failures and brokenness that we learn and grow, not by striving for perfection, but accepting our humanity and striving to do better, and granting ourselves grace in the process.
“Don’t forget to say ‘Thank you!’” How many times did your mom tell you that? It turns out that, once again, Mom was right, but in more ways than she may have realized. In a traditional sense, we express gratitude so others will know that we appreciate them for something they have done. As Christians, we offer prayers of thanksgiving to God.
Yet multiple studies have shown that practicing gratitude, something seemingly altruistic, makes us happier, improves our relationships, increases of sense of well-being, and can even improve our physical health. Expressing our gratitude to others, keeping a gratitude journal, praying, even simply having grateful thoughts, all have positive effects on our well-being.
Spend time with friends and loved ones.
In groups or one on one, plan fun activities. Strike up stimulating conversations. Make new friends. Carve out alone time with your spouse or partner and be present when you’re together. Put away your phones. Listen and share. Practicing mindfulness in our relationships builds connection and emotional intimacy.
Participate in and create community.
Sit in your front yard, meet your neighbors, host a gathering. Join a club. Serve a meal at a shelter. Stay for fellowship after church. Through community, we develop friendships, social connections, a sense of belonging, and receive, as well as provide, emotional and practical support.
Ask for help.
Ask for advice, vent to a friend, ask for help with a project or moral support. Asking for help is an act of courage and a sign of strength, rather than weakness. Asking for help fosters human connection, as well as a growth mindset. Try asking for help before you need it.
Reflect on your needs and communicate your expectations. Be polite, honest, respectful, and, if necessary, firm. Set boundaries at work, at home, at church, and with friends. Learn to say, “No,” and try not to over commit.
Keep in touch.
We don’t have to live physically close to loved ones to practice social self-care. Pick up the phone, send a card, write a letter or email, send a loving text message. Nurture relationships and foster connection.
Intellectual and professional self-care.
Go out to lunch instead of eating at your desk. Get up and walk around during the day. Take a few minutes to stretch. Go outside, breathe in the fresh air, and feel the sun on your face. Pack a nutritious snack and drink plenty of water. Ask for feedback and take time to develop healthy relationships with colleagues. Take all of your vacation time and PTO.
Maintain a comfortable workspace.
Add personal touches, like pictures of loved ones, pets, or places that bring you joy or a sense of peace. If possible, get a chair that provides good posture and comfort. If you have access to a standing desk, use it when you can. When it comes to reducing clutter, some studies show that a messy desk can promote creativity, while others indicate that a neat work area reduces stress and increases productivity. So, do what seems to work best for you.
Learn something new.
Develop a new skill, take a class, or learn a new language. Request projects that you find rewarding or interesting. Attend a lecture or interesting event. Read up on things that interest and motivate you.
Learn to set boundaries and turn down excessive responsibilities gracefully and respectfully. Knowing that this is easier in some workplaces than others, give yourself grace and treat yourself kindly.
Setting it as a daily practice.
Recognizing the value of self-care and finding things that make you feel good and bring you joy, rather than causing you stress or guilt, is the first step to improved emotional, spiritual, psychological, and physical health. Try to incorporate some form of self-care into each day, even if just for a few moments.
In a world filled with constant stressors, self-care is crucial in managing stress and maintaining a sense of well-being. Remember that self-care is a personal journey, so find what works best for you and fills your cup, then make it a priority in your life. By practicing some form of daily self-care, you’ll be better equipped to navigate life’s challenges with resilience and grace.
If you are struggling and feel that you need more help than practicing self-care can offer, consider learning more about counseling and how it can help. The counselors at our office are trained to listen, support you, and provide strategies to deal with stress and calm your anxiety. If you would like to set up an appointment to meet with me or one of the other counselors in our online directory, please don’t hesitate to reach out and give us a call today.
“Heart Hands”, Courtesy of Hassan OUAJBIR, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Take a Step Back and Breathe”, Courtesy of Max van den Oetelaar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Nap”, Courtesy of Jamie Street, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Holding Hands”, Courtesy of prananta haroun, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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