Stress and Self-Care
Happy Self-Care Week! To acknowledge this week, in this article you will learn about self-care and how we can use it as a tool to help manage stress.
Stress is a state of emotional or mental strain resulting from difficult or very demanding circumstances. In small doses, stress can actually be beneficial. For example, it can help motivate us to work hard on a project. On the other hand, too much stress, especially over the long term, can negatively impact our physical and mental health. It is important to first recognize how you may be impacted by stress. Here are some possible signs of stress:
Physical signs: Rapid heartbeat, muscle tightness especially in the neck and shoulders, headaches, and fatigue.
Mental signs: Racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering things.
Emotional signs: Restlessness, anxiety, depression, easily irritated, anger, feeling overwhelmed.
Behavioural signs: Eat more or less, sleep too much or too little, nervous habits like nail-biting, losing your temper, overreacting to unexpected problems.
Self-care in today’s mainstream media is often associated with pampering yourself, such as taking a bubble bath, lighting candles, or going to a nail salon. However, self-care is actually more basic than that and does not have to involve spending a lot of money. Self-care is making a conscious effort to take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Once you learn to recognize how stress may be impacting your health, the next step is to think of ways to help manage your stress that directly target those areas of your health. Some ideas are included in the next few paragraphs.
While we may not realize it at first, we may be able to exert some control over the situation that is causing us stress. In these cases, we can use problem-solving strategies, make behavioural changes, or speak with someone about the situation.
At other times, we may not have any direct control over the situation that is causing us stress, but we can still practice focusing on what we CAN
control, which is taking care of ourselves so that we can deal with the stress as best as we can. It can be helpful to create a big list of activities and strategies that you can pull from when needed that fit your current situation and needs. Include activities and strategies that you can do alone and with others, some that are quick and easy to start and some that take longer, and indoor and outdoor activities. Think about enjoyable activities that help calm the body and mind, such as playing a sport, dancing, painting, reading, listening to music, playing board games, going for a walk, talking with someone or journaling as a way to process your thoughts.
Taking the time to process the challenging situation and recognize how it makes you feel is important, especially if the situation is a constant in your life. Try writing down your thoughts related to the stressful situation. Look for patterns and see if you can come up with alternative ways of thinking that can be more helpful towards your situation or that can make you feel more in control. For example, instead of thinking, “bad things happen to me” you can rephrase this thought to “this situation happened, what are my next steps?”
The great thing about using recreational activities as a means to reduce stress is that they often benefit multiple areas of your health that can be impacted by stress. For example, swimming can help reduce your bodily signs of stress by relaxing your muscles and can help reduce your mental and emotional signs of stress because exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are “feel good” chemicals produced by your nervous system.
Engaging in healthy behaviours can often be difficult and during stressful situations, when we may feel consumed by our stress, it can feel even harder to keep up with our healthy habits. For example, we may lean towards “comfort food” that is convenient and tasty as a short-term coping mechanism, but ultimately we are not properly nourishing the body and mind. It is important to work on healthy behaviours, including eating nourishing food to stay energized, staying hydrated, getting a healthy amount of sleep to feel well-rested, and incorporating some form of movement into your day. No one is perfect and it is important to not be harsh towards yourself if you gravitate towards habits that are not the healthiest when you are stressed (I have an “emergency chocolate” cupboard). The goal is to keep working on incorporating healthy habits into your routine in manageable ways so that even in times of stress, we continue to stay as healthy as we can. Feeling good helps reduce maladaptive physical, mental, emotional, and behavioural responses to stress.
While it can be difficult at times, maintaining your healthy habits, engaging in fun and meaningful activities, using strategies to directly target the source of stress when possible, and addressing your mental and emotional reactions to stress are ultimately the best ways to combat stress. When we take care of ourselves, we can better handle difficult situations as they come.
“Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques”. Occupational Therapy Toolkit. William Osler Health System