The Best Thing You Can Do for Yourself When You're Stressed
One of my responsibilities at work is managing 15 students who serve as peer health educators. When I ask how they’re doing, they ramble off the multitude of activities they’re involved in, the exams they’re studying for, the projects that’re due, the causes they’re advocating for, and, well, the list could go on. And on. When they finally take a breath, I ask, “And how are you practicing self-care?”
This concept is rather self-explanatory. In simple terms, it means treating yourself—mind and body—well. And it’s something that should be part of everyone’s routine—not just those in college. Because these days, we’re all really, really, busy—or we like to think so, at least.
This busyness, among other things, is causing us all to be stressed out, too. In 2014, 77% of the American population reported feeling the physical effects on a regular basis and 73% said they’d felt the psychological ones. On top of that, 33% indicated they consistently experience extreme levels of it. And as I’m sure you’ve heard before, stress can negatively impact pretty much every part of the body.
But despite this, we often neglect to take the appropriate steps to unwind, especially when things get difficult and demanding. “During stressful periods in our lives, we tend to focus outward,”says Margarita Tartakovsky, an associate editor at PsychCentral.com. “We diminish or disregard our inner life, ignoring our needs and limits. And yet, it’s during hectic or difficult times when we need to care for ourselves the most.”
I know—when life gets chaotic, it may seem impossible (and unproductive) to fit in self-care. But the truth is, you probably have more time than you think, even if it’s just a couple minutes. It’s up to you to examine your schedule and find that extra space in your day.
Once you find those pockets of time, you must start with the basics—brushing your teeth well, getting enough quality sleep, eating well-balanced meals on a normal schedule, taking a shower, and so forth. Yes—this sounds obvious.
And it should be. But if you don’t start with the fundamentals, you won’t have anything to build on. And you may be surprised that you aren’t paying enough attention to some of these essential behaviors.
Just last week, I was talking to a friend about how she often forgets to eat lunch due to her overwhelming workload. And, confession? There have been mornings I’ve opted for a 20-second mouthwash rinse rather than two minutes of brushing my teeth because I have to get out the door and I’m going to be late! (Hint: Mouthwash is not an adequate substitute for teeth-brushing, and 90 more seconds won’t make me late.)
But it goes beyond these simple, everyday things. In my department, we frequently talk about the wellness wheel, which encompasses seven different areas of your health—physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, financial, emotional, and environmental. Sometimes, occupational is thrown in there, too (though it should be included all the time, don’t you think?).
You want to find balance across the entire wheel; and in order to do this, you can practice self-care for each section. For instance, perhaps for social, you pencil in a weekly catch-up session with a good friend. To address your financial wellness, you choose to open a savings account or meet with a financial advisor. And while spiritual could be choosing to reconnect with your faith, it can also be taking the time to identify and explore your core values.
The trick is to do what you enjoy. Don’t try to force yourself to engage in activities that don’t make you feel better or happy. For instance, I like the feeling that spinning gives me when the class is over, but I honestly hate 41 out of the 45 minutes I’m in that room. My feet fall asleep, my hips hurt, and the monotonous scenery makes me to glare at the instructor unforgivingly (similarly to how my cat looks at me).
Will I take an occasional class with friends? Sure. But I won’t choose it for my physical self-care. Instead, I’ll take a run on a trail, find a yoga class that prioritizes relaxation, or get a massage (when I can find a decent coupon).
You can practice before, during, or after work hours. There are no rules, other than implementing it on a regular basis and making sure the actions you choose are contributing healthy and positive ways. (And If you’re not sure where to start, try filling out this assessment. It’ll help you see which areas need a little (or a lot) more love.)
As Tartakovsky says, “practicing self-care not only helps us feel better, it also helps us function at our best. It replenishes our reserves, boosts our energy, and provides clarity. We’re able to do everything from making smarter decisions to helping others.”
You must be in top-notch condition to do your best work, and you must be at your best before you can help others be at their best. That includes partners, friends, family members, co-workers and—yep—your boss (gasp). This isn’t selfish behavior. It’s necessary.
Photo of stressed person courtesy of Mixmike/Getty Images.
Abby works in health education and prevention at a university in Washington, DC. When she’s not trying to make the world a healthier place, you can find her taking selfies with her cat (Mildred Meow Meow), hunting down the city's best grilled cheese, or zipping through the city on her bike, named Libby. Say hi on Twitter.More from this Author