How is stress management vital to your self-care?
Your body was created to respond to stressful input- most understand this as the fight or flight response. But your body is not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress without ill consequences. Yes, that’s right, chronic stress can make you physically sick. We will talk more in depth about that in a minute, but right now consider how stress in the short term can affect your day-to-day decision-making processes. Your decisions affect the outcome of your life, and great decision making is not based in stress, fear, or anxiety. Keep reading to recognize what stress feels like, and what you can do to reduce your stress and improve your outlook on life.
There is so much confusion these days when people talk about self-care. It has become a hype word that at its best has helped many, but at its worst is incredibly toxic. To help alleviate this confusion we are doing a 4-part blog series about various self-care topics. (You can read part 1 here: Sleep Health Connection)
What is Self-Care?
Self-care is described as being mindful of your own limits and needs so you can ensure your own physical, emotional, and mental well-being. In short, taking time to take care of yourself physically, spiritually, and emotionally is all part of self-care. Nope, I am not talking about bubble baths and drinking more wine. In fact- can we all agree that using methods of escape is not actually self-care? Doing the things that are good for you (ie self-care), don’t always feel wonderful in the moment.
What does stress feel like?
Stress affects all aspects of your life: emotions, behavior, thought processing, immune system, hormones, ect. Stress can feel like fatigue, restlessness, anger, or sadness; it can also look like frequent colds, dry mouth, disorganization, shaking or cold hands, or ringing in the ear. (1/2) At its worst stress can cause chest pain, high blood pressure, heart disease, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, hair loss, and IBS (plus so much more). (2)
It is so important to understand what stress feels and looks like to not only prevent these serious health problems, but to treat the root cause of some of the minor health problems. The great news is that you can treat chronic stress! Here are a few tips to get you started. (5) Scroll down for more in depth coping strategies.
- Recognize that stress is a problem: connecting the physical and emotional symptoms to the pressures you experience is vital.
- Make a plan: Once you connect the dots, make a plan, or pick a healthy strategy (see list below)
- Review your lifestyle: sometimes unhealthy life decisions can make life more stressful. Do you need to say no more often? Do you need to learn to prioritize? Do you need to change your diet and exercise routines up? Do you need to stop or reduce smoking and drinking habits?
- Get support: supportive relationships and social activities are great to keep you accountable and they can provide valuable outside perspectives.
- Take a time out! This is especially vital if you struggle with people pleasing. Sometimes you need to practice a little more balance between giving and resting.
- Give yourself grace: Work on your gratitude journal, pray, rest, and remember that you don’t need to be perfect. Practice excellence not perfection.
THE FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE:
The fight or flight response has a good and useful purpose. It is meant to get you moving in the face of life-threatening danger. But the human body doesn’t distinguish between real and imagined threats. When your body senses a threat, it releases this cocktail of hormones- even when the threat isn’t truly life threatening.
Have you ever gotten nervous to give a big presentation at school or work and then felt super hyped up (increase heart rate, rapid breathing, flush skin, shaking, dilated pupils)? Yep! That’s probably a fight or flight response. A phobia is another example of how a fight or flight response might be falsely triggered.
It is important to understand that while this response is normal and automatic, it is not always accurate. If you can identify how your body is feeling in the moment and understand why it is feeling that stress, then you are one step closer to healthy coping skills.
COPING MECHANISMS FOR STRESS
A coping mechanism is simply a strategy you use to deal with or process an event. Coping mechanisms can be healthy or unhealthy (maladaptive). Here is a starting list of various coping mechanisms. (4)
Healthy Coping Mechanisms and strategies:
External Support: Seeking out a friend, family member, or a therapist to talk to is a great way to handle high stress situations or chronic stress. A trained therapist will talk you through all aspects of why you feel the way you do, can offer you insight, a listening ear, and teach you how to work through stress in the moment.
Relaxation Techniques: Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is one of our go to techniques for managing stress. You can read more about PMR on our recent blog here. This relaxation method not only helps you stop racing thoughts, but it can teach you body awareness skills. If you are aware of how your body is reacting to your world, you have a better chance at reducing your stress levels.
Music, Art & Creative Hobbies: The arts have long been known to help reduce stress. Creative people especially can find freedom in music or art. Sitting in nature, drawing, or listening to music can even be considered a relaxation technique. Be aware that these can also be used as an avoidance technique. Instead, use this time to actively process what you are thinking and feeling while you take part in the creative activity
Humor: Studies show that laughter is a great source of stress relief and it can literally improve your health. Additionally, laughing through a stressful situation can help you maintain perspective and prevent the situation from becoming too overwhelming.
Problem Solving: Sit down and try to identify exactly what caused this stress reaction. If you are struggling to identify the cause, you can try a journaling technique: the 5 “whys”, perspective journaling, or dialoguing. (read more about these in our past blog post). Once you identify the root cause, write out a list of possible solutions or action steps to effectively manage the stress.
Physical Activity: Physical activity releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals and hormones, including endorphins. It is a natural stress reliever and can provide a space for you to work through your thoughts.
Wellness Strategies: This can include healthy eating, good sleep habits, as well as routine wellness exams. Staying on top of these generally healthy activities can prevent stress. If you are taking care of yourself physically, you will cope better mentally when stressful situations arise.
Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms:
If you are struggling through chronic stress or anxiety you need to assess the coping strategies that you are using. If you aren’t actively seeking out healthy strategies, you might find yourself using one or many of these maladaptive coping mechanisms. This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good starting point. If any of these resonate with you, we highly recommend seeking out help from a friend, family member, medical professional, or professional therapist.
Escape: Withdrawing or isolating is a common reaction to stress. The risk of escape is the lack of processing. When a person experiences stress or trauma, they need to process the feelings. Escaping your feeling regularly doesn’t make them go away- they will build until your body shows physical symptoms of the mental symptoms.
Self-soothing/Addiction: In moderation some behaviors aren’t necessarily bad, but they become unhealthy addictions when they are used regularly with the intention of soothing. This can include the use of alcohol, eating junk food, or even exercise.
Numbing: Similar to escape and self-soothing. These behaviors range from stress eating, alcohol and drug use, or excessive screen usage. Next time you find yourself watching 4 hours of YouTube or scrolling on social, ask yourself if you are trying to avoid something? If so, you could be using this unhealthy coping mechanism.
Compulsions/Risk Taking: Chronic stress can cause people to seek out adrenaline because it acts like a drug for your body.
Self-Harm: this can include eating disorders, cutting, and other harmful activities. These activities may begin as a soothing or numbing behavior, but typically end up as an addiction. If you are struggling with self-harm, please know you are not alone. We are here to help you by providing a safe environment to work through your thoughts and feelings.
This assessment is a tool you can use to check in on your self-care skills and find out where you may be using unhealthy coping techniques. Fill out the form to download yours for free. This quiz is also included in our ultimate digital planner and our printable planner.
As always, our mission here at New Life is to provide you with the tools necessary to thrive and succeed in your life. You can’t do that if you are stressed out and trying to pour from an empty cup. Come back over the next few months and check out all the resources as we dive into this topic of self-care.
Finally, keep practicing this self-care stuff, keep tuning in, and reach out if you need help with any of it.