In honor of Psychology Recognition Week, this post is reminder of the need for each of us to care for ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. In a society where there’s a pill for almost everything, we tend to look for quick fixes to our problems. But even when we can take a pill, in most cases the underlying causes of our problems remain. If we want our situations to change and health to improve, then we need to do something different. This is especially true for managing stress.
Repeatedly, I tell my kids that caring for oneself is not optional, it’s something we have to do. Yet as adults, think how often we treat self-care as something that we do when we have the time. The problem with that is we never have the time.
When I started working with my current employer, no one from my team ever mentioned a break, and I felt guilty if I wanted to take time to eat. Yet eating is a need, not a want. The same is true for the needs to seek support and consultation from colleagues and to allow our bodies and minds time to decompress.
It took me a long time before I internalized what I have always preached: caring for yourself is not a want, it’s a need. Okay, so how do we do it?
What Is Stress
A stressor is anything that puts a demand on us physically, emotionally, or mentally.
While we tend to think of stress as a bad thing, even good things (e.g., starting a new job, getting married, having a baby) can be stressful.
Effects of Stress
Good or bad, stress has a physiological effect on our bodies. The sympathetic nervous system (aka Fight or Flight Response) is activated and a cascade of stress hormones (including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol) is released. Our pupils dilate, heart rate increases, blood flow moves away from internal organs (slowing digestion) and toward our extremities. This response mobilizes our bodies to take action.
But these days, we don’t need a rush of adrenaline to run away from a sabre tooth tiger. Modern-day stressors include things like finances, work stress, and other chronic stressors that we can’t run away from.
Stress can have a direct effect on our bodies (e.g., decreased immune functioning, accelerated arteriosclerosis) as well as indirect effect through behaviors (e.g., eating fast food, substance use).
Here are some of the effects of stress on our lives:
- Sleep disturbance
- Increased muscle tension
- Exacerbation of chronic pain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increase susceptibility to and longer recovery time from illness
- Exacerbation of chronic medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, coronary artery disease, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, obesity, autoimmune diseases)
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Engagement in unhealthy coping strategies (e.g., smoking, drinking alcohol, eating fast food or sweets)
Even Psychologists Aren’t Immune
In recent weeks I have been experiencing an inordinate amount of stress. My heart was racing 24/7, even with proper diet and exercise my weight loss had plateaued, my chronic pain was so bad it had me nearly in tears most days, and I was so fatigued that it was difficult to function. It was clear that I was reaching my breaking point.
After years of teaching stress management, I knew all the right things to do to prevent burnout. I was taking lunch breaks, effectively managing my time, leaving on time, eating healthfully, and exercising. What was I missing?
It occurred to me that in times of heightened stress, eating a salad and going for a walk aren’t enough to shut off the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response and activate the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system.
What I needed was aggressive self-care.
A Call for Aggressive Self-Care
Aggressive self-care was a term I first heard in the Simply + Fiercely article Doing Less + A Lesson In Self-Worth, and it always stuck with me.
In that article, it’s discussed how self-care has evolved from doing something nice for oneself when time allows to aggressively protecting time to do what one needs.
To me, it’s a deliberate effort to make one’s wellbeing a priority using a multifaceted approach.
Realizing that my usual burnout prevention strategies were not enough, I implemented this multifaceted strategy for my managing stress:
First, I talked to a supportive friend. The intention was not to “vent,” but rather to work through my thoughts and help me identify what I was missing and what I needed to do.
When under a lot of stress, it can be difficult for us to see clearly. Speaking with someone who can help us take another (more balanced and unbiased) perspective can be helpful.
Second, I made some decisions that had been weighing on my mind.
I said “no” to an opportunity at work that I did not want to do and would not add value to my life (traveling to give a talk at a conference on a subject about which I was not passionate).
But I said “yes” to something I did want to do but was afraid to (doing an interview for Nerd Wallet).
All that pent-up adrenaline needs somewhere to go!
When I got home, I went for a 30 minute jog with my oldest son. As a reward for pushing myself to run 10 minutes longer than usual, I jumped in the refreshing pool, where I had a 30 minute swim. This release of energy felt great!
Following a good workout, I needed to refuel. A healthy dinner with my family was exactly what I needed.
While eating dinner with my family, I was present with them. It was tempting to think or talk about work. But consistent with my value of being a present mother I made a committed action to avoid those subjects and just focus on the people and the food in front of me.
After dinner, I took a hot bath as usual. But instead of reading personal finance blogs in the bath, I listened to meditation music (which as a bonus helped to block out the ruckus of the children in the next room).
And instead of just washing with soap, I used aromatherapy in the form of a scented body conditioner.
When I feel stressed, I want to be alone. I certainly don’t want to be touched or hugged. But my kids need affection from their mother.
To release the so-called “love hormone” that facilitates attachment, after my bath I rocked and cuddled my youngest babies before they went to bed.
Decrease Muscle Tension
Sure I could have done progressive muscle relaxation or another active relaxation technique, but that day I pulled out the big guns and asked my husband for massage. It had been years since I asked, and he was glad to help me through this stressful time.
After my massage, I touched up my nail polish so that I could go into work the next day looking and feeling my best.
Avoiding the Bad
Often to unwind in the evenings, I would have a snack or drink after the kids are in bed. That night, I wasn’t hungry. So I decided to forgo the snack. I also did not consume any alcohol, sugary drinks, or caffeine (not even chocolate).
Finally, I went to bed early and received a good night’s rest.
Sleep is our body’s time to repair and rejuvenate. Sleep deprivation can result in decreased leptin (a hormone that makes us feel full), increased ghrelin (a hormone that makes us feel hungry), and increased ability for our fat cells’ abilities to use insulin properly.
In addition to feeling tired and irritable, sleep deprivation can also make us feel hungry and decrease our ability to use calories, resulting in them being stored as fat (hence the plateau in my weight loss).
The next morning, I awoke feeling calm, refreshed, and as a bonus I broke through my plateau and lost three pounds that week.
As I said before, financial independence is a priority to me because I want to go into work each day choosing to be there. That being said, I have a responsibility to myself to engage in self-care so that I can be present for the patients I serve and for my family.
As part of aggressive self-care, I am also practicing saying no to anything that does not add value to my life or that I feel will push me to a point I know to be unhealthy.
As the saying goes, “Anything that costs you your peace is too expensive.”