In my work, I have a particular interest in the role self care plays in preventing and alleviating stress. I see a lot of people struggling with stress and it is something I myself have a long history with. Over the years I have learned a great deal about what I personally need to support myself in living well; and this is also a focus in my counselling practice.
Stress is something we all experience in varying degrees. It is a warning signal we send to ourselves. It’s widely acknowledged that a certain amount of context-specific stress can be good for us. Stress can motivate us to meet a deadline; and it can energise us in a way that can sometimes be invigorating! We may also feel stressed or anxious if we don’t feel safe. In this situation, we are receiving information that there may be danger. Stress can also be a sign that we are compromising what is good for us and not caring for ourselves in the way we need – we are not getting our needs met. When we experience stress in high levels for long periods of time, it can be detrimental to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Becoming familiar with our own, unique signs of stress can provide us with information about ourselves that we can use to make changes before we reach crisis point. Doing this involves looking at our thoughts, our emotions, how we feel physically and our behaviour.
Following are some examples of signs of stress. As everyone is unique, we each have our own particular stress signals; and what may be normal for one person, may be abnormal for another. The idea is to notice when you are experiencing signs that are unusual for you – particularly if you are experiencing a number of such signs. Of course, many of these signs may also be caused by any number of other health problems. If you are concerned about symptoms you are experiencing, please see a health care professional. The following are examples to get you thinking about what your own signs of stress may be.
• Body – feeling tired/exhausted, feeling like you’re running on adrenaline, crave sugar more than usual, insomnia, nausea, constipation/diarrhoea, stiff posture, being ill more than usual, tense muscles, headaches, neck/back ache, upset stomach, holding breath/shallow breathing, less free to move (holding one’s body tightly or very still).
• Feelings/Emotions – feeling apathetic, feeling anxious, more sensitive (get upset/angry easier), restless, irritable, feeling worthless, getting defensive, feeling down, impatient.
• Thoughts – self-critical, pessimistic, fast thoughts, difficulty concentrating, constantly telling yourself you don’t have enough time, worrying about little things, thinking the same thoughts over and over with little progress, catastrophising.
• Behaviour – less motivated, or rushing all the time, isolating oneself, finding it difficult to relax, being/feeling less generous, being less flexible, diet is less healthy than usual, relying on alcohol to relax more than usual, stopping doing things you know are good for you (such as exercising or seeing friends).
What have you noticed about your own signs? I highly recommend writing them down, as it helps to clarify what you’ve noticed.
So how do we use this information to take better care of ourselves?
First: Know what your early warning signs are.
Second: Regularly check in with yourself.
Find some time every day where you completely stop for a moment and literally check in. It doesn’t need to take long.
Ask yourself – “how am I?”
I invite you to give it a try right now.
Close your eyes (after reading the following).
Now, thinking about all the different aspects that make up your experience (thoughts, emotions, body etc), ask yourself, “how am I?”
Does your body feel tense or relaxed? Do you have pain anywhere? What are you thinking about? How do you feel emotionally?
Rather than judging yourself, just notice.
Open your eyes.
What where you aware of?
Third: If your early warning signs are a message, what are they trying to tell you?
(Mine are usually telling me to slow down and stop thinking I can do everything myself). Then use the information you have from your early warning signs to choose something different. I fully acknowledge, respect and understand that some of us have complex and distressing life circumstances to contend with, and I’m not suggesting you have the power to change that. What I am suggesting is that there may be ways we can support ourselves in dealing with what life sometimes throws our way. Ways we can be kind to ourselves when we most need it.
What makes you feel: Happier? Calmer? Less stressed? More connected?
Do more of that.
For me it’s: running, yoga, cutting back on sugar, caffeine and alcohol, having a bath and reading a book, reassessing my lists (and how I’m spending my time) and catching up with friends.
What makes you feel more connected, calm and able to cope?
I’d love to hear what you’ve noticed about your own signs of stress, and also your favourite ways of looking after yourself!