The Survival Value of Self-Care in a Stressful World

The Survival Value of Self-Care in a Stressful World

By many accounts, the national capital area is among the ten most stressful cities in America.  Competition for desirable jobs, high expectations at work, financial demands, stressful commutes and unpredictable traffic are daily occurrences. Due to “normal daily pressures,”  self-care is often relegated to the back-burner.

Rather than indulgence, self-care is as  important as grabbing the oxygen mask before caring for others. Working at self-care deficit  depletes our effectiveness in the home and at work. Beating ourselves up for failing our own expectations, adds internal turmoil to  daily external stressors. Emotional depletion taxes both body and psyche, and must be addressed before the cascade results in the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion known as burnout.

Challenges are greater for single parents; women, (who often work and  continue to shoulder the bulk of child and home care); and single young adults, whose expenses are greater, and whose jobs may pay less as they gain experience, and who likely are burdened with college debt.  Still, it’s not hopeless! The following are some practical tips in many domains of positive self-care:

Sleep hygiene: Adequate sleep may be the single most important factor, unless one’s antidote to stress is escape to hypersomnia!  Aim for 8 hours and log sleep times for one week. To enhance optimal sleep:

  • Aim for the same bedtime every night

  • Avoid technology in the bedroom, unless it’s playing restful sounds or guided imagery to assist sleep

  • Read, but nothing so provocative that it revs you up emotionally

  • Maintain low, soft light, as the body’s natural sleep hormones respond to darkness.

  • Avoid caffeine after noon, and exercise more than 3 hours before retiring.

Diet: Maintain even energy levels during the day, even if meals or snacks are small. Skipping meals is not helpful for weight loss; it may instead lead to bingeing. The goal is an even blood sugar level throughout the day to support energy and alertness. The following tips may help:

  • Pre plan/prepare meals in advance, before the work week.

  • Avoid refined or sugary treats, which cause a “crash” later on

  • Avoid sugar when possible, to stave off inflammation

  • Carry snacks in purse or backpack, like nuts or protein bar

  • Avoid sugary sodas, which rob the bones of potassium

Exercise: Even if the demands of work are great, you can grab 20 minutes per day to move and stretch.  Try to leave the office at lunch and skip the elevator for the stairway. Sign up for a yoga class.  

  • Avoid excuse-making by keeping a gym bag in your car

  • Get an exercise buddy to keep you accountable (your dog qualifies)!

  • Park further from destination to increase walking possibilities

  • Optimize walk by engaging in nature sans earbuds and phones

  • Recall that exercise increases metabolism and well-being, which reduces depression.

Emotional Self-Care: Pay attention to your inner dialog!  If prone to depression or anxiety, ruminative thoughts can be a nemesis. Humans are wired to seek out the negative; it’s protective, a “scan for threats,”but the tipping point comes when the thoughts become obsessive and self-recriminatory. Tips for positive emotional self-care include:

  • Realizing that a setback is not a “destination” but a pivot point

  • Recognize perceived failures as learning opportunities

  • Avoid ascribing intentions or judgment to others

  • When unable to change situation, aim to change your attitude

  • Seek  a “reality check” when you overreact emotionally; adjust accordingly

Mental Self-Care: Keep learning, and feed your interests.

  • Engage in your chosen skill set; reading, exercising, playing an instrument,          learning Chinese, knitting, painting, cooking, gardening

  • Learn something new every day

  • Challenge your mind with non-work topics: crosswords, Sudoku, video games

  • Take a break from social media and technology

  • Keep a journal

Spiritual self-care: Connect with the collective however it suits you:

  • Prayer or meditation

  • Mindfulness

  • Connecting with nature

  • Appreciating beauty and excellence

  • Adapting an attitude of kindness, forgiveness and gratitude

Not all versions of self-care appeal to everyone, so choose what works and make sure it is part of a daily routine. Committed practice increases your  ability to tolerate stress and raises your energy baseline.

Suggested reading:

Sarah Pitkin