What Is Stress And Our 5 Favorite Ways For Managing It With Self-Care
Work. Family. Friends. Spirituality. Hobbies. Emotional maintenance. Physical health. A pandemic. How are we supposed to balance it all?
For many of us, feeling a lack of control over our lives is more present today than ever before. And after a while, if we don’t address this feeling, it becomes an overwhelming cloud of stress that lives rent-free in our psyche, unwanted and unwelcome.
Because the last year and a half has forced many of us to shift the way we think about stress and the toll it takes on our bodies, we’d like to take a moment to dig into exactly what stress means and 5 of our favorite ways of managing it with self-care.
What is Stress?
Unless you live on a tropical island with a team of people feeding you grapes and fanning you with a palm frond all day as a harpist plays it’s sweet, soothing melody in the background, you’re probably very familiar with the physical manifestation of stress. Knots in your stomach, sweaty palms, elevated pulse, breathlessness—you know the drill. But if we discover the root of our stress, we can address those parts of our lives and find better ways to combat it.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is, “the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.” The stress response is how our bodies react to that feeling. You might have heard of the term “fight or flight,” which breaks down the two major stress responses—when we encounter stressful situations, our bodies release hormones that tell us how to respond so we can combat them (fight) or get away from them (flight).
Responding to stress with fight or flight has always been a natural part of the human condition. But now that we are no longer hunting and gathering nomads living our lives under the constant threat of a predator attack, we can sometimes have a difficult time handling them. When presented with something scary, our bodies respond with stress so we can get away from the danger. Nowadays, we see fewer tigers and we have buildings to keep us away from lightning, but that stress response still remains.
While the stress response still gets triggered by natural dangers like earthquakes and spiders, it is also triggered by a slew of modern problems. When something overwhelming happens—and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, positive things like moving into your dream home can cause stress—our nervous system doesn’t have a gauge telling us how life-threatening the situation is, it just knows the brain is overwhelmed and needs to get away from (flight) or attack (fight) the trigger in order to neutralize the stress.
How to Manage Stress
Alright, enough about stress (even reading about it can be stressful), let’s talk about how we can fix it. This is where self-care enters the conversation.
The term self-care is so saturated in our cultural narrative that it’s become difficult to define and truly understand. From Instagram wellness gurus to an ever-expanding self-help section at the bookstore, we’re so bombarded with messages about how important it is to take care of ourselves that the real meanings and implications of self-care become lost.
We like to keep things simple. Self-care, according to the experts, simply comes down to nourishing your well-being. This may seem like a vague definition, but that’s because practicing self-care is different for everybody. You’re going to have to do some soul searching and experimenting to figure out what self-care looks like for you, but this is an exciting and life-changing journey that can bring a lot of positive change to your life.
To help you get started, here are 5 stress management activities:
5 Ways for Managing Stress With Self-Care
1 | Get Away From Technology
Our first method for managing stress with self-care is getting away from technology (in some ways).
Technology is incredible, but it tends to flood our minds with information, which is not helpful when we’re trying not to feel overwhelmed. It’s hard to care for ourselves when the constant sound of texts, emails, and Slack notifications triggers that fight or flight response.
One way to get away from technology is to go for a hike or get a weekend of camping in. Get into the woods where cell service is spotty at best and immerse yourself and/or your loved ones in the present moment. If being outdoors isn’t your thing, turning your phone off and journaling about how you’re feeling can help you figure out what’s going to make you feel better without distractions or influences.
2 | Breathe
We know, we know, you’re breathing right now, so what the heck do we mean?
We’re talking about breathing exercises, mindfulness, and meditation.
Breathing exercises have been proven to reduce blood pressure as much as pharmaceutical drugs and exercise. How amazing is that?! Our bodies are already equipped with self-care tools, we just need to tap into them.
Breathing exercises generally lead to mindfulness, which is the state of being present and aware of our surroundings. Mindfulness tends to reduce stress because stress is often caused by thinking about external problems—how am I going to solve such-and-such problem at work next week? When will I find time to go to the grocery store this weekend? Why is my child demanding cookies after their bedtime? If we live in the moment and solve our problems as they come, we tend to stress less. As the saying goes, “stressing about something in the future just means you suffer twice!”
Meditation comes in many forms, but generally combines breathing exercises and mindfulness in order to calm the mind, body, and spirit. We won’t dig too deep into it here, but we have plenty of resources including an intro to meditation as well as a guide to meditation at home to get you started. All you need to know is that it can be an excellent form of self-care if it sounds interesting to you (but be careful not to force it—we’ll come back to this idea later).
3 | Get Into Your Body
Naturally, one of our favorite ways to manage stress through self-care is by working out.
When we exercise, we are forced into the present moment because a tough workout naturally requires your full focus and attention. Additionally, working out releases all kinds of stress-fighting chemicals in the brain (helloooooo, endorphins!) and leaves us feeling exhausted in the best way.
Keep in mind that exercise as a form of self-care looks different for everyone. For some, a restorative yoga class is just the thing to bring us out of our stress response, for others, it’s a heavy lifting session, or going for a walk with the dog, or surfing on a warm summer’s day. No matter what exercise you do to combat stress, if it makes you feel good, then keep on doing it!
4 | Mindful Socialization
This one is for the extroverts out there.
Extroverts are generally outgoing people who feel energized by social interaction. They are the opposite of introverts, which we will get to in the next section.
If you’re an extrovert and you’re feeling overwhelmed, a great way to combat stress is by undertaking some mindful socialization. What we mean by that is intentionally creating the space to spend quality time with people you care about. Going out for coffee with your best friends, hosting a small dinner party, creating a self-care book club, or going on a walk with your favorite relatives might be a good form of self-care for you.
5 | Take Time for Yourself
On the other hand, if hosting a dinner party or doing any of the listed activities above sounds like it would cause a ton of stress, don’t even think about doing it.
Looking inward is the most commonly discussed form of self-care, and there’s a reason for that: taking the time to understand and address our needs is often easiest to do alone. Journaling, reading, taking a bath, going for a dip in the pool or ocean, releasing some creative energy, and listening to your favorite band are all fantastic ways to perform self-care.
Can Self-Care Cause Stress?
Before we let you free on your self-care journey, we have one caveat.
Sometimes it may feel like you need to check certain boxes in order to perform self-care, this may be a form of stress in and of itself. If you don’t feel like doing a grueling workout for the sake of endorphins, don’t do it. If meditation sounds like a boring nightmare, don’t do it. If turning off the TV feels worse than leaving it on, don’t do it. You get the pattern.
If the only thing that feels right to you is eating cereal and having a Lord of the Rings marathon—do it! Don’t let the idea that self-care has to be a perfect routine about green juices and fresh, air-dried sheets get in the way of your mental health. It sounds crazy to say, but it’s important to hear. Align your self-care with your set of values, and the rest will follow.