One of the things I am constantly working on for myself is self-care. What do I mean by self-care, you ask? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Self-care means finding ways to take care of yourself emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.
Why is self care important?
People who do not take care of themselves, myself included, eventually become overwhelmed by stress. Some people call this “burnout.” Whatever you call it the effects are the same for most of us. We become irritable, fatigued, unable to concentrate on our work, maybe depressed, anxious, generally dissatisfied with life… and utterly ineffective.
Stress is additive
As you go through your day, week, month, etc. things happen that add stress to your life. In between these stress adding events you may have periods of lower stress or relative calm, and some of that stress will dissipate. However, if you do not take active measures to de-stress, some of it will remain when the next stressful thing happens. The remaining stress is called “residual stress.” When the new stressful events occurs it is added to any residual stress that may remain from previous event(s).
Let’s say I get up in the morning and start fresh with “no stress” – this rarely happens because there is almost always some stress left over from the previous day, financial stresses, family stresses, etc., but let’s just say for this example that this is the case.
So you get up, take a shower, make some coffee and breakfast, all is right with the world, then as you walk out the door right on time you spill your coffee down your new white shirt. Let’s say that this adds 5 “stress points” to your morning.
So you take a few deep breaths, tell yourself its no big deal. So let’s say you drop 3 “stress points,” leaving only 2 points remaining. Not bad, you are still feeling pretty calm. Then you go inside and find that you forgot to take your shirts to the cleaners and you have no clean shirts… this adds 10 stress points, and now you are also in a hurry because you are behind schedule… add another 5 stress points.
So how many points do you have before you get on the road to work?
If you did the math and came up with 17 you are correct. The 15 stress points you just added are in turn added to the 2 residual stress points left over from the initial incident.
Let’s say you add another 10 points on the drive in to work (traffic, pressure of being behind schedule), then 20 during the morning at work. Now you are up to 47 points!
BUT, you have a great lunch with friends and laugh a lot, so you burn 20 points off, back down to 27. Then you get back to your office and the file you were working on has disappeared and you can’t find it, and its due to your boss within the next 10 minutes. 20 more points added, so you are back to 47…
And it goes on, and on…
You see, stress adds up. No matter how well you think you handle stress the reality is that the more stress you build the less effective you become. The reason is that stress attacks you physiologically as well as emotionally. We tend to become preoccupied with those things that are stressful and not realize the physical toll stress takes on our bodies. This preoccupation not only draws attention from other things that may be essential to their effectiveness, but often has serious health consequences if left unmanaged as well. Eventually, when a person reaches his or her threshold the person will burn out.
Finding ways to relieve stress is essential in avoiding burn out, staying healthy, and remaining effective. There are several ways of doing this.
Here are some things I (really try!) to do each day:
1. Daily meditation. I spend between 15 minutes and an hour every practicing some form of meditation. Usually, I will spend 15 minutes in the morning or early afternoon in sitting meditation, simply focusing on breathing and quieting my mind. Nearly every evening I spend another 45 minutes in walking meditation along the beach. This practice helps me remain “in the moment,” and trains my mind to be less chaotic and reactive. Meditation teaches a calm and controlled mind that is far better able to deal with stress.
2. Daily ritual. My day’s schedule is usually pretty fluid. I usually have no idea when the next fire is going to erupt and demand my attention. Clients call unexpectedly, web site go down without warning, children break things… stuff happens. However, as chaotic as things may get, I always have some things that I do regularly, every day. I discuss the importance of daily ritual in another post, so I won’t go into all the details here; but I will say that daily ritual can serve as a form of meditation in itself, and can serve to bring and reinforce purpose in your life. Both help keep you in the right frame of mind and help you deal with stress.
3. Physical exercise 3-4 times per week. Stress not only affects us mentally and emotionally. It also has profound affects on our bodies. Sore and tight muscles, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, and neurological problems are just some of the potential negative affects of stressful living. Luckily, we can help mitigate these physical affects through regular exercise. By conditioning your body you provide a sort of armor against stressors. You also release negative energy through the exertion of exercise.
4. Breath! It sounds odd, but the reality is that when we grow accustomed to living with stress we sometimes forget how to breath. Our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, limiting the amount of oxygen we get to our brain and other organs. By focusing on taking deep, relaxing breaths several times each day you can refocus on your breathing and become more aware of when it starts to become shallow or hurried. I find that when I begin to feel stressed, if I stop and take a few deep breaths I am able to think and react to the situation much better than before.
5. Live in the moment. I believe that a lot of the stress that we are exposed to comes from our either dwelling on past, or worrying about the future. Not only does this cause stress in terms of depression, anxiety, or unhealthy desires, it also often leads to us not really focusing on the things that are most important in the moment. It is important that we periodically take a time out each day and bring ourselves back to the now.
6. Manage the way I think about things. The way we think influences the way we interpret and react to our environment. If I think something is the worse thing ever, I will react accordingly. If I think, “wow, this is tough, but it’s not the end of the world…” I will react more moderately and be less stressed about the event. Now, many people believe that they can’t control how they think. That is simply not true. You can control your thoughts, but it does take some practice to break old thought habits and create new ones. (Here’s how). But in gaining control of your thoughts you gain control of your reality, so it is well worth the trouble.
7. Eat right. Nutrition matters. Eating the right things not only makes your body more lean and fit, it also ensures your mind is better able to process the world around you. The right diet improves concentration, stabilizes mood and helps you think more rationally.
8. Engage with others. Some people isolate themselves from friends and family during times of stress. Many men withdraw into their “man caves” and sulk or try to solve their problems alone. Here is a secret: socialization and teamwork works better than self-isolation and going it alone. Even if you don’t want to, force yourself to get out and socialize.
9. Learn to let go. This is very closely associated with living in the moment. When things get stressful sometimes the worse thing you can do dwell on them. Learning to let go of the past and not worry about the future is part of letting go. This does not mean bury your head in the sand and hope for the best. What this means is learning to accept and adapt to things you cannot influence, and allowing yourself the space you need to figure out how to best influence those things you can. Beating your head against brick walls only gives you a headache.
Finally, once each week I try and find a day that I simply walk away from stress. Usually this is a Saturday or a Sunday. I use this time to simply relax, go for a long run, read a book, go to the beach, have a drink at the local brewery… or do just about anything but work. The idea is to remove yourself from those things that stress you out, and to allow yourself to re-center and refocus on the things that are most important in your life. A good day of relaxation can do wonders for the entire following week.
Stress kills personal growth and effectiveness. Learning how to take care of yourself and manage stress is essential for your mental, emotional and physical health. By developing and practicing a regular self-care routine you can be happier, healthier, and more productive.