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Prioritizing Self-Care: The Key to Stress Management
Self-care is a crucial part of stress management. Whatever the reasons for your stress, the regular practice of self-care will greatly improve your feelings of “stress” as well as the effectiveness with which you manage the sources of your stress. It can also combat the negative consequences of stress on physical and mental health.
Everyone needs to spend time focusing on their own care, but many people tend to put the needs of others ahead of their own. These people typically include doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, and others whose job it is to focus on helping others. This pattern is also common for parents and other caregivers, as well as women in general (although many men are unaware of their own needs as well).
The following tips can help you reduce stress by learning to take care of your own needs first, because only then will you be strong and healthy enough to really be there and take care of others:
1. Not taking enough care of yourself often happens because you are not paying attention to taking care of yourself. The simple act of making the decision to prioritize self-care will greatly benefit you and those around you. For starters, keep track of how much time you spend on self-care each day or week so you know how little time you spend on it. You might even want to write this time in red ink in a diary or appointment book to give yourself a visual representation of how you are taking (or not) taking care of yourself.
2. Many people feel that when they relax, they are “not doing anything.” On the contrary, taking the time to relax is very important, restorative and essential to physical and psychological well-being. Try to make sure you give yourself a little “down time” each day. If you find it hard to relax without “doing” something, just focus on slow, deep breaths or relaxing each of your muscle groups.
3. Getting enough sleep is essential to your well-being and should be a priority. without it, your mood and ability to handle stress will most certainly suffer. A set of good sleep practices called “sleep hygiene” can dramatically improve the quality and quantity of your sleep. These practices include:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends) to help “set” your body’s clock to fall asleep when you want it to.
- Make sure your body is in a good state of sleep when you go to bed. Minimize or eliminate caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol intake for several hours before bedtime. Don’t eat a big meal late at night, but also make sure you’re not hungry when you go to bed, as this can disrupt your sleep. Also, while exercising regularly will improve your sleep as well as your ability to handle stress, try exercising in the morning so your body isn’t “excited” when it’s time to go to bed. .
- Try not to take a nap. If it can’t be avoided, be sure to nap before 3 p.m. and don’t nap for more than an hour (20 minutes is ideal).
- Teach your body to sleep when it hits the bed by doing nothing else in bed (eg reading, watching TV, working, etc.). The only exception to this is sex.
- Make your bedroom as quiet and as dark as possible. You might even want to invest in shades that block light, because the darker the room, the more melatonin your brain will produce and release; melatonin improves sleep quality, stabilizes your sleep and also acts as an antioxidant.
- If you can’t sleep after about 20 minutes, get up and do something boring and non-stimulating (eg, read the dictionary) and go back to bed when you start falling asleep. Be sure not to turn on any bright lights, as this will wake up your body. You can also take a warm bath, as the drop in body temperature that occurs after a bath signals the body to sleep. For this reason, your bedroom should ideally always be on the cool side (slightly below room temperature).
4. Each morning, instead of rushing out of bed, take some time to get into the day. Allow your mind to slowly and peacefully wake up and get oriented, and prepare your body by doing some gentle stretching exercises. You may want to set your alarm a few minutes earlier so you have plenty of time to practice this type of self-care without rushing. You can also just hit the snooze button one less time – spending 7 minutes getting ready for your day will help your mood and energy levels way more than 7 minutes of sleep!
5. Make sure you get the right amount of vitamins and minerals (eg daily multivitamin, fish oil, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B complex, etc.). Not giving your body the nutrients it needs can make you lazy and less able to cope with the demands of your day. Consult your doctor regarding the specific vitamins you should take; Also, he or she may want you to do some lab work to see if you have any existing gaps.
6. Go for a brisk walk for at least half an hour every day. Regular exercise is good for cardiovascular and bone health, and it releases chemicals in your body that can improve your mood and decrease the amount of stress you feel. In addition, the fresh air and the change of scenery can be very beneficial.
7. Along with the usual lifestyle recommendations of “getting enough sleep, eating, and exercising,” think about more creative ways to take care of yourself. For example, you can indulge in “pampering” activities such as pedicures, manicures, facials, or regular massages; these services are usually not expensive if you only do them once a month, and the benefits to your well-being are invaluable. You can also make activities that you really enjoy a regular part of your routine, like going to the movies, eating at your favorite restaurant, etc.
8. Call a meeting with everyone in your household to go over chores and other necessary chores. Discuss how often these various tasks need to be done as well as how long each task takes. Work together to evenly distribute household responsibilities so that everyone has the same amount of chore time, not necessarily the same number of chores. This way you can ensure that everyone has as much equal free time as possible. To avoid arguments over who is supposed to do what, you can keep a chart of this information on the refrigerator door.
9. Having adequate social support is absolutely necessary for mental health and stress management. Nurture and promote good friendships or other relationships, and find at least one person you trust enough to talk about anything. If you tend to act as a gatekeeper in most of your relationships, make sure you have at least one friend you can count on to take care of you.
10. Buy something new (not necessarily expensive) for your home or office, like a picture, plant, or music that you enjoy. Improving your environment is often overlooked, but feeling good about where you spend most of your time can go a long way to improving your overall mood and stress levels.
(Many thanks to Noreen Keenan, PhD, who generously provided some of the information above.)
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