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Why self-care should be a priority when you are stressed

We are all familiar these days with the term of ‘stress’ – the pandemic may have brough a whole new meaning to this over the last year as we battle with managing working from home with home life, money worries and health.

The challenge is, that when we feel stressed or overwhelmed, this actually the time when we should be increasing our self-care, but all too often it becomes the one thing that we don’t have, or make, time for.

Even when I worked in advertising, I usually found that as my to-do list and stress levels went up, my diet and wellbeing went down.

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It can be hard to find the time or prioritise self-care when there is a lot going on, and without feeling guilty for doing so, and yet it is so important, for when we constantly operate from a state of stress, it has a direct impact on our health in so many ways, including:

Cortisol (the stress hormone) is raised which has a direct impact on blood sugar balancing, and therefore food choices

It can weaken the immune system

It raises blood pressure

It can upset the gut, and it’s microbiome …hence many people struggle with IBS-type symptoms or find their digestion is worse when stressed

It is inflammatory which increases the risk of various cancers and autoimmune conditions

It has a knock-on effect on our sex hormones and can affect the menstrual cycle or worsen PMS

It may accelerate ageing

It can affect mood and increase the risk of depression

It may also affect sleep and/or libido too!

Hence, when we operate for extended periods in this ‘fight & flight’ mode we have to counterbalance it with ‘rest & digest’ to give the body a chance to literally ‘calm down’.

In some cases, stress can be unavoidable. In this instances, I get clients to focus on the things we can change or prioritise until they are out of whichever situation they may be in (e.g. changing job or a family illness or bereavement). Often though, I see clients exacerbate their our own stress by not taking care of themselves day-to-day which then escalates the feeling of overwhelm, and the physiological effects in the body. Or they do not give themselves permission to slow down.

On question I ask clients in our initial session is:

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This can often be met with statements such as: “I don’t know how to relax” or “I don’t have time”. If you don’t know how to relax then you need to learn how to! For it’s time to prioritise your health and you, and make time for self-care. Here’s my top five tips on how to make time for you when you are stressed:

1. MAKE AN APPOINTMENT WITH YOURSELF

In a world where most of us are beholden to our phones, apps, online calendars and zoom calls, it’s important to make a date with yourself and block out time in your diary. At least a week in advance, or at the weekend, mark it in your diary so it becomes a part of your working week, and just as important as other appointments.

A great tip I heard was to block out the time in my diary and just write the word ‘something’, so if anyone wants to see you in that time or book an appointment you can confidently say, “I’m afraid I can’t make that time as I have something in the diary”, without any guilt!

2. GET MOVING … AND OUTSIDE!

A daily walk (even if just 15 minutes) with no phone, will do more for your mental health and stress levels than not doing anything at all. If you can walk in nature or a green space, then even better. You can of course carry a phone for safety reasons, but no calling your mates, texting, or checking social media or emails.

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Why movement rather than exercise? Exercise is great but only if you are not too tired and you do not overdo it. So many people see exercise as a way to relax, but high intensity workouts like a run, spinning or HIIT may actually create more stress on the body. A good rule is that whatever exercise you do (i.e. 5km run) you should be able to complete it with ease, and every day. If you need a few days to recover or that exercise / run floors you, it is too much so scale it back.

Often clients feel guilty for not exercising, but choosing a more relaxing exercise such as swimming, walking, yoga or Pilates may offer more de-stress benefits than your usual high impact exercise when you are stressed. You can pick this back up when you feel more able to do so, physically as well as mentally.

3. MAKE MEDITATION A PART OF YOUR EVERY DAY

I really got into meditation just a few years ago. Before then, I just couldn’t get on with it. I felt that it wasn’t for me, was often too impatient or distracted by background noises or other thoughts. However, I learnt there were a few tricks to it!

Find meditations that you like, and even different ones for different times of day. I have a selection saved on my phone/YouTube etc and I prefer guided or visual meditations. Gabby Bernstein is a firm favourite for me, or Jason Stephenson if I want a meditation to help me sleep. Or you may prefer just a calming piece of music.

Make it as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth. I meditate first thing in the morning, and often sitting up in bed.

Just be comfortable – if this means lying on the floor with a pillow, blanket and eye mask then go for it. As another great meditator, David Ji says: “Comfort is Queen!”

If you are new to meditation, start slowly with just a few minutes a day until you feel comfortable with it. Meditation can be a short as a few minutes or as long as you like.

Meditation helps you to feel calmer and cope with stress more easily when it does come along. Even just focusing on your breath is a form of meditation. This 5-minute exercise from Mindful.org is a great way to start or bring into your day whenever you need an extra five minutes of calm. I also have some free meditations that are about 10 minutes long over on Soundcloud.

4. FOCUS ON QUALITY OF SLEEP RATHER THAN QUANTITY

Prioritise good quality sleep, rather than quantity! Our bodies need to sleep, as much as they need water and food, but a 2015 study found that it may be sleep quality that has a bigger impact on cortisol responses to acute psychosocial stress. Often we can put pressure on ourselves to get 8 hours sleep, for example, and if we don’t then we feel stressed in the morning and then start the day on the back foot. However, if you focused on getting 5 or 6 hours of good quality sleep you are more likely to feel better and rested.

Use whatever tools it takes to help you sleep!

Eye masks to block out any light

Ear buds to mute any background noise (or a snoring partner!)

White noise, calming music or talking radio to distract your busy brain

Herbal teas or a warm nut milk before bed

Switch off all devices at least 30 mins before bed

Do no drift off in front of the TV or Netflix!

5. GRAB A JOURNAL AND GET WRITING!

Journaling was a big part of my routine when I was experiencing anxiety and panic, and still is even now as part of my own self-care. I have always found it a really useful way to just get the emotions and thoughts out of my head, and onto a piece of paper. It reduces stress and can be very cathartic and healing in the process.

Grab any piece of paper, or invest in a gorgeous journal (who doesn’t love new stationary), make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and just start writing. You haven’t got to show it to anyone, or re-read it if you don’t want to, but the act of writing by hand with ‘old-fashioned’ paper can be better for creativity, plus it reduces screen time and can improve focus. It can provide an opportunity to gain clarity around a problem, or process emotions. Nicole Sachs, a speaker, writer, podcaster and psychotherapist, has even created a course in JournalSpeak to help her followers recover from chronic pain.

And if you are inspired by this post, then great, but don’t attempt to do everything I have mentioned if you are feeling stressed but want to make positive change to support your self-care … your to-do list is big enough! So, pick on thing and try it. Practice t regularly and then try another.

My daily morning walk which is my non-negotiable. My day doesn’t start unless I’ve been for a walk. Most mornings I’ll meditate before I go, and, if I have time, I may then journal once or twice a week after my walk with my morning coffee to provide me with inspiration or motivation. It’s always about finding out what works for you, and having the tools when stress becomes too much that you can bring them in or increase them. Don’t just wait until you are stressed. Practice them all year round, in the good times too, as you’ll then be in a much better place when stress does come along to cope.

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