Prioritizing Self-Care: The Key to Stress Management

Self-care is a crucial part of stress management. Regardless of the reasons for your stress, practicing regular self-care will dramatically improve how “stressed” you feel as well as how effectively you deal with the sources of your stress. It can also combat the negative physical and mental health consequences of stress.

Everyone needs to spend some time focusing on self-care, but many people tend to put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. These people commonly include doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, and others whose job it is to focus on helping other people. This pattern is also common for parents and other caregivers, as well as for women in general (though many men also ignore their own needs).

The following tips can help you reduce stress by learning how to take care of your own needs first, since only then will you be strong and healthy enough to truly be there and care for others:

1. Not taking good enough care of yourself often happens because you aren’t paying attention to self-care. Just making a decision to prioritize self-care will greatly benefit you and those around you. To start, keep track of how much time each day or week you actually spend on self-care so that you can be made aware of just how little time is devoted to this. You may even want to enter this time in red ink in a daily planner or appointment book to give yourself a visual representation of how well you are (or aren’t) taking care of yourself.

2. Many people feel that when they are relaxing, they are “doing nothing.” On the contrary, taking time to relax is very important, restorative and essential to physical and psychological well-being. Try to make sure that you give yourself a little “downtime” each day. If you find it difficult to relax without “doing” something, just concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths or on relaxing each of your muscle groups.

3. Getting enough sleep is critical to your well-being and should be a priority; without it, your mood and ability to manage stress will most certainly suffer. A set of good sleep practices called “sleep hygiene” can dramatically improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. These practices include:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends) in order to help “set” your body’s clock to sleep when you want it to.
  • Make sure your body is in good sleep condition when you go to bed. Minimize or eliminate caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol use for several hours before your bedtime. Don’t eat a big meal late at night, but also make sure you are not hungry when you go to bed, as this can disrupt your sleep. Also, while getting regular exercise will improve your sleep as well as your ability to manage stress, try to exercise in the morning so that your body is no longer “revved up” when it’s time to go to bed.
  • Try not to take any naps. If this cannot be avoided, make sure to nap before 3pm, and don’t nap for more than 1 hour (20 minutes is ideal).
  • Teach your body to sleep when it hits the bed by not doing anything else in your bed (e.g., reading, watching TV, working, etc.). The only exception to this is sex.
  • Make your bedroom as noise-free and as dark as possible. You may even want to invest in light-blocking shades, since the darker the room is, the more your brain will produce and release melatonin; melatonin improves sleep quality, stabilizes your sleep, and also acts as an anti-oxidant.
  • If you can’t sleep after about 20 minutes, get up and do something boring and non-stimulating (e.g., read the dictionary), and go back to bed when you start to get sleepy. Make sure not to turn on any bright lights, as this will wake your body up. You can also take a hot bath, since the drop in body temperature that occurs after a bath signals the body to sleep. Because of this, your bedroom should ideally always be on the cool side (slightly below room temperature).

4. Each morning, instead of bolting out of bed, take a little time to enter 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 that you have enough time to practice this type of self-care without rushing. You could also just hit the “snooze” button one less time – spending 7 minutes preparing yourself for your day will help your mood and energy level much more than just 7 minutes of sleep would!

5. Make sure you’re getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals (e.g., a daily multivitamin, fish oil, Calcium, Vitamin D, Vitamin B complex, etc.). Not giving your body the nutrients it needs can make you sluggish and less able to deal with the demands of your day. Consult your physician regarding the specific vitamins you should be taking; in addition, he or she may want you to get some lab work done to see if you have any existing deficiencies.

6. Go for a brisk walk for at least a 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 change of scenery can be very beneficial.

7. In addition to the usual lifestyle recommendations of “get enough sleep, nutrition, and exercise,” think of more creative ways to take care of yourself. For example, you can engage in “pampering” activities such as regular pedicures, manicures, facials, or massages; these services are typically not expensive if you only do them once per month, and the benefits to your well-being are priceless. You can also make activities that you really enjoy a regular part of your routine, such as going to the movies, eating out at your favorite restaurant, etc.

8. Call a meeting with everyone in your household to review chores and other necessary household tasks. Discuss how often these various chores need to be done as well as how much time each chore takes. Work together to divide up the household responsibilities evenly so that everyone has the same amount of chore time, not necessarily the same amount of chores. In this way, you can make sure that everyone also has an equal amount of free time as much as possible. In order to avoid arguments about 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 to about anything. If you tend to act as the caretaker 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, such as a picture, a plant, or music that you enjoy. Sprucing up your environment is often neglected, but feeling good about the place in which you spend most of your time can go a long way toward improving your overall mood and stress level.

(Many thanks to Noreen Keenan, PhD, who generously provided some of the information above.)