Stress plays a huge role in your health. And while it’s not always possible to be a totally stress-free Zen master, it’s important to give yourself time to rest, repair and adapt after a stressful period. As an accountability coach, I have seen firsthand how this is key to the success of my each of my clients.
Breaking the Stress Cycle with Self Care
Sometimes a little bit of stress can be a good thing — ‘eustress’, or the positive type of stress during a workout that triggers growth and increased strength is one example, and another is the excitement and fulfilment that comes from being challenged at work.
Both of these types of eustress are good in moderate amounts — the trick is to be mindful of when that pressure tips over into becoming unsustainable or even intolerable.
Stress sneaks up on all of us, so before I ever start working with a new client, I ask a lot of “feelings” questions to get a sense of how much stress is present in their daily lives:
- How easy or difficult is it for you to get through the day?
- Where do you have pockets of time for yourself?
- How do you quiet things down if you need to take a beat?
If they can’t answer these questions, then there’s something there that we really need to dig into.
And when I’ve been working with a client for a while, and they’re feeling frustrated with a plateau in their weight loss or fitness — despite being consistent with diet and exercise — my immediate questions will be about the quality of their sleep, how much stress they’re dealing with, what’s going on with work and whether there are other life issues going on that we need to explore.
Stress is cumulative, and often you won’t recognize just how stressed you are until you’re about to have a full melt-down.
Obviously, this isn’t ideal: a meltdown throws you out of your hard-earned routine, it disrupts your sleep, compromises your immune system and can create a whole cascade of problems.
The goal is to avoid ever getting to that point, and an informal, mindful meditation with a body scan is one of the best ways to check in with where you’re at.
The physical manifestation of stress is often one of the most obvious indicators that you might need to take a break or to dial down the intensity of your day to day.
Common symptoms include very tight neck and shoulders, pain in the abdomen, dry or irritable skin, hair loss, and disrupted sleep. People tell me all the time, “Oh, I just always have stiff shoulders,” or “I can’t help it, I’ve been waking up through the night for years.”
Just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s optimal, or even normal. When your body is protesting, it’s a signal that something is going on. And while it’s easy to override those signals and keep on pushing, eventually something’s going to give.
Let’s say you hold your tension in your shoulders. If you can, relax them down or lie on the ground and check and see what’s happening. It might take a while for them to let go, but keep mentally scanning the area, breathing, and give yourself the time to work with that signal.
Another indicator of unsustainable stress levels is in the way you’re thinking about stuff.
Are you short or irritable with people? Can you do real, deep thinking work, or are you too frazzled and constantly running from one thing to another?
If you can’t tell what your state of mind has been like, that’s a pretty clear sign of stress, though you could always ask your significant other how your attitude has been lately if you’re game!
There are ways of checking in on your ability to be mindful and focus. When that’s lost and you’re juggling too many things, that’s another sign of stress.
Time Blocking As A Self-Care (and Sanity) Strategy
While it’s not your traditional bath-and-candles kind of self-care, one of the best strategies busy people have to reduce their stress is time blocking.
Getting organized, and figuring out when you’re going to do what, can significantly lighten the load on your subconscious, which is what creates that constant, nagging anxiety.
For many of my clients, I’m the time block. Holding that 30 minutes a week to have FaceTime or Zoom call to speak with an accountability coach. We go through their schedule looking for things they could automate or systematize so that they don’t have to think about it more than once or twice a week, scheduling in specific times for food prep, exercise, and their personal care routines.
Giving them this dedicated time once a week gives them enough breathing room to stop the constant onslaught of tasks and get back to a state where they can actually enjoy their days, rather than just racing through them.
Simply knowing when you’re going to deal with stuff takes the stress away. Map out your tasks and create an ongoing practice of scheduling them. Be honest with yourself and guard your time — it’s easy to let little things slip in.
If you’re motivated and compelled enough to use the time to get to the next lifestyle or change that is valuable to you, you’ll guard it, even though you might feel a bit of guilt if your kids or partner want your attention during your designated time.
Setting boundaries and practicing tough love is really hard, especially for women. While it’s always true, this has become even more difficult during the pandemic.
Working women are suffering massively under all the pressure, so self-compassion is essential. Making time to plan your day or take a ten-minute shower is the bare minimum in looking after yourself. It’s not indulgent — it’s productivity.
It’s crazy how much we have to push for it in our daily lives, and sometimes it requires us labeling it in a different way to get what we need, but you should really be able to have an hour to yourself every day.
If you haven’t been taking care of yourself, this can be hard to start. If you’ve been avoiding dealing with your problems by taking care of everyone else, it’s going to take a lot of work, honesty, and discomfort to put yourself first. It means answering questions like, Do I value myself? Do I deserve to put myself first? Am I worthy?
If you truly want to serve everyone else and be the most loving, present person you can be, take care of yourself. Otherwise, you undermine your primary goal. Carve out time to do those other things so you can be present with the people that matter to you when you are with them. Live that example so others respect you and mirror that behavior.
Other Self-care Rituals (And Why They Matter)
Recently I asked one of my clients what she was looking forward to in the month ahead, and she couldn’t answer the question. That’s crushing. Having a little joy and anticipation in your life is crucial self-care.
When you’re working full time, raising kiddos, handling your house, being a partner, maintaining your friendships and trying to get your health in good shape, you can lose sight of fun. But having stuff to look forward to is so powerful in keeping you feeling optimistic and motivated.
At the time of writing this post, Covid-19 lockdowns were still in full force in many parts of the world. For many of the women I work with, this has created a sense of being out of control.
Maybe you can relate: you don’t feel as autonomous as you’re used to, you can’t make concrete plans, and there’s a sense of loss because you can’t see loved ones, go on holiday or celebrate important milestones.
Of course, it’s not just a pandemic that can create these conditions. Manic work schedules, crazy family situations and health issues can all create a similar sense of claustrophobia, guilt, sadness and frustration. But there are some ways to start to reframe that mindset.
One of the best strategies for myself and many of the women I’ve worked with is to implement a gratitude practice. Start with taking a minute in the morning to think of one thing (or two, or three, or as many as come to mind) that you’re grateful for today. That starts to pull out the happy moments in your day that you might start to look for more intentionally.
Give yourself a goal with the people you live with to pick at least one fun activity to do each week — pure fun, no expectations, not trying to combine it with anything else.
You could have a movie night or a game night. You could order fancy food to be delivered and have a dinner party for two. We do a take-out picnic on the living room floor every Thursday night. Every Sunday we order brunch from a cafe, drive to the lake, and eat in the car. It’s freezing, but it’s a fun ritual!
Choose a specific time in the week when you’re going to take a long bath, or read that book you’ve been wanting to get to forever. You might have to schedule it with your partner, or move things around on the calendar, but gift yourself an hour (or two!) to just slow down, breathe, and enjoy yourself without any pressure to be doing anything else.
Spend some time thinking about the activities that make you feel relaxed, calm, and happy. Maybe it’s taking a daily walk, or having the time to talk to your girlfriends, or even just a few minutes planning your next dream vacation.
Find these small things and work them into your week, so that you have pockets of joy and anticipation to help you deal with stress, feel optimistic about the future, and keep showing up in your life as you want to.
And if self-care feels out of reach right now, I’m here to help. Click here to book a discovery call and find out how we can get you back on track. An accountability coach in your corner may be just be the kind of support you need.