Can Self-Care Really PREVENT Stress?

By Stephanie Sullivan

The number one reason people would give for neglecting self-care is “I’m too busy” or “I just don’t have the time”. I get it! I have been a new mum recently, and working as a corporate executive through two years of COVID with a toddler at home nearly full-time. It certainly was demanding and stressful! And, I admit that I let my self-care slide, which looking back, only made things worse (I’m not perfect by any means). But let’s be honest (and a little “tough love”), blaming lack of time as the reason for neglecting self-care is really just a fictional story that we are telling ourselves and other people. The truth is that we choose where to spend our time based on the things we decide to prioritise, and unfortunately many of us prioritise a lot of other things before ourselves. In fact, according to a survey(1) of mums conducted by HealthyWomen and Working Mother magazine, mums said that their time spent managing health was for their children, spouse/partner, elderly parents, and even their pet(s) more so than themselves (“self” ranked fifth in the list, even behind the dog/cat). Prioritising the health and wellbeing of others above ourselves is a choice that we make, whether consciously or subconsciously.

The truth is that we choose where to spend our time based on the things we decide to prioritise, and unfortunately many of us prioritise a lot of other things before ourselves.

For the sake of our own wellbeing and those around us, we need to change the narrative, and prioritise our health and self-care. These days, most of us have limited time; however, there are numerous self-care actions which only take a few minutes, some not even any additional time out of your day. So, if that’s the case, and we know it is good for us, why don’t we prioritise it and do it? In short, it’s a combination of behavioural patterns, personal prioritisation (or de-prioritisation), desire to please others (and potentially fear if we don’t), and discipline needed to form new behaviour patterns. Here are ten REAL reasons why we may not be doing things that we know could help:

  1. We are habitual – We have become accustomed to being stressed, and doing things the way we have previously, including neglecting our self-care.
  2. We get “caught-up” – we are so caught-up in the moment (the state of being stressed) that we don’t pause to stop it…running on the hamster wheel, in need of a “circuit breaker”.
  3. We have unhelpful internal thoughts / drive – “If I just work harder / longer.”; “I don’t have time to slow down, pause, rest or relax.”
  4. Stress impacts our cognitive ability – Stress reduces our ability to think clearly and logically, to reason and make good decisions.
  5. We crave or need stress and/or “busyness” – Some people need (or think they need) to feel stressed in order to be or feel productive; or believe that being viewed as “busy” is a good thing. While others overwork or overcommit themselves to occupy their mind as a way to mask other unpleasant feelings or emotions.
  6. We have an innate need to feel important, needed and recognised – Many people associate being stressed/busy as being “so needed” or valued by an organisation (or person/people), thus feeling important.
  7. We don’t have a plan to manage stress – You cannot win a battle without a “plan of attack”, ideally a clearly documented one which you can refer to.
  8. We lack discipline and/or accountability – Not having the personal discipline or beneficial habits in place, and/or not having someone to partner with to help with discipline and accountability.
  9. We have a fear of rejection or judgement (what others may think or perceive) – What if I say “no” or push back on what is being asked of me, or am not perfect at something, or viewed as incapable? If I’m not super busy and stressed, will others think I’m not doing enough or contributing or valuable?
  10. We are afraid of failure or letting go (trusting others) – This can result in staying in a toxic/stressful situation for too long; or trying to control or perfect things; not trusting and delegating to other to help us out.

Do any of these resonate with you? Most people can relate to most or all of these. We should not be hard on ourselves, as these are things which innately make us human. All of us are imperfect human beings.

The fantastic news is that there are several things that we can do which do not take much time at all, and can make a significant difference in preventing and reducing stress.

The 7 basic self-care for stress prevention

While there are numerous self-care activities that we can do in a matter of minutes, we cannot do all of them. Instead let’s focus on a few which are effective and essential to preventing and reducing our stress. There are 7 basic or “hygiene” self-care things which help with effective stress prevention. These include hydration, sleep, healthy eating, exercise, social connection / support network, relaxation / breaks and positive thinking (e.g., affirmations, visualisations). These are the key things that you can do on a regular basis to help keep stress away, as well as to better prepare yourself to deal with stress when it arises. Many of these can make a difference in 5 minutes or less of your time.

No incremental timeHydration – drink sufficient water throughout the day
Eating healthy
Positive thinking
5-10 minutesSocial / support connection – call a friend or family member
Relax – Take a break
Exercise – Go for a walk
Positive thinking – do some positive affirmations or visualisation
Note: You can even combine some of these, such as “walk and talk”, “break/walk and positive thinking”.
15-30 minutesSleep – have a short nap, or go to bed 15-30 minutes earlier, or add some bedtime relaxation rituals
Social connection – catch-up with friends/family
Relax – have a treatment (massage, facial, mani/pedi)
Exercise – do a longer or more vigorous workout

Proactive “trigger” prevention

A trigger is something that causes stress, so if you proactively prevent the trigger, you prevent the associated stress. Our personal safety, health and security are BIG areas where significant stress can arise if/when they are impacted. A few examples include a serious health issue, personal safety risk (at home or work), financial challenges, job dissatisfaction and/or overcommitting yourself.

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