When we become stressed, our healthy habits and good intentions (walking at noon, deep breathing before work) tend to disappear as fast as a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven.
This withdrawal is part of our body’s natural response to stress and threat. We go into survival mode, reacting impulsively for self-preservation. It’s fine to go into survival mode if you’re meeting a deadline or pushing through a hard afternoon. But living in this state on a daily basis will exact a terrible toll on your mind, body, and spirit over time.
Self-care can help you move out of survival mode. But ironically, just when self-care is really needed, it instead often becomes one more “to-do” that adds to your feelings of overwhelm. What should I do for myself? How can I fit it into my day? And, let’s be honest, just the idea of self-care can be a little scary, too. What if I let someone down when I take time for myself? What if I fail at taking care of myself and don’t follow through?
The key is to have a few simple go-tos in your self-care toolkit for when stress hits. That way, you don’t have to use precious mental energy figuring out what to do, which makes it easier to show up for yourself.
I think about self-care in three buckets: physical, mental, and emotional. We need to replenish these core areas in order to feel good in our lives, avoid burnout, and manage stress. Having a quick self-care tip in each category will give you the broad support you need for wellbeing. Consider making these practices part of your regular routine.
Emotional Self-Care: Boost Positivity
When we’re stressed, we typically get stuck in a cycle of negative thinking. We’ll constantly worry about what could happen, for example, or ruminate on how a situation is unfair. At the same time, we’ll skip over or miss the positive things happening in our lives.
To stop this cycle, you want to interrupt the negative thought train and look for the good. You can do this by practicing one of my favorite gratitude techniques called Three Great Things. You simply take a moment to write down three good things happening in your life—no matter how small. Maybe a coworker said thanks, or the sun is shining in through your window. It all counts.
Three Great Things helps repave the pathways in your brain to experience positive emotions more quickly and easily. It’s not the writing down of the good things that boosts your positivity. It’s not even finding the good things. It’s the looking for the positives. As you scan for the good, it balances out your threat radar. I do this practice every single morning, and it’s an empowering way to start the day.
Physical Self-Care: Release Stress
During times of stress, movement will help release pent-up energy that causes tension and fatigue. Easy moves such as standing up and stretching out or doing arm circles and neck stretches might seem too simple to have an impact, but they actually help release stress-driven tightness and misalignment.
If you don’t like stretching, try throwing on some headphones, cranking your favorite song, and dancing it out in your own personal dance party. This is one of my favorites and makes a regular appearance in my morning routine. Or go for a walk. You can even stand up and gently shake your arms and legs. The key: Find what works for you, and get your body moving.
Mental Self-Care: Calm the Mind
Have you ever noticed that you literally don’t breathe when you’re stressed? And when you do breathe, you tend to take only very shallow breaths? That’s because as we bear down to get through a stressful moment, we tend to hold our breath. When we do come up for air, we take just a tiny little sip.
To get out of the stress zone, you have a tool that you can use any time, anywhere: your breath—more specifically, several long, slow, deep breaths. Many simple breathing techniques work, but one of my favorites is the 4-7-8 breath. In studies of people with anxiety, it has been shown to reduce anxiety and relieve stress in as few as three to four rounds.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4.
2. Hold for a count of 7.
3. Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, for a count of 8.
As you work to make these go-to practices part of your regular routine, keep in mind that any small break or simple stress-relieving action can help stop the stress cycle. It doesn’t have to be all-encompassing or perfect. Listen to what your body needs. And remember: Doing them regularly, so they become habits that you can call on in a moment’s notice, is the most important part.