What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘self-care’? For some of us, self-care may be a cold glass of white wine or a beer at the end of the day; a regular yoga class; an occasional trip to the spa for some relaxation or beauty treatments; or perhaps a weekly commitment to play a sport with friends.
These are all isolated moments of fun, relaxation or enjoyable physical exertion – some ‘me-time’ doing something pleasurable outside daily work and family commitments. But if we are to take the idea of self-care seriously and feel the full benefit of doing so in our lives, it must become more than the occasional moment of relaxation, physical activity or indulgence.
Why would we get serious about self-care? Chronic stress is a silent killer, the hidden factor triggering or exacerbating health issues such as autoimmune disease, strongly implicated in cancer and cardiovascular disease, and increasing our sensitivity to pain. It is associated with the misuse of drugs and alcohol and with overeating ‘comfort’ foods. It impairs our executive functioning – our memory, powers of concentration, creativity and flexibility, planning, problem solving and reasoning.
What is chronic stress? Chronic stress is the physiological and psychological response to emotional pressure experienced for a long period of time where an individual perceives he or she has little or no control. One of the particularly sad features of chronic stress is that many people have lived with it for so long that it feels like their normal reality. Health concerns and conditions, sleep difficulties, a sense of feeling burdened or overwhelmed, irritability, and difficulties in relationships just feel like part of your lot in life or who you are, rather than symptoms of an underlying and treatable problem.
If you recognize yourself or a loved one in the short description of symptoms above, it is wise to consult a psychotherapist or psychologist, just as if you were to find blood in your urine or a lump in your breast or testicles you would consult a physician urgently. People who are committed to engaging with therapy and work to address the stressors in their lives and their responses to them, frequently see a marked improvement in their physical health as well as an improvement in the overall quality of their life. Zest, happiness and vitality returns and cognitive function improves.
How can self-care help us to respond healthily to the emotional pressure that generates stress? In truth, most of us take more active care of our teeth or fingernails than our emotional lives. Psychotherapy can seem to be a costly indulgence, or something for people with ‘serious’ mental illness. Yet what could be more serious or important than tackling something which increases our risk of the most serious diseases, gravely impairs the quality of our lives, inhibits work performance and damages our relationships?
As well as seeking professional support in tackling and treating stress, getting serious about self-care means living each day with mature care and concern for your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. The food you eat, the liquids you drink, your physical activity levels, your sleep routine, your choice of relaxation activities and hobbies, your spiritual or reflective practice, how you approach your professional life, and how you relate to others, are all factors over which you can regain control and reap the lifelong benefits. Don’t limit yourself to the occasional moment of rest and relaxation and experience only temporary relief from stress.
The feeling of being stuck and it being impossible to change one’s stressful situation is itself stress talking. Small but committed and serious self-care steps can begin to make a positive difference. What can you do today to show self-care in the food you eat or the liquids you drink, for example? Professional support will assist you in identifying, and above all committing, to the most effective action for you.
Written By Laura Timms
MA Counselling and Psychotherapy; Reg. MBACP