When stress strikes, self-care often takes a backseat. “The ability to care for oneself is predicated on the ability to consistently go inward and listen to what is there with open, compassionate ears,” said Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW, a clinical director at The Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor, Mich.
However, during stressful periods in our lives, we tend to focus outward. We diminish or disregard our inner life, ignoring our needs and limits, she said.
And yet, it’s during hectic or difficult times when we need to care for ourselves the most.
That’s when we need to move our bodies, get enough sleep, not skip meals, take a breather and preserve our boundaries. That’s when we need to attend to our needs and engage in the activities that nourish us.
Practicing self-care not only helps us feel better. It also helps us function at our best. It replenishes our reserves, boosts our energy and provides clarity. We’re able to do everything from making smarter decisions to helping others. In short, self-care supports our health and well-being.
Here are some ideas on practicing self-care in stressful times, whether you’re navigating the holiday season, work deadlines or a loved one’s illness.
Be honest with yourself.
“Self-care for me means making sure that a stressful time is in the service of something important to me,” said Pershing, also an executive director of the Pershing Turner Centers, which offers treatment for eating, weight and body image disorders, in Annapolis, Md.
So she evaluates her underlying reasons and motivations. For instance, she considers if a specific project that’s spiking her stress is her heart’s true calling or an external expectation.
She suggested readers ask themselves what they truly want to accomplish and define how “busy” they’d like to be.
You might need to streamline your self-care practice, according to Ashley Eder, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo. “Allow yourself the flexibility to decide when your ‘relaxing’ activities actually contribute to your stress and scale them back temporarily until things ease up.”
Engage in self-care activities that you enjoy the most, Eder said. For instance, if you usually carve out time to watch your favorite sitcom and read the Bible before bed, you might skip the show in favor of meeting your spiritual needs. Or you might watch your show because you really need some laughs.
Address unmet needs.
When you can’t meet a certain need it can be incredibly frustrating (on top of your stress). Silently acknowledge that you’d like to satisfy this need in the future, Eder said. “Addressing our needs — even when they can’t be met — is a meaningful form of emotional self-care that can help hold us over until the storm passes.”
Check in with yourself.
For Pershing, self-care is all about listening. Her biggest tip, she said, is to sit still and pay attention. “I literally sit for five minutes — somewhere quiet and comfy – and do a quick check-in physically, intellectually, emotionally [and] spiritually, asking ‘What do I notice? What do I need?’ in each area.”
Ask for help.
When her plate is too full, Pershing reminds herself to reach out. Specifically, she asks herself: “Can someone else do this piece?”
If not, she considers if she’s able to do it while maintaining the balance between movement and stillness (which, she said, self-care requires). If not, she considers if she can give herself permission to let it go.
Decide what really matters.
Eder also suggested considering if you can relinquish some of your responsibilities and really hone in on what’s important.
“Stressful times can be instructive if you let them be. What is most important for you to accomplish today? What can wait?”
Self-care is personal. What you choose to do will depend on your personality and preferences. “One person’s spa treatment is another person’s half-marathon training,” Eder said. Your self-care practice might be active or restful, interactive or solitary, quiet or noisy, she said.
Whatever you choose, remember, too, that self-care is not a luxury or needless practice.
“Self-care is necessary to anything important we hope to do, any meaning we hope to have, and any difference we hope to make,” Pershing said.