Self-Care and Stress Management

What is stress? Stress is a combination of thoughts and images that are stressful, adrenaline rush, and tensions and sensations in the body. Stress can also be described as anxiety and fear. Fear can be as healthy and natural as the pain we feel when our hands are in the fire.

Fear is a useful message. It says “Danger!” Pay attention! Pay attention! Take care!”

Stress management is usually a term that refers to ways to reduce tension or fear. To reduce fear, you must feel safe again. Fear/stress triggers our fight/flight/freeze reaction so that we can return to safety.

What happens if we can’t find our way back to safety? Fear of not completing our dissertations, or losing our loved ones, or fear about losing our health. Our bodies become more accustomed to the fight/flight response than is good for them, and they begin to conserve energy by staying in this mode longer than it’s healthy. This can manifest as fatigue, tiredness, lack of energy or motivation, and even depression.

We can learn to accept failure and loss as part of life. This will allow us to feel secure again. Both have been experienced by all of us. They can be like an illness or injury from which we heal.

I was reminded of the quote by Arthur Frank from At The Will of the Body, which reads, “Every time that we become ill or are injured at any level, we fear our deaths, but we recover from all injuries or illnesses until we meet the one from whom we don’t recover.”

This brings us to our inevitable fear of death that we fail to acknowledge (see Denial of Death by Ernest Becker), but which is something we are constantly reminded of.

The saying “Feel Everything and Rise” can be translated as: Forget Everything and Run or Face Everything and Rise. Either we can run and avoid the rest of the day, or we can face our fears and overcome them so that we can do the things we love and live fully until our death. You have the power to make your own choices. Only one qualifies for self-care.

Kelly McGonigal discovered research that stress isn’t bad for us. The belief that stress is harmful is what is wrong for us. The people who died from stress were only those who believed stress was bad for them (see her TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend )

The impulse to manage stress is likely to be motivated by fear and resistance to stress. This only increases our stress. Stress is not the problem, it’s how we respond to it.

If we simply acknowledge, allow, and accept stress, we switch off our sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) and turn on our parasympathetic nerve system (which returns us to calm). This could be called “permission to stress”.

To counter years of messages that had told me to not stress, I would tell myself that I didn’t have any reason to be stressed. Acceptance and coping with stress is the first step to achieving our desired calm. Self-care is the best way to deal with stress.

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