Have you ever found yourself in the following scenario? Your stress levels are rising: you are noticing yourself becoming more tense, irritable, and anxious. There is more tightness and pain in your body, and you are experiencing headaches or digestive issues. You are no longer sleeping well. At this point you recognize that you need to prioritize self-care in order to relax and rejuvenate. So you clear some time in your schedule for much-needed ‘me time.’ Maybe you book a massage or pamper yourself at home with a relaxing bath; you take time to slow down and relax; read your favourite book or go for a quiet walk in nature. Maybe you treat yourself to an enjoyable activity such as seeing a movie or a show or indulging in your favourite hobby or pastime. Maybe you take the day off to go out of town for a mini escape. To your dismay, at the end of the day you find that despite your efforts you are still feeling as stressed out as ever. Now you are also frustrated. Why didn’t it work? What went wrong? If you can relate to this, you are not alone. I have been in this situation many times myself and it is indeed very frustrating.
Usually, when we think about self-care we imagine activities that are soothing, relaxing, or enjoyable. The aim is to melt away stress and anxiety, slow the nervous system, and emerge well rested and rejuvenated. The methods we use tend to focus on replacing negative mental and emotional states with positive ones. However, this is exactly the reason why sometimes these methods might not work. If we focus too much on replacing negative states with positive ones, this can easily turn into avoidance. And the longer we avoid, the worse the problem often gets. This is why our usual self-care methods might stop working. Sometimes what is needed is to take action to address our stressors, rather than focusing on relaxation.
If you are finding yourself in such a scenario, ask yourself: Is there a problem you’ve been avoiding dealing with? Maybe a conflict with a friend or family member, a work issue, an important decision that you need to make, or another personal issue that you haven’t addressed? Perhaps underneath all of that stress there are feelings of anger, disappointment, fear, hurt, sadness, guilt, helplessness, or emptiness. This is what needs your attention. Rather than focusing on relaxing and doing things that are enjoyable, an alternative method of practicing self-care in this type of situation would be to take some time to pay attention and listen to those feelings. This requires a willingness to experience negative emotional states, which is difficult for us to do because we are wired to avoid pain. That’s why getting a massage is much more appealing.
So what can you do?
Try setting aside some time to get in touch with the feelings in your body. Get curious about what is underneath all of that stress and anxiety. Acknowledge the difficulty of what you are going through. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings as they are. Whatever you are feeling is okay, and it is important. It might be helpful to express what you are feeling through writing or art. However, simply sitting quietly with your feelings for a few moments is effective.
Our feelings are important messengers. They let us know when something is wrong and alert us to unmet needs. Being able to listen to our feelings and satisfy our needs accordingly is what self-care is all about. Sometimes stress lets us know that what we need is rest and relaxation. However, when other emotions are involved, slowing down and tuning into them is the first step to being able to address what our needs really are. And in cases of chronic stress, perhaps these are needs that have been neglected for much too long.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
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