Individuals across the U.S. are reporting continued difficulty managing their stress. According to the APA’s Stress in America Survey (2013), twenty percent of Americans are experiencing high, unhealthy levels of stress (8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale). Organizations are also noticing an increasing number of employees taking time off from work due to stress and burnout, in the form of sick days in mild cases, and short-term disability in more extreme cases. A chronic high-level of stress is considered a key risk factor for developing burnout. What is burnout, you may be wondering? Key symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, disengagement from work-related activities (often accompanied by emotional withdrawal from co-workers), and decreased performance both at work and home due to poor concentration and very low levels of energy. A powerful way to avoid experiencing burnout is to practice good self-care regularly.
Oftentimes, it is difficult to accurately assess how much stress we are currently experiencing. We may perceive our stress level to be at a six when it really is closer to an eight on a ten point scale. A key reason for this is a phenomena I call “tolerance to stress.” We have a tendency to habituate to increasing levels of stress, and therefore, to not recognize how high the stress level has become, until we begin developing stress-related symptoms. A more beneficial way we fortuitously discover how stressed we are is when we find ourselves away from our normal, everyday environment. A good example of this is taking a week vacation and recognizing then how much stress we had been experiencing.
So, how can we more accurately assess our stress, before we develop symptoms?
Many times the first activities to go when we are under increasing levels of stress are our self-care practices. With increased demands and responsibilities, we begin telling ourselves that we don’t have time today for our regular self-care practices (eg. take a walk, play with our children, relax for 20 minutes). One of the best ways I’ve discovered to determine if your stress level is increasing is to pay attention to your self-care practices. A decrease in your regular self-care practices is a valuable sign that your stress level is increasing.
A self-care toolkit helps you save time and manage stressful periods more effectively. By identifying practices, people and places that help you rejuvenate, and feel more centered and positive, in advance, you are giving yourself an important advantage. The advantage is your increased ability to manage whatever additional stressors come your way in the future. This is because advance planning helps eliminate the need to think of coping strategies in the moment of stress, when it is more difficult to do so. Self-care includes the three pillars - exercise, nutrition and sleep - however it is important to include other key self-care practices in your toolkit: regular relaxation and renewal periods; fun and laughter; enjoying a hobby or passion; setting boundaries; and investing in friendships and other relationships that are positive and supportive. Be as specific as possible in listing what particularly helps you feel renewed, makes you laugh, or brings you joy when doing it.
The best way to do this is to start small or to increase your current self-care behaviors incrementally. Identify small self-care steps you can begin to take on a daily basis, particularly actions you have control over. Whether it’s taking 20 minutes from your lunch break to take a walk, to watch something funny, or to try some relaxation exercises, make a choice guided by what you feel you would enjoy, and then begin. An important key to success with self-care is to give yourself permission and make your self-care a priority!
One of the main reasons we don’t practice self-care regularly is because we believe and fear others’ will perceive us as selfish or self-indulgent. We may also hold the false belief that spending time on ourselves is self-indulgent. The truth is practicing regular self-care is a gift we give ourselves and others. Practicing good self-care is not selfish, it is self-consideration!
In order to truly be there for others in a positive, present, and loving way, we need to be there for ourselves also. Making our emotional and physical well-being a priority enables us to do and enjoy the things that matter to us, including being there for those we love. Good self-care helps minimize the effects of current stress and helps to inoculate us from the adverse effects of cumulative stress. Over time, such stress can significantly compromise our health, and lead to burnout.
Some warning signs that you may be experiencing unhealthy levels of stress include the following:
- Feeling out of control and/or overwhelmed
- Having increased difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Experiencing headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, stomach issues
- Incidents of crying, or increased irritability
- Being more accident-prone (e.g. car fender-benders, falling down stairs, tripping)
- Your self-care routine has disappeared
If you notice that you are feeling increasingly stressed and are experiencing symptoms (which may or may not be stress-related), I highly encourage you to reach out for support and information from a health professional. This could be your primary care doctor, a therapist, a health coach or an EAP counselor at your organization, if preferred. Seeking professional help when needed is also an act of self-care, and a powerful step in taking charge of your emotional and physical health.
By practicing good self-care consistently and checking in with ourselves frequently to assess our stress levels, we are creating powerful habits to help us minimize the effects of stress, and to avoid future burnout from chronic, high levels of stress. Giving ourselves permission, making our health and self-care a priority and starting small are the building blocks for our success.
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