Self-care is difficult. I think it’s important to say this, as someone who has struggled for a long time to give myself permission to relax or look after myself during periods of stress. It’s something that needs to be constantly attended to and something which can quickly fall by the wayside. A spare hour becomes an hour to do more work in the hope of “catching up” or “staying ahead”. Free time becomes almost daunting or disorienting and you end up doing none of the things that you had planned. No matter how many articles we read and videos we watch about self-care, we can still find it very hard to put it into practise or maintain it in the long-term. We all encounter setbacks in our strive to take care of ourselves. Here are some simple ideas – within the framework of a R.E.S.E.T. – for reviewing your stress and how you’re managing it.
R is for REFLECT. Recognise when stress is on the rise
Tune in to what is happening in your mind and body. Have you noticed any physical symptoms of stress, such as tiredness, headaches, tightness or struggling to catch your breath? Are you having more negative thoughts, such as dwelling on the worst possible outcomes of a situation? Perhaps your sense of time has been affected; you might think that you did something a week or two ago when it was only a few days earlier. There may even be changes in your behaviour, such as having difficulty making decisions, eating more and sleeping less. When you start to see these signs, this is evidence of the need for a reset.
Try to identify when these thoughts, feelings or actions started – has it been days, weeks or even months? Consider using a simple method for tracking your mood over time. This could be a 1 – 10 scale, where you rate how good or how stressed you feel on a daily basis. If you’re dealing with long-term stress, you may need to start with pinpointing when a certain thought or feeling became more frequent or intense. It may have been a recent event which you struggled to recover from. Alternatively, there might be an upcoming event in the future which is weighing heavily you – as if you’re being drawn towards a magnet and feeling unable to change course.
It’s also really important to look for exceptions – are there certain times or places where these thoughts and feelings are less apparent? Do you feel different in the company of certain people? Can you think of a time where you coped with a difficult situation? It doesn’t have to be very similar to what you’re going through now, but it’s useful to think of the actions you took to get through that period. Having a sense of when the change in your wellbeing started, what factors maintain or relieve the pressure and how you have coped in the past will be important in supporting your reset.
E is for EXPRESS. Change how you describe your stress and yourself
How we talk about stress can have huge implications for our well-being. How often do you find yourself using phrases like “I can’t do this”, “This is impossible” or “It’s never-ending”. We can rapidly develop intensely negative thoughts about a situation and our self-expression can veer towards a sense of bewilderment and hopelessness. This will take practise, but try reframing how you talk about a stressful situation. You may have to start with a minor qualifier, such as adding “Today has been crazy” or “This is tough right now”. Challenge defeatism with phrases such as “I don’t have to do this perfectly” or “It’s going to take practise to get better at this”. Counter any perfectionist statements with “I’m trying my best” or “I’m still getting used to this, so I should expect to make some mistakes”.
A key part of a reset is checking how we talk about ourselves. Do you find yourself zeroing in on the personal qualities and behaviours that contribute to your stress. You might find yourself saying “Why did I agree to do that when I have so much on my plate already?” or “Why wasn’t I able to follow through with my plan?”. Actively expressing more positive affirmations may help to change this mindset. “I’m a good listener”. “I try to be helpful”. “I care about my work”. These are good things which you can be proud of – the reset is simply about reducing the likelihood of burnout. You can be a good listener, whilst making sure that you have time to be listened to. You can be helpful to others, as long as you schedule time to relax and recharge. Practising positive self-talk - such as “This won’t last forever”, “I will learn from this” and “This is tough, but I’m doing ok” – will also help to change how we describe ourselves and our actions.
Expressing the need for support is difficult. You may even feel guilty for wanting to take a break or not use all the time available to get lots of things done. The need for a socially supportive network is more important than ever. You might want to make a list of people who act as a buffer for your stress; people who are there for you and are good at listening, giving advice and reassuring you that you’re doing your best. These can be relatives, friends or professional colleagues. Consider getting in touch with someone you haven’t spoken to for a while – simply connecting with others can be helpful, even if you don’t immediately talk about a problem or concern. There may also be people with similar interests who you interact with on social media; someone who inspires you and brings a bit of positivity into your day through their posts and videos.
S is for SAVOUR. Celebrate the good stuff
A key aspect of any self-care reset is savouring the positives. This can begin at the really simple level of reflecting on what has gone well today. What made you feel good? What are you proud of? What surprised you? Keep concrete reminders of positive experiences. You can look back at photographs, read through a diary entry or open up a treasure box of items you collected from a trip. Make time for joy and laughter – share a funny story or video with a friend or colleague. This might precipitate a back-and-forth exchange where you both manage to forget the problems you’re facing for a little while. Talk about the more bizarre or absurd aspects of your stress – these are often the easiest things to make light of.
We also need to savour our success. If someone gives you lovely feedback, tell your friends and family or pin the email up on the wall as a visual reminder of how others hold you in high regard. If you got through a really tough period, write down everything that you achieved and the actions you took which made it more manageable. Keep in mind that there are many things in life which are outside of your direct control. It may be impossible for you to meet a deadline if it is set with little notice by someone who isn’t aware of how you’re struggling. It may be hard for you to stick to a plan if there is bad weather or a family emergency on the day. Try to focus more on what you can control – how you treat others; how you respond to unfair expectations or demands; how well you eat and sleep when times are tough; how you make time to look after yourself.
Incorporating gratitude into your reset is a great way of redirecting attention from negative thoughts and feelings and embracing the good things in life. Whether you say it out loud, write it down in a journal or keep a record on your phone, think about the things that you are grateful for each day. This doesn’t just have to be about what happened on a given day, but also the everyday things which we take for granted. Consider the best way of developing this habit. Some people may like to run through the things they’re grateful for during a walk in nature. Others might like to do it as soon as they get home from work or before they go to bed, as a way of bringing the day to a close.
E is for ENERGISE. Keep your nervous system balanced
Your reset should encompass activities which help your nervous system to stay within the optimal zone and reduce the potential to go into hyperarousal or hypoarousal. If you’re feeling low, try to incorporate more physical exercise into your daily routine. This might be going for a walk, jogging, dancing and just being out in nature to experience the cold breeze on your face. There may be occasions where you have too much energy and find it hard to settle and focus. Practising a breathing routine, where your exhale is longer than the inhale, can be very calming. Paying attention to 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste can enable you to ground yourself in the present moment when your mind is racing. Having a warm bath, listening to softer music or turning down the lights in the room where you’re relaxing can also be helpful.
We can think about flow activities which make us feel completely immersed and absorbed. Can you think of things which help you feel creative and productive? These might include cooking, drawing, knitting or completing crosswords and board games. What helps you to lose track of time and focus on the here-and-now? This could be as simple as an hour or two spent on cleaning, gardening, decluttering or some DIY. Everyone’s flow is personal. The key is that you feel truly involved and rewarded for taking part. The challenge of the activity should promote a sense of competence and satisfaction.
While we need to make time for activities and experiences which energise and motivate us, filtering out the things which drain and demoralise us is just as important. If you find certain aspects of the news very negative and pessimistic, try to limit your exposure or look at different sources of news with a wider range of stories. There may be places you go to which you find stressful for one reason or another – can you go less often or at different times of the day to mitigate this stress? Be mindful of people around you who may inadvertently annoy or exhaust you. If you rely on some of them for support, perhaps it’s time to be explicit about what you need from them or what you want to talk about; so that the conversations are less likely to sustain your stress and deplete your energy reserves.
T – TARGET. Make a new plan for your self-care
This can begin with a “To do” list. Be prepared for some initial anxiety if this is a long list at first, but focus on the fact that the list has a finite number of tasks to be completed. There is an end point. Can you prioritise the list into things which need to be attended to immediately or in the near future and other things which can wait? Several post-it notes with three or four items may be easier to manage than one giant list. Consider where you want to keep the list. It may be very distracting if it’s visible when you’re trying to relax. If you’re using your phone for the list, set a reminder to appear at a time which doesn’t interfere with your self-care.
Set targets for yourself and make sure they are SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound. It’s not enough to say that you want to get “better” at something. Have distinct goals. Some things may seem insurmountable at first, so try to break them into small steps so that you have a realistic chance of success. Ideally, that success comes quickly so that you immediately start to reap the benefits of your initial goals. If you’d love to spend more time reading a good book, but feel you can’t justify it during a hectic period, start with just 10 minutes of reading before you do something else. This can allow you to realise that you can fit these small moments of self-care into your schedule and it will empower you to manage your time better to accommodate more of these activities.
Reviewing your reset plan is essential for checking in on your well-being and understanding what is working well and what needs to be tweaked. Keep in mind that it takes time to develop habits and that setbacks are to be expected. You might want to review things at the end of the week and see how successful you were. If you were planning to go for a walk or start a new exercise regime on a certain number of occasions each week, review this after four weeks and consider whether your target was just right, too ambitious or not ambitous enough. Remember that there will be days where something completely out of the blue occurs – it might dramatically affect your mood and energy levels or restrict you from engaging in some of your energising and relaxing activities that you had anticipated.
Self-care is something that is never finished. It requires regular fine-tuning and reviewing. If you feel that your self-care isn’t working or that stress is getting on top of you, consider a R.E.S.E.T. and make a new plan to look after yourself.