As December begins, we may start to notice our stress levels have shot up. The reasons will vary for all of us. Some people will find it is the enormous to do list and the pressure to do everything perfectly. Others may find this season stressful as it is a time which has reminders of losses. Some people may feel they are alone during this time when the world is full of happy families and their experience is not like that. Christmas and reminders about it are everywhere.

This is also the time of exams, whether they are before the holidays or after – for most of us they are stressful. This is such a busy time for some, lonely for others, and full of opportunities to feel overwhelmed. So, my question to you is, how is your self-care?

What even is Self-care and why should I do it?

Self-care is a word that gets used a lot and in its simplest form it conjures up images of candles and bubble baths, yet there is so much more to it than that. It is an important part of looking after ourselves. I checked out the actual definition of self-care and this is what the Oxford dictionary says it is:

“the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”

We do it to ensure that we can keep going so we don’t burn ourselves out physically or emotionally. It is interesting that it includes the idea of happiness, which we will explore another time. I love the idea of protecting my well-being, for me it suggests that my well-being matters, that I matter, which is true for all of us. We all matter, and we all deserve to be cared for and nurtured. I much prefer the word nurture to self- care, as it seems gentler and less of a task to add to my to do list.  We all experience stress at different levels and in different ways during our lifetime and self-care helps us look after ourselves as we navigate the inevitable ups and downs we encounter. Self-care is not about avoiding difficulties or having an easy stress-free life, it is building confidence in being able to support yourself through the difficulties. To know what you need in this moment and to continue to develop self-care habits and skills. Self-care is not a once and done thing in my experience, it is a lifelong habit that evolves as we do.

Where to start?

Start where you are is always useful. There really is no point beating yourself up with saying I wish I was one of those people who didn’t have stress, or I don’t want this to be happening. Self-care is a skill that we can learn, and we need to start where we are. The first question you may like to ask yourself is:

Am I feeling stressed and what is causing the stress in my life at this present time?

From this starting point you can begin to explore next steps. If life is not too stressful at this time, maybe you would like to create some habits that will support you when you are feeling more stressed. I loved the comment that I read in a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, “we don’t build our parachute as we are about to leave the plane”. It is much easier to develop habits when we are less stressed and anxious. However, if you are aware that your stress levels are very high in this moment, then the next question you may like to ask is:

What is causing the stress in my life right now and what can I do about it?

It can help to know what it is that is causing the stressors, but it isn’t vital. You may know, you may not know, and that is ok. Whichever it is, you can still nurture yourself. If you don’t know, ask what will help me get through this difficult patch, what resources are available to me, and what new resources can I think about. Remember when we are stressed, we really don’t think as clearly as at other times. I find it best to keep it simple, just one thing is enough. What one thing can I do and if it is just take a breath and keep going for the next five minutes, do that.

If you know what the stress is, ask yourself what can I do? So often we focus on the things we can’t do like, I have to do this exam, or I have to go to work which is stressful, or I have children I have to look after. Ask yourself what is possible for you. Make sure this is something you feel able to do. There is no point saying I am going to sit and revise for the next four hours if your anxiety levels are too high. Maybe think about doing something small, like taking a break or phoning someone supportive instead, so you can go back when you are ready. This shifts the focus and starts to build our sense of being capable and feeling in control. It also helps to notice what is going well for you – there is usually something.

Some Ideas for Self-Care or to nurture yourself.

When we are thinking about this for ourselves what we choose to do has to be what works for us, and not some blueprint that is the answer to Stress. What works for me may well not work for you. It can help to start with the basics which are:

  • Are you getting enough sleep?
  • Are you eating well?
  • Are you feeling connected to others?
  • Are you moving?
  • Are you making time for play and fun?

When we are very stressed these can seem impossible, so start with what is possible. Can you stop and take a breath and notice. What do you notice? The moment we notice we begin to empower ourselves and build our resources and start to feel in control. Do you need to stop and take some time, even if it is five minutes to go for a walk or just get up and make a drink. Do you need to reach out and talk to someone? We may realise we have been ignoring ourselves and something major is needed, or it may be as simple as realizing you are hungry or tired. A failsafe question we can ask ourselves is what would I say to someone I cared about if they told me they felt like this?

A routine can be very useful as it helps us stay grounded and feeling in control which calms our nervous system and allows us to manage stress better. Routines vary from person to person and need to be supportive rather than rigid, so for example one of my routines is to start the day with a cup of tea in bed and no technology for the first half hour. I don’t achieve it every day, but most days and I find it sets me up and helps me notice what is going on for me. When we are stressed structure can help with overwhelm and routine provides structure. It creates a sense of predictability when life feels unpredictable. Another thing that massively helps is to stop comparing yourself to others, we are all different and have different lives. Focus on yourself for now and what you need, and this will fill your cup so you can be available to support others.

Self-care is not always easy and you may find that it is hard for you to begin with. Over time most of us have received messages about not being selfish or, worse, that we don’t matter. These messages can get in the way of our self-care. We all deserve to be cared for and nurtured and it is possible to learn to do this. If you find you need help with this reach out to someone, either a therapist or a friend or even find a book, anything that works for you, as they say “You’re worth it”………

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington

Brigid Errington is an experienced BACP accredited counsellor providing online and in person therapy to adults and young people over the age of 13. She is currently working at Holt Consulting Rooms