Self-Care: Back to Basics

In my therapy practice, I have become used to clients discussing stressful experiences and difficult times. This is hardly surprising – people rarely spend their time and money on a therapist when life is easy and everything is going smoothly. That being said, however, the level of stress and anxiety at this moment seems exceptionally high. Between the global and national events we see and hear on the news day in and day out, and the more expected stresses of work, parenting, and school (final exams are coming soon!), many people are feeling that things are just too much.

When we are facing such difficult times, people often try to cope by doing more and working harder. This is, to an extent, necessary, and can be manageable when the stressful situation is time-limited. For example, many students will have the occasional all-nighter when a term paper is due. Such a strategy is not to be recommended, but may not take too much of a toll in the long run. Over time, however, and when stressors do not have a fixed ending, there is a danger of overtaxing our resources and decreasing our ability to cope effectively. 

I imagine that the thoughts and strategies I have been discussing with clients during times of stress and extra demand are not new to anyone. That being said, it is worth revisiting and re-emphasizing some basics of taking care of our physical, mental, and social well-being. The healthier we are, the better we can tackle the challenges we face. With the understanding that keeping up with self-care is intended to alleviate stress rather than add to it, here are some basics to attend to:

Sleep. When your to-do list is long, this is often the first thing to be sacrificed, but the data on the importance of sleep is compelling. Adequate sleep is essential to physical health, mood stability, and cognitive functioning. Staying up extra late or getting up extra early is not problematic on very rare occasions, but the costs quickly outweigh the benefits.

Move. Too often, the work we do at our jobs or in school requires sitting still, and it is understandable that many people think they have to stay in place until the task is done. Research shows, however, that getting up to walk or stretch for even a very short time can help refocus our brains and re-energize our bodies.

Eat. People experiencing stress often will overeat, undereat, or simply eat without consideration of nutrition. But as with sleep, giving your body and brain the nutrition they need has well-documented benefits on both physical and mental health. There is no need to get overly detailed about counting calories, carbs, protein grams, or any other numbers, but it is helpful to think about eating a variety of foods including protein, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Feel free to indulge in some sweets or other “junk food,” but balance it with food that is less processed. 

Ask for help. While it may seem that people are uncaring, overcommitted, or some combination of these and other things, there is robust data showing that helping others feels good. If you are feeling guilty about asking someone to pick up food for you, or pick up your child or your pet, it may help to think of this as giving someone an opportunity to do something that will benefit them as well as helping you.

Finally, Connect. All too often, stress can feel isolating. Human beings have evolved to live in community and in connection. Finding very small pockets to check in with a friend or family member, meditate or pray, or connect with nature can provide outsized benefits and ultimately help us be more effective at tackling the challenges we face.

As I said above, I doubt that anyone reading this is being introduced to these concepts for the first time. But in difficult times, it is important to remember that taking care of ourselves is necessary in order to be able to do anything else.


Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist