Selfcare: The Basics by Michael Courtney L.P.C.
I make my living as a counselor, dealing with the stress people face in their lives. Stress can come from any number of sources and when it gets to be “too much” people come to see me.
When I started writing this article my first thought was “duh, this will keep people from needing to see me.” It would not profit me if you were able to handle every problem and stressor that came your way. On the other hand, my greater interest is contributing to world peace, which starts with each one of us.
My profession is one of bringing inner peace to as many individuals as possible. Therefore, the truth requires me to share the simple “secrets” which I believe are the foundation to peaceful living and effective stress management. But please remember, a foundation is a starting point, not the finished product. I challenge you to incorporate these ideas into your daily life. Taking care of yourself does not have to be a horror film. Have fun. Lighten up. Modify these ideas and make them work for you. If you have any questions or comments, give me a call.
The Underlying Problem: Stress “When was the last time you sat down for a meal?” “I don’t have time for that,” replies the client. “How many hours of sleep do you get each night?” The client is starting to get annoyed. “About six, but I want to talk about the trouble I’m having with my moods.”
Once again, I am amazed how little many people know about managing their own stress. Time after time people come to me with the whole range of human emotions and problems, looking for something or someone to cure them.
As a professional counselor I believe that we overlook the simplest answers in trying to deal with the often overwhelming stressors that we face today. I agree that seeing a counselor or therapist is an important part of maintaining our mental health. At the same time, I tell my clients that “working on their issues” will take longer or even be a waste of time if they don’t learn to take care of themselves first.
Some stress is essential for everyday living—too much stress prevents us from living a full life, makes us sick and can even kill us. How do we maintain the balance of healthy stress, yet inhibit the build-up of mind and body-blowing pressures? Returning to the idea of dealing with the simplest, most basic requisites, I present the following Self-Care Skills. These are what I consider the foundation for healthy living.
Diet What we do or don’t ingest has a great deal to do with our moods and our ability to deal with stress. A hamburger, three 32 oz. sodas, 5 cups of coffee, and a pack of cigarettes seem to be an average daily diet these days. By contrast, I often encourage clients to eat five or six small meals per day; consistent blood sugar levels contribute to mood stabilization. Healthy food is essential. Sugar, caffeine, and junk food guarantee a roller coaster of moods. Our brains need a constant supply of nutrients to think clearly.
Water is the most overlooked basic, with many “never touching the stuff.” Eight glasses per day is probably a minimum, yet most people rarely drink enough. Don’t forget, our bodies are about 80% water. Without water our brains do not get enough oxygen. Imagine every cell in your body looking like a prune. Many of us are often in some state of dehydration. Again, we don’t think clearly or manage stress well when our water supply drops.
Any mind/mood altering substance also reduces our ability to manage stress. I see many clients who regularly use legal or illegal drugs, claiming they use them to help manage their stress levels. Even those who are proud they don’t use “white drugs” are often slurping on a huge soda and need to go to the store for more. Eliminating or reducing the mood altering substances we ingest is a much larger subject than can be covered here. However, any reduction will pay off in physical and mental health benefits.
Sleep The United States is the only country I’ve been in where people are proud of how little sleep they get by on. The human body needs rest, usually a solid eight hours or more. Sleep experts warn against the short week nights and long weekend sleep patterns that are so common. Short changing the sleep we need is often overlooked as part of our decreased ability to deal with life and stress. Listen to your body. Does it really want to get up when the alarm goes off? Why do you need an alarm anyway? I realize that in today’s world we don’t always have the luxury of getting up when we are completely rested. We can do ourselves a great service though, by maintaining constant sleep hours. Have to be up at 6:00 am? Then bedtime should be no later than 10:00 pm. Trying to catch up on week-ends only throws off our internal clocks, which again decreases our abilities to deal with life. It may be more subtle than the fire alarm going off in the middle of the night, but the long-term effects are the same: you can’t sleep. Your mind just won’t shut off at night. You lay awake for hours worrying about things. Before considering medications, let’s look at two more ways to develop Self-Care Skills. These are:
Exercise Most people have strong feelings about exercise. Some love it. Others experience deep revulsion. Exercise equipment and programs have become a multi-million dollar business because we know it’s good for us, but it just takes too much time and effort. Getting a complete workout in two minutes would please a lot of people.
Feeling anxious, angry, and restless, or lethargic and tired? Exercise is often the answer. Fancy home equipment or a membership at the heath club is not necessary, but can be useful for reaching certain physical goals. For mental health though, a daily thirty minute walk can work wonders. The release of endorphins helps reduce anxiety and depression, eases tension, releases anger, and builds energy. Sleep patterns are improved with regular exercise.
Breathing How often do you think about breathing? In my office, I watch how clients breath. Often the breaths are so shallow, any movement is almost imperceptible. Breathing is the one bodily function that can be either automatic or manual. When we are scared, anxious, angry, hurt, or upset in any way our bodies naturally go into a protective mode which speeds up our heart and breathing rates. When we breath fast, it is shallow. The problem is that this becomes the norm and we do not get enough oxygen to our brains on a regular basis. What happens to our brains when not enough oxygen is present? You guessed it. We don’t think very well. Our ability to make decisions is inhibited. Stress becomes overwhelming. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can be a magical experience. There are many techniques useful for everything from relaxation to extreme pain control. The simplest method perhaps is to lay on your bed, focusing on your breath, and allowing your stomach to expand naturally with each full slow breath. Your mind will naturally wander, but when you realize that you are thinking about something else, just return your focus to your breathing. A few minutes of this will increase your awareness of what complete breathing is all about. Check in with yourself several times each day. Are you breathing? Stopping for a few moments and taking five or six deep, slow breaths can be the key to dealing with the stress you are facing
When was the last time you sat quietly, with just yourself for company, and with no thoughts flowing through your mind? Diaphragmatic breathing can become a great form of meditation.
In our world today, it is often easy to overlook the simple. Self-care includes the basic practices we should follow before we look elsewhere for the answers. However, our culture and environment teach us that the answers belong to someone else. Going to the doctor or paying for a new exercise bike is often seen as the answer. There is no question that there are times when professionals need to be consulted. However, I believe that healing comes from within. We need to give our bodies and minds a chance to restore themselves.
Does maintaining proper diet, sleep, exercise, and breathing practices guarantee no stress in your life? Of course not. What I have seen over and over, however, is that the people who are willing to practice self-care are also the ones who learn to manage their stressors, who develop new ways of coping, and who “get it together.” We cannot afford to not take the time to care for ourselves.
While Michael Courtney finds peace and tranquility by surfing the Oregon coast, he has many other ideas for those who prefer dryer alternatives. He can be reached at his office in Salem, (503) 391-5728.