The Healing Power of Self-Care in a World of Chronic Stress and Anxiety

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” ~Lao Tzu

I’ve always lived with a low hum of anxiety in the background, and lately it’s been harder to keep a lid on it.

There are a lot of things to be anxious about these days. We live in a complex and stressful world and anxiety is very common, affecting upwards of 20 percent of the population. Some experience manageable levels; for others anxiety and chronic stress can be debilitating and self-destructing.

Truth is, we have good reasons to be stressed out. We work too much; we don’t take enough time off; we’re constantly plugged in and “on” yet are more disconnected than ever before; many of us struggle financially; our healthcare, education, and political systems don’t support us. We truly face many challenges and struggles every day.

So how do we help ourselves ride the inevitable storms that come our way? How do we handle daily ups and downs without getting swept up by emotions and reactions?

We’ve always understood that we need to make our health and well-being a priority. Replenish first and replenish often.

But we have to take care of ourselves on a physical, emotional, and mental level. Body, mind, and soul.

In a World of Anxiety and Chronic Stress, Self-Care Matters

Let’s first define self-care.

Self-care is an active and conscious choice to engage in activities that nourish us and help us maintain an optimal level of overall health. It basically means making healthy lifestyle choices and implementing stress management strategies.

Self-care is not a new concept. We’ve known for a long time that eating well, exercising, maintaining good sleep habits, and eliminating smoking and drinking are all critical in maintaining good health.

What’s new is the holistic approach to self-care that goes beyond taking care of your physical well being. It’s looking at mental health, emotional health, social engagement, spiritual wellbeing, and of course physical care as a basis for it all.

That is the kind of holistic approach we all need to take when thinking about effective and all encompassing self-care.

Unfortunately, Americans are hardly practicing any self-care.

  • One in four Americans has a mental health disorder, of which one in seventeen have a severe mental illness. Many of these disorders go untreated.
  • Eighty-one percent of Americans do not exercise enough.
  • More than one-third of Americans are obese.

So what’s the problem? Well, it’s complicated. Lack of money, lack of time, lack of resources, lack of awareness… It seems overwhelming, I know (pun not intended).

But we don’t have to completely overhaul our lifestyle in one day, not even one year, to make a substantial difference. Remember, a journey of thousand miles starts with a single step.

We just have to take that one step forward right now.

Can you adopt one healthy habit today? Or perhaps, you can eliminate one unhealthy habit from now on? Can you give yourself a gift of a single healthy activity you can commit to doing on a daily or weekly basis?

My Self-Care Journey

When I first decided to take charge over my health, I didn’t know where to start.

I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I needed to address: I didn’t sleep well, I worked too much, I suffered from chronic pain and depression, I was highly self-critical, I wasn’t exercising, I knew there was childhood pain that I had to deal with, I was overwhelmed trying to raise three little boys, and I was constantly anxious.

I was miserable.

I was unhappy, but I felt too disempowered to “fix” my life—there was just too many problems to tackle, too much to work on. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t continue to live like this.

Something had to change.

So I started small, with what at that time seemed like a doable practice…

In 2011 I committed to daily gratitude journaling at bedtime.

I simply wrote three good things that I was grateful for that day. It was something I could do in just few minutes and it made me feel good.

As I developed the habit of gratitude, my list grew longer, and more detailed. In the end, gratitude journaling helped me curb my naturally negative outlook on life, added more optimism and perspective, and helped me sleep better.

In 2012 I committed to eliminating yelling, complaining, and criticizing.

This was the next step in curbing my negativity and promoting a more positive mindset. While this wasn’t easy to do and I stumbled a lot initially, over time my attitude changed dramatically, improving all of my relationships in ways I couldn’t imagine (including the one I had with myself, since there was now less fuel for self-blame and feeling guilty).

In 2013 I committed to making art every day.

This has been my passion that I’ve neglected for years but craved immensely.

Doing something for myself just because I enjoyed it was an act of self-love. It brought creativity and play into my life, taught me that mistakes are not such a big deal, gave me a voice that I’ve lost as a busy mother, allowed for self-expression, improved my self-esteem, and in the end was truly healing. (Art is therapy!)

In 2014 I committed to mindfulness and healing my emotional wounds.

The pain of the past was still there and it would pop every now and then, showing up as anger, depression, and fear. I decided to finally tackle it with journaling and mindfulness.

Ever since I started my gratitude practice, I realized journaling was helpful in making sense of feelings and events, processing my emotions, gaining perspective, and simply letting things go by pouring them out on paper. (Yes, I’m old school!)

Mindfulness helped me through my emotional healing journey by recognizing, allowing, and accepting my internal experience with presence and compassion.

Journaling helped me integrate and process my past and present events and feeling, and ultimately became my top self-therapy tool.

Dealing with suppressed emotional pain was extremely hard but in the end self-empowering. It freed me from reactivity and emotional high jacking, led to more inner-peace, and it accelerated my healing journey of self-love and self-acceptance.

In 2015 I committed to daily meditation and journaling practice, since both were so instrumental-and transformational-in managing my emotions and well being.

I wanted to be more present to life and build a solid foundation for my future.

Meditation and journaling further deepened my self-awareness; helped me to slow down and recognize negative patterns I needed to work on; taught me how to respond instead of react to life; allowed me to process my present pain and experiences and gain clarity and perspective; eased my anxiety; and improved my attention, empathy, and listening skills.

In 2016 I committed to weekly yoga.

I’d tried yoga before and didn’t like it at all. But now I was a changed woman and I craved to reconnect with my body and align my body-mind with my spirit. I also needed to move my body and yoga offered a relaxing way to do just that.

It taught me to listen to and respect my body, and ultimately take care of it better (which led to better sleep habits, drinking more water, eating cleaner food, and limiting processed and toxic stuff). It helped with pain and inflammation, flexibility, and body-mind-soul integration. Yoga makes me feel good, whole, and peaceful. I am home.

A lot has changed in those last six years. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and continue to make daily. Yes, it was hard at the beginning. Creating new habits can be hard, so it’s important to go slow and not get discouraged if you slip up. Pick one goal and commit to it with all your heart.

Some self-care activities will come easily; I love doodling, walking my dog, listening to relaxing music at bedtime, journaling, reading, taking long baths, hiking, and taking bike rides with kiddos.

Some habits will be hard to put into practice. For me, as a victim of childhood abuse and neglect, meditation was really hard. So I started with only two minutes a day, lying down. Today I can sit for twenty to thirty minutes with ease.

There are still days when I don’t feel like going to my yoga class, but I will myself out the door, no matter what. I know it’s good for my mind and my body.

You will have to push yourself often, but stick with it. You’ll literally wire those new habits into your brain and it will get easier. The payoff is worth all the work.

I’m not the same person I used to be. I’m better, healthier, and more peaceful and present.

I’m dealing with instead of running away from my anxiety. I’m managing instead of suppressing. And there’s much more inner peace, balance, love, and acceptance in my life.

I’ve killed my inner-critic (for the most part), and I’m more in tune with my mind, my body, and my heart than ever before. My relationships have improved, and I like my life, even though it’s still hard sometimes. There are still many challenges I have to deal with, but I feel more empowered and in charge than ever before.

You Have To Find Your Own Path 

Your self-care plan may look completely different from mine. It might mean spending more time in nature, taking up running, or ending a toxic relationship. It may mean quarterly juicing, getting a monthly massage, or knitting. It may be developing a new hobby or quitting smoking.

The beautiful thing is that you are in charge. You and only you know what’s most nourishing for you right now, and what you need to be doing to feel better, feel healthy, and feel balanced. You get to decide how to nurture and care for yourself best!

Don’t put off self-care for later. Later will never come. We have to make time now for what’s important, and self-care needs to be your priority. You are worth it!

About Joanna Ciolek

Joanna Ciolek is a self-taught artist, recovering self-critic, and a firm believer in the healing and transformative powers of mindfulness. She runs a free 20-week mindfulness & self-discovery workshop. She is also the author The Art Of Untangling, a writing journal/coloring book for deeper self-inquiry, healing and transformation! Follow Joanna on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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  • lisa

    articles such as this by Joanna Ciolek are so misguided and false that it worries me that this stuff gets perpetuated by people who use outside circustances to define the stress in their lives. As long as people choose to focus on external sources as the reasons for their stress, anxiety, aches and pains, moodiness, and depression they will never be free of it. When we attempt to change from the outside in, it doesn’t work. Like wise, when we CHANGE OUR THINKING and attatchement to our expectations, we will be amazed at how less stressful our lives become.
    I don’t have to be experiencing something to feel stress, anxiety or depression. I can just think of something, remember something or worry about something and I can produce such feelings….The reality is that ALL stress and unpleasant emotions, even as well as pleasant ones,directly under the control of our perceptions of the events that occur in our lives. It has nothing to do with what is outside of my body. It all begins with how I choose to focus and think….
    Think about that one, honey

  • Jennifer

    I have my own issues with this article, however, I don’t think there’s ever a call to be sarcastic, by using phrases such as, “Think about that one, honey.” Your points are well-taken – and they’d be better taken without a dose of contempt.

  • N Lewis

    Very thoughtful post Joanna.
    It really bothers me how busy life has become. I think self care is so important. I talk a lot about it on my blog too.

    Like you I crave more art in my life.. sketching is my passion and i don’t do enough of it because I get so busy. I put reminders on my phone to help me remember to sketch. I may not always get to it but at least it’s at the front of my mind because I see the alert.

  • Cecily Vietti

    What a beautiful and doable pace! I love how you lined out a year of committing to each beautiful practice. It makes it fee so graceful and approachable, not overwhelming at all. Thank you so much for this motivating article!

  • Jennifer

    I think this is a useful article in some ways – I like that you describe what’s worked for you in terms of your own definition of “self care.”

    What I don’t like is the assumption, that too many people are making publicly, that we’re all “in a state,” since the recent US election. I’m Canadian – though of course, we’re all affected, like it or not, by what happens in the US – and I didn’t really have a strong opinion on either candidate. However, it’s presumptuous to assume that you speak for others in saying, “there’s a lot to be anxious about, especially since the last election,” or that the results of the election have left many people, “unsure of what the future holds.”

    You may think it’s “obvious” that everyone agrees with you – clearly, they don’t, as a lot of your fellow Americans voted differently than you. Did you consider that, for “many,” there’s a lot of excitement about what the future holds? Again, I’m not speaking about myself, I’m just encouraging you to be mindful that your opinion shouldn’t be generalized to speak for others.

    Thanks for considering this.

  • Elizabeth

    I was anxious

  • preeti

    And what to do when meditation hurts gives me more pain ,ruins my relationships with my behavior i have so much anxiety i don’t know what i do to make me normal for life i am hopeless now.

  • Frazer McLeod

    Brilliant article, thank you so much for sharing. 🙂

  • I appreciate your comment, except you miss the entire point of the article: stress is inevitable (whether it comes from outside or inside of us) but we can manage & even
    transform it by taking care of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

    Yes, it’s all about our mindset and the choices we make in our lives. The entire
    article is about the changes one can make to overcome negative thinking and
    manage stress better. It’s a life-long learning process.

  • I think there’s a lot to be said for accepting that not everything is perfect too, and that you can’t be perfect at everything. I’ve found that a lot of my current anxieties during exam period stem from feeling the need to know everything RIGHT NOW, rather than accepting that some things will be acquired when I go into a practical setting. When I take a step back and accept that imperfection is an option, my anxiety always goes down a few notches 🙂

  • sian e lewis

    I think many people ( myself included ) feel a little unsettled at election time-even if their chosen candidate wins. However- as time goes on they settle again. All to do with both the fear and excitement of changes, especially large ones.

  • While my intention was to shed a light on reasons behind the anxiety we feel as a society in the world today (and recent political turmoil has had a significant role here), I think it distracts from the overall message of this article, and so it’s been edited out.

  • Erica

    Thank you for this article, I appreciate the self care practices of yours that you have shared here. I wish to share some feedback about something that was painful for me to read, in hopes you’d consider changing it, as you did with the election comment. As someone who has a fat body, I was very displeased that you listed obesity as a lack of practicing self care. I, like many people with a fat body, experience a lot of hatred and fat shaming, especially within the medical community. To the extent that the anxiety of being treated poorly stops me from accessing many types of self care including going to the doctor, being in public fitness spaces, etc. I was so disappointed to read that line in this article, as it was anxiety inducing in a moment I was seeking a comfort and suggestions for self care. Please consider refraining from listing obesity as a negative mental health outcome- I’m not anxious because I’m fat, I am anxious because of being treated poorly because of my body. Thank you.

  • lisa

    agreed, Jennifer and I made my amends to Joanna. I was impulsive and emotional when I typed my initial response. I just have a real issue with all of the divisive and resistant attitudes that people have assumed and demonstrated since the election, which only serves to create more disharmony and not unity. We catch more “flies with honey than vinegar”….kindness and not sarcasm and intolerance will go further in this world to create what we all seeking, internally and externally,…peace. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  • Ruth

    Sometimes people fear by taking care of ourselves it is selfish, but in reality, it can be the most selfless thing we do. Self-care can open ourselves up to being there for others in our lives in a more genuine and sincere way. In this way, we are filling up with great energy!

  • tine

    I feel they same way (My self-care journey part). I am a mother of 3, and a working mom. I feel anxious all the time except when i am busy at work…I wanted to do some self-care as what you call it as a self-reward. But hasn’t started it as i don’t know when and where to start…i love art, looking at paintings, etc. (coloring books maybe) but can’t find time doing it.
    ..But maybe if i will try my very best; i could, ONE-STEP-AT-A-TIME, just like reading your blogs and taking time to post a comment. 🙂

  • It can be overwhelming to think about all the things we’d like to change in ourselves or our daily routine, so just practice one small thing you’d like to turn into a habit. Think about one practice that will make you feel grounded, and bring you back to the present moment. Coloring is great (I doddle while the kids watch an evening cartoon), connecting with nature works wanders (every evening after getting kids in bed, I go outside to just look at the moon and stars, breathe and reset), eating without distractions… those little things give us a mental break, bring us back to now and to ourselves.

  • Jennifer

    Laura, that would be a great article to consider writing. I think a lot of students would benefit from your perspective. When I look back on my time in medical school, this is my greatest regret – I expected myself to know everything *right now* as you did, and in the process, I think I missed-out on a lot of the enjoyment of simply learning new things. Perfectionism must be a close cousin of anxiety! In any case, I enjoyed your post, and found myself thinking, “yes!” Again, I’d love to hear more – maybe in an article?

  • Jennifer

    Wow, Erica, that was a really great perspective you shared. As a physician, I instantly felt like I recognized the attitude you’re speaking of in many of my medical colleagues. There’s are dozens of reasons – probably more – why people become obese, and you’re quite right – not all come down to a “lack of self-care.” But it was your comment on the effect this attitude has on your anxiety that really struck a chord.

    Thanks for adding your voice – I suspect you speak for a great many men and women who struggle to accept themselves in a world where they’re reminded, on a daily basis, that they really shouldn’t. I, and I suspect others, would love to hear more about your experience – perhaps you’d consider writing your own article on the much-neglected subject of coming to peace with one’s weight? For it’s surely a fact that, for every article on “acceptance,” there are a dozen others on “self-improvement,” and when I hear the statistics on depression, I’m not surprised. Indeed, I rarely think, “why so many?” and instead, wonder, “why not more?”

  • Jennifer

    Meditation can be challenging for those who are in acute pain – by it’s very nature, it’s a solitary practice, and you might do better to work through some of your more painful issues with the support of a therapist first. Rest assured, Preeti, no one is “normal” and even without knowing your circumstances, I know you are not “hopeless.” The mere fact that you are reading articles at the tinybuddha site means you’re still searching and still hoping! Consider reaching-out to your family doctor, or to a friend, and ask for help in finding a therapist – there are always free or low-cost options, and a therapist can help you sort through the things which may, at first, seem “too big” to tackle on your own. Best wishes to you.

  • Excellent, excellent post.

  • Bullyinglte

    Wow, Joanna, we must have been going through the same things on the same timeline. You really shared it all here and it’s some of the best advice (although I started Yoga 3 years ago and still am working on the arguing and yelling part). I’m so glad you shared all of this and thank you.

  • matthew

    Lately I have been feeling depressed and anxious. I have been going in and out of this sense my first panic attack landed me in the emergency room at 18. I’m 58 now and feel as if something is always wrong with me. I know this not to be true but my negative thoughts keep creeping back and scarring me. If you would ask my friends they would tell you I have it made on every level, I just need to feel that way inside myself. Glad I found this site. Matt

  • Julie

    Thank you for this article, I am in a very difficult place at the moment having a chronic illness the last 12 months that’s brought on anxiety and agoraphobia. Reading this I feel more positive that I can slowly work on myself and accept who I am.

    Can I ask, where you said you used journaling to help with your past traumas, was this the gratitude journaling you did or did you also use a journal to write out anything negative from your past that came up that day? and did that help?

    Thank you.

  • That’s quite a nice idea actually, Jennifer 🙂 I think I’ll get writing. Post-exam period seems like the most appropriate time!

  • Ellen

    How do you get past anxiety and worrying about your adult kids to be able to start working on your own emotional and physical health?

  • One of the best ways to cultivate inner healing and to overcome patterns of anxiety and depression is to learn how to meditate on those painful emotions themselves. We need to make friends with out emotions rather than pushing them away or avoiding them. Emotional suffering can only heal when you develop a fully conscious and compassionate relationship with them, when you learn to embrace anxiety and depression with mindfulness. I have seen this work over and over again in my practice and I teach this to all me students.

    The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Stephen Spodek

    Thank you for laying out your well conceived plan for self care and for including the link to the journaling program. I’m encouraged by your progress over the years and it inspires me to really get disciplined to take care of myself.

  • Andypie

    First off, I would like to start by saying I am sad you have been fat shamed and understand how you feel. Also, don’t let some mean spirited people stop you from accesssing care, fitness spaces, etc. Find a new doctor or workout space. I find a good approach for me with my dr. is to bring up my weight first, “I realize I am overweight and am taking measures to fix it”.They don’t really say anything to me after that. As a morbidly obese person myself, I can see why you are sensitive, although I do not think the author’s intent was to fat shame. It is different for all and I know some people have medical issues. I know for me, I got this way because I wasn’t practicing self care (which I am trying now). I wasn’t taking care of myself properly or I wouldn’t be this overweight. My anxiety is worse when I am overweight because I’m not as active and feel bad. Truthfully what bothered me more was the author indicating mental illness was caused by lack of self care. Most of the time being overweight is probably caused from lack of self care and I am not saying this in a shameful way, just being honest. . Anxiety and depression in some cases can be prevented with self care, but not major mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar, etc.

  • Andypie

    Just to clarify as well I do not think self care can prevent mental illnesses, but could improve the condition or quality of life.