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% 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 well-being, 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 were 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 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 healthy and 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 the author of mindfulness-based prompt journals, The Art of Homecoming and The Art of Untangling. To learn mindfulness, reconnect with yourself, and begin your healing journey, join her Free Course at The Mindfulness Journal. Follow Joanna on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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