Returning to school and beginning a new academic year can cause feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in any circumstances, but this year it is extra stressful on students, parents, and educators alike due to COVID-19.
Each year, Mental Health America releases a back to school toolkit aimed at helping people start the new school year right with healthy habits and an awareness of stress and mental health. This year the kit contains materials aimed specifically at coping with the unusual circumstances of beginning school in the midst of a pandemic, with many schools opting for virtual or distance learning, at least for the first semester.
The 2020 Mental Health America Back to School Toolkit is available now on the Mental Health America website.
This is the second in a series of blogs about practicing self-care in times of high stress, such as what we’re experiencing now with COVID-19. You can read Part 1 here.
Many people—especially those in helping professions—find it hard to practice self-care even if they understand its importance. There are a number of reasons for this. It is difficult to pause and make time for self-care practices when consumed by tasks at home, work, with family, etc. Helpers might feel guilty about taking time for self-care for fear that they are somehow letting down their families, coworkers or clients by pausing, even momentarily, to care for themselves. With these obstacles in play, it’s important to take some actions to make self-care a bit easier to achieve.
Tips to Help Make Self-care Possible
Start short, and work your way up
Sometimes we associate self-care with activities taking a long bubble bath or treating yourself to a professional massage. While either of those can be great for self-care, these two examples involve a level of time and cost commitment that is unrealistic for many people. Instead, we should think of self-care as something that someone only needs to take a few minutes to achieve at first. While it’s ideal to take more than just a few minutes at a time for self-care, associating self-care only with more indulgent, time-consuming activities can easily set a person to give up on the idea without even trying, because it seems too unrealistic to achieve.
Develop strategies for work and home
You’re going to need self-care options for several different environments and circumstances, so it’s a good idea to keep a few ideas in your toolbox that will work for the setting. Taking a half hour to break and read a book or watch a television program might work at home, but in the office self-care may look more like finding a quiet space for a few minutes of deep breathing and recharging. Try to keep an open mind and find multiple activities that work for you so that you can practice self-care as you find time in a variety of environments.
Pursue activities that are therapeutic for you
When deciding how to care for yourself, think about what you enjoy and what kinds of activities give you a deepest sense of peace, relaxation, or accomplishment of self-care. It can be easy to get caught up in what self-care “should” look like through society’s perspective, but effective self-care is very individualized.
Make it a team effort
It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot lately— “We are all in this together.” But, the saying is particularly true especially for those who are working directly on COVID-19 response. Caring for others is one of those things you’re good at, and you can use that power to take care of your colleagues, and let them take care of you as well. The power and protection of your team is more meaningful now than ever, so rely on one another to help make self-care a priority. For example, help remind one another to take breaks as needed at work, and be there to process difficult calls with one another. If everyone buys in to self-care as an important part of the workplace, you can all help one another be accountable for everyone practicing good self-care.
In the third and final part of this blog series, we’ll share some ideas for self-care activities and why each might be effective for reducing stress.
April is Stress Awareness Month. Right now we’re all very aware of just how stressful life is, and for those providing any kind of services and response to COVID-19, it is an especially stressful time. When the calls are nonstop, the task list is endless, and the hours are long, that’s precisely when we tend to abandon our self-care so we can focus more attention on work—And that’s the exact wrong thing to do.
It is normal to approach self-care with skepticism. Not so much questioning its importance, but how realistic it is to achieve. The reality is none of us have the free time staring us in the face where we can easily focus on ourselves, the point is you have to make the time and commit to it.
Why is Self-care Important?
Be a more effective caregiver
As the flight attendant says, “In the event of an emergency, when the oxygen masks deploy, be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Why? Because if you pass out from lack of oxygen, not only do you suffer but those who needed your assistance can’t receive help either. You cannot be an effective caregiver to others if you yourself are suffering from excessive stress or burnout. And the way to avoid getting to the breaking point is to practice self-care along the way, and often, so that stress levels aren’t able to get to the point of breaking you and preventing you from truly being present for each client interaction you are tasked to handle.
Prevent physical and mental health problems
It’s not just about the health and well-being of the people you serve—your own health is put at risk when stress compounds and you neglect a self-care routine. According to numerous health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Canadian Public Health Association, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, American Heart Association, National Institute of Mental Health, and others, chronic stress can lead to several—sometimes serious—health conditions including:
- Digestive problems
- Problems sleeping/insomnia
- Weight gain
- Disruption to memory and concentration
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease and stroke
The American Psychological Association outlines the numerous, and very scientific, reasons that stress impacts your body from your brain to your muscles and everything in between. If you struggle with investing time in a self-care routine, think of it this way: If any of the conditions listed above develop as a result of chronic stress, you’ll end up spending much more of your time, resources, finances—and, ultimately undergo even more stress. Think of the old quote by Benjamin Franklin coined way back in 1736: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Maintain healthy relationships
When things are particularly hectic at work, coming home can be a welcome reprieve. But, left unmanaged, stress can create unrest in your household. Stress is contagious, and so your overall mood or tense demeanor could cause your partner, children, and others in your home, to experience similar symptoms. Stress can cause us to have a “shorter fuse” and lose patience more quickly, leading to bickering or blow ups. And, in this case, one of the scientific benefits of stress—increased vigilance—can make you hyper aware of the faults, annoying habits, and negative behaviors of those around you, again potentially creating more arguments and bickering. Effectively managing stress through self-care can help keep the peace.
How do I practice self-care?
In Part 2 of this blog series, we’ll look at the different ways one can practice self-care to relieve the symptoms and effects of stress.
Why Self Care Can Help You Manage Stress
The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain
Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior
The Effects of Stress on Your Body
Lower Stress: How does stress affect the body?
Mental Health – Coping With Stress
Stress effects on the body
5 Things You Should Know About Stress
How Stress Affects Mental Health
Is Stress Killing Your Relationship? Why You’re Not Alone
What are the effects of stress on a relationship?
Are you stressed?
DMAX Foundation has launched its “Everybody Has Stress Survey.” Tell us what stresses you out, how you cope, and who you talk to about it. Take our survey, and you can find out what others who have already taken the survey think AND you could have a chance to win: www.dmaxfoundation.org/survey
If you feel stressed, you are not alone. According to the American Institute of Stress, 73% of Americans regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. The definition of stress is hard to pin down, but most people associate stress with the negative thoughts and feelings it causes which can result in anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, anger, and difficulty regulating emotions.
What’s worse is that chronic stress can lead to serious chronic auto-immune diseases, hormonal imbalances, and weight gain. And what a cruel cycle this causes, as worry over health is the #3 largest stressor among Americans, after Job (#1) and Money (#2). Yes, stressing about your health can lead to illness, which will in turn increase your stress about health.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 70 percent of mental health conditions, including anxiety from stress, have an onset before age 24. Research reveals that over the past 12 months, 61% of college students have felt overwhelming anxiety, 39% have felt so depressed they can’t function and 12% have contemplated suicide. Yet college counseling services are often overburdened and understaffed. College students need alternative resources to help them with the difficult emotional concerns that late adolescence and young adulthood often bring.
DMAX Foundation is establishing DMAX Clubs on college campuses as trusting environments for students to have honest everyday conversations about mental health so they can understand and help each other. DMAX Clubs help reduce the sense of isolation and hopelessness for students who may be suffering from mental or emotional issues and can’t or don’t seek the help they need.
Do you know a college student who might be interested in a DMAX Club:
Starting a new Club at their college? Joining an existing Club at Penn State University Park, Temple, Drexel or Elon? Would you like to be involved with DMAX Foundation as a volunteer, donor or sponsor?
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.dmaxfoundation.org