Article on practicing Self-Care in stressful times

Today I felt drawn to talk about self-care as it is something I have been exploring more in my life as a way to help me cope with increased levels of stress.

What is self-care?

Self-care is simply taking care of ourselves, every day, nurturing our well-being by listening to our deepest needs and responding in some caring and compassionate way. Self-care helps us look after our physical and mental health so we can cope better during stressful times.

For me any self-care practice starts with pausing, following the invitation of  the meditation teacher Tara Brach who asks us: what would it be like if right in the midst of all our busyness and stress we were to consciously take our hands off the controls?  What if we were to intentionally stop our mental computations and rushing around and, for a minute or two, simply pause and notice our experience?

What is a pause?
A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward any goal.
So in a pause, we simply stop whatever we are doing –talking, walking, writing, reading, planning, worrying, eating, arguing – and become wholeheartedly present, attentive and often physically still.
Pausing allows us to become aware of what is happening in us and around us.

It is necessary for us to pause in order to be able notice our stress levels. When we are stressed, the body gets into fight and flight mode, the survival brain is activated and the pre-frontal cortex shuts down. So it becomes harder to notice our experience in times of heightened stress. We tend to function and act on auto-pilot mode.

It is important to acknowledge that stress is something that is completely normal and part of life. It can come from many sources in our daily life: relationships, work, study, health, life changes, day to day activities, family, and even positive events like organizing a party can be stressful. Our thinking habits can also be a source of stress, if we spend a lot of time churning the negative and criticizing ourselves. So awareness of our thoughts is really important too.

Identifying our stressors is a key step in starting to handle stress more effectively. You could take a little moment now to reflect on the sources of stress in your life.

Sometimes we don’t even notice that we are stressed until symptoms begin to appear. Common symptoms of stress are: irritability, moodiness, anxiety, worrying, disrupted sleep, headaches, upset stomach and changes in appetite, more susceptible to colds and slower recovery, chest pains, increased blood pressure, rashes … Our health is directly impacted due to the physiological changes that take place in our body when we are chronically stressed. Our relationships start to suffer, our work performance, and our overall sense of well-being.

The first step towards better self-care is to pause even if it seems like the last thing we can do. Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. When we are filled with anger, overwhelmed by anxiety or filled with panic, pausing seems entirely counter-intuitive.

Yet we need to pause in order to open to the actual experience of the present moment. Through the sacred pause we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our experience, even when it is difficult or painful.


What happens during the pause – During the pause, we can start to get in touch with our vulnerability in a caring and compassionate way. We can begin to trust our natural intelligence, our natural wise heart, our capacity to open and respond wisely and lovingly to whatever arises. By pausing we awaken from our trance, we interrupt the auto-pilot and move into presence.

It is completely normal to fall back into autopilot, when our particular place of insecurity or vulnerability is touched. At these times of increased stress, we feel that we have no choice as to what we feel, think, say or do. So we go on autopilot, and react in our most habitual way to defend ourselves. But these behaviours only fuel our stress and suffering and stop us from attending to the parts of ourselves that most need our attention.

During the pause we learn to face and feel those deep places of vulnerability, we free ourselves to respond to our circumstances in ways that bring genuine peace and happiness.

It allows us to see clearly the stressors that are driving us. During the pause, we become fully conscious of how these stressors are impacting on us, and how we are reacting to situations and people. We then have a choice on how we respond: we can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can get in touch with our vulnerability with care and compassion.

After the pause

After the pause, we resume our activities with increased presence and more ability to make choices. When we pause we don’t know what will happen next, but by disrupting our habitual behaviours we make it possible for us to respond to the stressful situation in new and creative ways.

We can tap into whatever activity, gestures or words might be most caring and nurturing for us in this moment, and we can start to meet this need in us.

For example:

  • Spend a little time every day doing something that you really enjoy, it could be anything like baking, gardening, reading a novel, watching a sunset, listening to music or playing a musical instrument, playing with your pet or your children.
  • Practice relaxation: maybe do some gentle yoga before starting your day, listen to a guided meditation at bedtime, visualise a safe peaceful space in your mind and imagine spending time there. Practice the body scan every day to release accumulated tensions.
  • Take some quiet time out for yourself, away from your usual demands, even if it is only for 15 minutes a day. You could simply sit and meditate (watching the breath for instance), or have a bath, have a cuppa and watch out through the window, enjoying the simple pleasure of doing nothing and simply being
  • Be kind to yourself: as you know a compassionate and generous attitude towards yourself will support you through difficult times. Be aware of the self-critical voice within and practice self-compassion instead
  • Cultivating the good in your life: having a gratitude practice, or a joy practice, turning your mind towards what is going well in your life, these practices engage the parasympathetic system and the relaxation response. Smiling and laughing often.
  • Connect regularly with your friends and family
  • Get some regular exercise, even a 10 minute walk every day is beneficial to reduce your stress levels
  • Eat a nutritious balanced diet and avoid consuming too much caffeine and sugar. Include treats in moderation, have fun with your diet.
  • Get good quality sleep – good sleep hygiene, go to bed at the same time each day, switch off electronics one hour before going to bed so you have plenty of time to wind down, listen to a guided relaxation if you have trouble letting go of the day
  • Plan something to look forward to, for example a holiday, day trip or outing with friends or family

The pauses in our life make our experience meaningful: we need them. The sacred pause helps us reconnect with the present moment, especially when we are caught up in striving and obsessing, leaning into the future, pausing enables us to re-enter the mystery and life only found here and now, and it helps us to “keep our appointment with life”, as the Zen monk and mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says so poetically.

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