Women, Stress and Self-Care – Val Steele
By Val Steele
There’s an old proverb which says, “A woman’s work is never done.”
Think about all the things you’ve done today…you might have cooked a meal for the family, ironed for an hour, driven the kids to soccer or netball practice, put out the garbage bins, in addition to a 7.5hour day in the workplace… Hand up if you feel exhausted!
As women, we are also expert multitaskers. We can talk on the phone while peeling vegetables. We can wash the dinner dishes while checking the kids’ homework. And of course, putting on lipstick while running out the front door.
But even for the woman who can do it all, life can be stressful.
There are those days, or months, when everything around you seem to collapse and you feel overwhelmed. When the custard spills on your freshly mopped kitchen ﬂoor. When the washing basket overflows with clothes. When your teenage daughter needs time for an essential mother-daughter chat as you rush to take your youngest child to the doctor’s surgery.
We become stressed from all the things we have to do in daily life. Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid stress altogether.
We ALL have stress. Some of it is a natural response to external happenings while the rest is self-imposed because of how badly we manage the demands in our lives!
Stress is defined as mental, physical or emotional strain, and a certain degree of stress is a normal part of the human experience. According to the 2015 Stress and Wellbeing in Australia Survey, 35% of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives.
Stress can be caused by pressure from external factors such as illness, family problems, financial strain, excessive work pressure and moving house. Enjoyable events such as holidays, starting a better job or being pregnant can also be stressful.
Stress releases hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These fight-or-flight chemicals are designed to aid the body in short-term emergencies. They increase the heart rate, elevate blood pressure, and boost sugar levels.
But prolonged stress is a serious health risk. Chronic stress keeps the body’s chemical switches turned on, often causing instability in many systems of the human body. Long-term stress is linked to depression, anxiety disorder, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, sleep disturbances, weight gain, memory loss and poor concentration. It can also weaken our immune system.
Stress often affects marriage and family life. When stressed, we’re more likely to shout at our children and spouses or push them away as our minds become preoccupied with the things that are stressing us.
As David Spiegel, a Stanford psychiatrist stated in Newsweek, “Living a stress-free life is not a reasonable goal. The goal is to deal with stress actively and effectively.”
Long-term stress can cause burnout when the body experiences physical and emotional exhaustion. Burnout causes you to be “out of control”, feeling trapped, experiencing extreme fatigue, anxiety, isolation, anger and depression.
You can’t overwork your mind, emotions or body and not eventually burn out. Burnout affects us all, Christians included. An Australian research article in 2009 showed around one quarter of church leaders experience burnout.
What can we do to prevent burnout?
We need to care for ourselves.
“Self-care” refers to anything we do to care and nurture ourselves, be it spiritual, social, physical, mental or emotional. Examples of self-care include gaining adequate sleep, having a healthy diet, spending time with understanding friends and participating in activities that encourage and refresh you.
Unfortunately, some Christians believe self-care is selfish or even sinful. They believe the Bible instructs us to be selfless and to serve others rather than to care about our own needs. In reality, if we initially care for ourselves then we are better able to serve those around us. Remember the adage, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you.”
In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
We are to love ourselves, coming to a reasonable acceptance of ourselves warts and all. It’s recognising that for all our faults, we are still women of value because God created us in His image and Jesus has redeemed us. That gives us worth which then causes us to care and nurture ourselves.
We have an increased ability to care for others when we maintain a regular sleep and exercise regime, eat nourishing meals, uphold personal boundaries and spend time cherishing ourselves.
If we’re stressed and overwhelmed, we don’t have the inner capacity to respond to others calmly, patiently and compassionately. We are not able to support another person because we are burdened and overwhelmed by our own load.
Scripture also shows that Jesus cared for His personal needs. On occasions, Jesus withdrew from the pressure and busyness of daily life, people and the demands of his ministry to be alone with the Father and pray. He recognised His needs and responded to them.
Jesus taught His disciples to follow this practice. Mark 6: 31-32 says: “Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to [the twelve apostles], ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So, they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place”
Even Jesus had limits and arranged to rest with his disciples.
Often in our need to meet others’ needs, we say yes to what the Father is not calling us to. This busyness sometimes causes us to feel overwhelmed and we break down under pressure and stress. We then feel ashamed at our failure to fulfil our own “perfect” standards of what a fruitful Christian looks like.
Think about taking a step back to smell the roses in order to allow your mind and body to rest and relax.
What are helpful self-care activities?
One way to self-care is to get to bed earlier. Many people are extremely sleep deprived but they fail to do anything about it. The less sleep you get the more your body releases stress chemicals which takes a toll on mood, energy, mental sharpness and ability to handle stress.
Sleep requirements vary but most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best.
2. Eat well
When your body fails to get the correct nutrition, you’re likely to feel tired and stressed. Ensure you prepare meals using vegetables, fruits, wholegrain cereals, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes and nuts to fuel your body and positively impact your health.
Be moderate in your intake of fast foods. The problem with an excessive intake of fast foods is that it leads to a diet containing too many unhelpful chemicals including fats and sugars. These in their own way add to the body’s stresses.
We need to exercise, even if it’s walking around the block. Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity is recommended at least three times a week.
The physical exertion burns up excess adrenaline, the main chemical in the blood stream associated with feelings of stress. With exercise, endorphins are released which improves mood and well-being.
Choose an activity you find enjoyable. You are more likely to continue doing something that you find pleasurable, especially if you find someone who will join you in your exercise program.
4. Leisure and recreation
Leisure and recreation bring balance and well-being to our lives. Fun and beauty help to alleviate many of the symptoms of stress and burnout and cause us to feel renewed.
Think about the things that bring you enjoyment. What about a massage, a coffee with a friend, attending a concert, smelling a perfumed rose, engaging in a craft or watching a beautiful sunset? The harmful effects of stress can be counteracted by spending even 20 to 30 minutes per day engaging in leisure or recreational pursuits.
5. Develop Healthy Relationships
We were made for relationship and we do not function at our best when we function alone. When we are isolated and lack friends, life’s pressures seem greater. Healthy relationships can reduce stress, allowing us to express our thoughts and emotions to a safe person who listens and provides support when life is difficult. Relationships also bring balance to life and ensure events are kept in the proper perspective.
Often single women experience loneliness in their singleness. If that’s you, it’s imperative to develop safe, trusting relationships with friends to avoid becoming physically and emotionally overwhelmed.
6. Establish Boundaries
Boundaries reflect how we love ourselves and what we value, even when we risk disappointing others. It’s knowing when we want to say yes and when we want to say no and where our needs begin and end.
Are you able to say No? Does saying Yes spring from a sense of guilt? Pleasing other people and following their demands is not what God expects of us. Remember, we don’t have to please people in order to feel good about ourselves.
When someone asks for something and you don’t feel you should undertake it, why not try saying, “Let me think about that for a bit and I will get back to you”. This reply gives you time to reflect on the request thoughtfully and carefully, before committing to it.
7. Be Still
Being still is one of the most powerful ways to reduce stress and to self-care. Psalm 46:10 tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God!” When we are still, we let go of movement and noise.
Consider how you can be still. Some might want to rest and re-establish a closer communion with God through meditation or prayer. Others might journal about stressful life events and their feelings. Research has found journaling reduces stress, improves coping ability and overall health.
When we rest, life can be evaluated and priorities established to avoid making unrealistic commitments and experiencing stress overload.
8. Ask for help
Part of self-care means allowing ourselves to feel uncomfortable or painful feelings such as sadness, loneliness or disappointment and taking care of ourselves while we feel this way.
And there’s no shame in asking for help. You might be able to gain support from a spouse, a friend or a co-worker but at other times you might need to seek out a trained counsellor.
Personal counselling is one way to develop self-awareness, explore the root cause of stress and see emotional wounds healed.
Stress is an ongoing issue that we all have to deal with. It is important to use self-care strategies in order to handle our daily pressures and to prevent stress impacting our physical and mental health.
Because we are all different, your version of self-care will be unique for you and different to others. Self-care for you might mean reading your Bible, having a long bubble bath, doing patchwork, watching a movie with a friend, visiting an art gallery, or a walk along a beach.
If you have tried some or all of the suggestions listed above and are still having difficulties dealing with stress, you may want to consider making an appointment with a counsellor who will be able to assist you to obtain a more peaceful frame of mind in the midst of a hectic life.
Check on Find a Counsellor for a counsellor near you who may be able to help.