Since I was a boy, my body has been extremely sensitive and reactive to both physical and emotional stress. When my parents announced we were moving away from my hometown, my muscles tensed up so much I could barely use the bathroom for many days. Eventually I learned these health issues were a combination of a rare muscle tension condition and psychosomatic symptoms from my depressive-anxiety disorder.
Because my body usually felt like a car that had driven hundreds of thousands of miles — parts constantly requiring maintenance, always creaking, sputtering, or breaking down — I became a master of self-care. I spent hours every week making a conscious effort to heal and recuperate. This lifestyle was the only way for me to survive and function well enough to graduate from college and find employment. Whenever I neglected proper rest or pushed myself too far, new symptoms arose.
Self-care, however, is important for everyone. Your mind and body are connected in ways you might not be aware of. Stress is the signal that it is time to physically and emotionally tend to yourself. By heeding the call, you can live a happier life and lower your risk of developing health issues.
From someone who was forced to become an expert on self-care, here are some tips for nurturing your physical and mental health before stress takes its toll:
1. Make Time to Cry
After I started working with a therapist and finally treating my depression, I cried almost every night for about a year. Each time my body thanked me. My muscles relaxed and I was able to sleep a little better. The stress I had held in for so long dissipated with each tear. My mind felt increasingly clear.
Sadness and pain are not the only emotions we can cope with by crying. We also need to literally drain the stress from our bodies. According to several studies, crying can relieve stress, among many other health benefits.
Try to look past the stigma around tearing up, especially if you are a man. There is already enough pressure for us to hold in emotions.
“Crying is normal and nothing to be ashamed of,” therapist Sharon Martin told Medical Daily during an interview on the stigma surrounding shedding tears.
If you need to, find a place to be alone and watch or read something moving. When I was training my body to unleash the ocean of tears I had kept behind a dam for so long, I made a list of clips that had helped me let it all out. My favorites were the famous “It’s not your fault” scene from “Good Will Hunting” and a section of “Cannery Row” by John Steinbeck (the part where Doc beats Mac half to death for destroying his home).
2. Aerobic Exercise
Much like tears, sweat removes toxins from our bodies and reduces both the mental and physical impact of stress. Next time you feel a mass of pent up frustration beginning to negatively affect your body, go for a run. Each step and bead of sweat will bring you closer to a state of calm. Yoga is also a popular way to cope with stress.
Note: Read up on one of our therapist’s thoughts on dieting and weight loss.
3. Take a Hot Epsom Salt Bath
Epsom salt is one of those miracle substances I learned of while looking for methods to soothe my muscles. To treat aches and sores — related to stress or not — try heating up a bath and adding a little Epsom salt. Then take deep breaths, meditate and enjoy the relaxing sensations.
4. Get a Massage or Try Rolfing
Massages may be expensive, but it is worth occasionally paying for one. Your body might need help relaxing. Why not treat yourself at least once?
If you haven’t heard of Rolfing, here is a quick definition:
“Rolfing® is a system of soft tissue manipulation and movement education that organizes the whole body in gravity. Often considered a deep-tissue approach, Rolfing bodywork actually works with all the layers of the body to ease strain patterns in the entire system.”
The practice can alleviate chronic stress, according to a volume of research.
I stumbled upon Rolfing while seeking treatments to improve my muscle functioning, and it has been a lifesaver for me. The sessions are similar to massages, although the work is more intense and can be a little painful. I recommend Rolfing for people who want dramatic results and don’t mind spending more than they would on a massage.
5. Try Acupuncture
I know many people who swear by acupuncture, and I have paid for a few sessions over the years. Like Rolfing, it might do wonders for you if you don’t mind a little pain and discomfort. People typically use the alternative medicine to treat symptoms that can also be physical effects of stress, including aches and digestion problems.
6. Combine Self-Care with Psychotherapy
If I hadn’t worked with a therapist to understand how mental health affected my body, I would most likely have died during the worst of my depression, a time when I was unable to sleep for roughly four days. No matter the degree, all of us carry stress in our bodies. Mental health professionals have the skills and experience to help you understand the mind/body connection and learn to manipulate both sides of that equation.
7. Think About What Is Causing Stress in Your Life
Addressing sources of stress is as important as treating their physical effects. When your body gets tense or wound up, what are you usually thinking about? What happened before your body reacted? Is it your job, relationships, health, anxiety, maybe something else?
If you have trouble answering these questions, considering connecting with a therapist. A little therapy might provide valuable insights.
Remember that stress is like a crank that winds up our bodies. Tension increases until we can’t function as well as we would like. Use these tips to consciously reverse that process. Take care of both your body and mind.