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Prioritizing Self-Care During Stressful Times

Prioritizing Self-Care During Stressful Times

Al Waller: Stress is a natural response to a trigger or a difficult situation. However, not managing stress, by taking care of ourselves, or practicing “self-care”, can lead to issues with our mental and physical health. For instance, 44% of people who are not managing stress report often feeling anxious and depressed, according to a survey by Transamerica Institute1.

Welcome to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I'm your host, Al Waller. Joining me today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert, for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, and we will explore different ways to practice self-care during stressful times.

Before we get started – a reminder that we would love to hear from you and learn what topics you would like us to cover or give us feedback on this episode. Please drop me or Mihaela a note at [email protected].

Mihaela, it’s good to have you on the show.

Mihaela Vincze: It's good to be back.

Al Waller: So, let’s start with defining self-care— what is it?

Mihaela Vincze: I really loved the way the National Institute of Mental Health defined self-care, and that is “self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health”. When it comes to our overall health, self-care can help us increase our energy, manage stress, and stay healthy. For today’s episode, I’d like to dive into three self-care strategies that can help us do just that.

Al Waller: That’s great. Can you remind listeners why self-care is especially important during hard times?

Mihaela Vincze: Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “no mud, no lotus”. This is because the lotus flower is capable of growing in muddy conditions and can blossom above water into a visually stunning flower that seems to float on top. This beautiful flower is often viewed as a depiction of the human ability to overcome difficulty and rise above “the mud”. This representation is especially relevant to our mental health, where we often face significant challenges and struggle to maintain our emotional wellbeing.

Practicing self-care during stressful times is crucial to help us get through them. Keep in mind that self-care looks different for everyone, so find what works best for you and make it a priority—even when life gets hard.

Al Waller: Beautiful analogy about the lotus. And that makes sense— during times of stress, we should really prioritize self-care, yet it’s also the time we are most likely to neglect doing it … Can you talk about this more?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes— there’s a particular example that comes to mind. Have you ever been very stressed out over something? You know that you can’t handle that stressful thing during that evening, so you tell yourself you’ll take care of it in the morning. However, you’re now finding yourself tossing and turning and not able to fall asleep…

Al Waller: “Tossing and turning over stress never happens” …said no one ever! I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of saying “I lost sleep over this” when we’re stressed about something.

Mihaela Vincze: That’s right, and that’s because stress activates the body's "fight or flight" response, which prepares the body to respond to perceived threats.

Al Waller: ‘Fight or flight’ sometimes (unfortunately) lasts all night… Makes sense.

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, and then this “fight or flight” response releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase alertness, blood pressure, and heart rate, making it difficult to relax and fall asleep.

Al Waller: I’ve been there and done that too many times. This also makes sense.

Mihaela Vincze: And it’s precisely why it’s so hard to sleep. But can I say something that might sound obvious?

Al Waller: Go for it.

Mihaela Vincze: That’s when your body needs rest the most! Let me tell you, if you’re not resting when you’re stressed, your stress will often manifest itself as physical symptoms. Tension headaches, eczema, cold sores, neck and shoulder pain, even frequent colds or flu—are just a few conditions that may occur from stress.

Al Waller: That’s not good… None of what you just cited is anything I'd want in my life, and I'm sure I can speak for our listeners, as well. But also, what are people supposed to do? I mean, it’s really hard to sleep when you have a gazillion things on your mind.

Mihaela Vincze: I agree with you that it is. But that’s where my first self-care tip comes in. In order to improve your ability to rest, despite what’s happening in your personal life, I’d like to invite you to practice mindfulness and meditation. According to recent research by Transamerica Institute, only 21% of people practice mindfulness and meditation on a consistent basis. By taking some time each day to practice mindfulness and meditation, we can train our minds to become more relaxed and present, which can help us sleep better as well as feel more rested.

Al Waller: Can you talk about what mindfulness and meditation are?

Mihaela Vincze: Mindfulness is all about being in the present moment fully. It’s shutting off that inner voice that takes you out of the here and now. It can be cultivated through different practices—such as deep breathing, yoga, even meditation. Meditation, on the other hand, is a practice that focuses on training the mind to become calmer and more present. The goal of meditation is to quiet the mind, and it can be achieved through sitting in a comfortable position and focusing on your breath or on a “mantra”—a powerful statement you repeat to yourself.

Al Waller: So, by incorporating meditation and mindfulness, you can create a greater sense of calm and relaxation?

Mihaela Vincze: That’s right, and not only can this help you fall asleep, but it can also help you feel more rejuvenated when you wake up. This is very important for when we’re going through something challenging in our lives. There are some apps available that may help you get started and perhaps even begin a daily practice— Calm and Headspace are worth looking into.

Al Waller: What else will help us during hard times?

Mihaela Vincze: Let me answer that question with a question. During times of stress, have you ever found it challenging to stay connected with others?

Al Waller: Yes, I have found myself wanting to detach or withdraw and kind of do my own thing…

Mihaela Vincze: Well, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to take a breather. However, when individuals withdraw from social situations as a coping mechanism, that can lead to issues, and it can make the thing that we’re going through even harder to deal with. Staying connected with others can be an essential component of managing stress and maintaining mental health—and that’s my self-care strategy #2.

Al Waller: I’m sure some people are feeling overwhelmed by having to socialize during times of stress.

Mihaela Vincze: They might be…but it's important to remember that staying connected doesn't have to be in-person or involve large groups. Staying connected can happen through the phone or through text… These efforts can help maintain social connections and reduce feelings of loneliness— which can increase our feelings of wellbeing.

Al Waller: That’s powerful to know—and may be something I turn to the next time I am tempted to withdraw.

Mihaela Vincze: And maybe you’ll consider going out for an exercise class or a run with a buddy?

Al Waller: I could consider that.

Mihaela Vincze: Great, because that’s my self-care strategy #3.

Al Waller: Ah. Exercise. How does exercise play into self-care?

Mihaela Vincze: Stress from difficult times, can cause physical and mental exhaustion, making it difficult to find the energy to engage in physical activity. However, staying active can be an effective way to combat stress and improve mental health.

Al Waller: I am imagining that some listeners may find exercise hard to prioritize when they’ve got more pressing issues on their minds.

Mihaela Vincze: And they’re valid to feel that way. However, participating in regular physical activity, even in small increments, can help us release endorphins, reduce muscle tension, and improve mood. Finding an activity that is enjoyable can also help make exercise feel less daunting.

Al Waller: I guess playing racquetball when life feels pretty onerous isn’t such a bad idea. So, have you got any other suggestions – perhaps some reading materials we might want to pursue?

Mihaela Vincze: I have a couple book recommendations. "The Self-Care Solution" by Jennifer Ashton and "The Art of Extreme Self-Care" by Cheryl Richardson are wonderful books to check out.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also provides a self-care guide with tips for reducing stress.

Al Waller: I’ll have to check those out. Where can people turn to if they need help getting through an especially difficult circumstance that is interfering with their mental health?

Mihaela Vincze: A mental health professional can be helpful in that situation. Also, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides a helpline for people experiencing mental health concerns: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).

Al Waller: Thank you again, Mihaela, for providing listeners with some strategies to help them “rise above the mud”.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement.

You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

1“23rd Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey,” nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies (TCRS), 2022. TCRS is an operating division of Transamerica Institute.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.