Stress Management and Self-Care was originally published by the Oregon Society of CPAs.
Stress is an inevitable and even helpful part of life.
If we think of any of our joys, our successes, our wins, chances are there were stresses.
In order to celebrate being an official CPA you have to pass that scary test.
Closing on a house couldn’t happen until you went house hunting, made an offer, counteroffer, and then signed over a giant sum of money.
A long race involves training, preparation, fueling.
Stress is that little voice that tells you need to study, get home inspections, and stretch to prevent injury.
Stress is also our fight-or-flight response when we see a bear, smell smoke, or slam on the brakes to prevent rear-ending that Subaru on the highway.
What is stress? (The science)
Before we talk about stress management and self-care, let’s look at what we’re dealing with. What is it?The information (bear, for example) comes into the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala then interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This is when all the fun stuff happens — sweaty palms, pounding heart, you might find yourself breathing more rapidly. The Fitbit on your wrist might be yelling at you. Your focus narrows and your body prepares for whatever the task is at hand, often called the “fight-or-flight” response. Ideally, the stress passes, the cortisol drops, and your body and your brain return to baseline.
Where stress gets problematic is when it becomes all-encompassing, all the time, and bleeds into other parts of your life. Cortisol stays up, up, up — or you find yourself with a lot of “spikes” throughout the day. Essentially, your brain says there’s a bear, but you’re actually safe and things are okay.
How do we manage stress, then?
First, we do some reality checking. Is this stress/worry thought/anxiety real and/or likely to happen? Are you stuck in the past, maybe chewing on a recent interaction, or are you worried about things that haven’t even come to pass?
Next, we look at resources. Do you have time to prepare? What tools or people do you have in your life as you approach this obstacle? Have you handled similar situations in the past?
Finally, we look at the consequences, so to speak, of our stress. Is this stress impacting your ability to focus? Sleep? Engage meaningfully in relationships? Are you irritable or feeling hopeless? Can any of the above resources help?
Sometimes stress and overwhelm can be very simply managed by taking an appraisal of the situation and making a plan.
For stressful times or worries that are a bit more pervasive, let’s do some practical self-care.
Self-care: Physical health
While it may not feel directly related to the stressor at hand, our ability to handle situations mentally is directly impacted by how our physical health is doing. The loving, motherly, nagging things I first check are water intake, sleep hygiene, eating, and body movement.
The brain needs water, just like all your other organs. But for managing stress, even a little bit of dehydration can increase cortisol levels. It’s really easy to forget to drink water when you’re go-go-go and busy, but next time you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, try sipping a glass of water. The general rule of thumb for water intake is a half-ounce to an ounce of water per pound that you weigh.
Sleep is often one of the first things to suffer when someone is stressed, but also one of the best remedies. It’s the time when our brains and our bodies can recharge. Lack of sleep can certainly impact our stress levels, and prolonged sleep issues and sleep deprivation can even lead to impaired concentration, memory and judgement. To practice good sleep hygiene, try to aim (as an adult) for 7-9 hours per night of sleep and as consistent of a bedtime routine and schedule as you can. Keep an eye on caffeine and alcohol intake as they can heavily impact your REM cycles. Limit screens and blue lights for at least 30 minutes before bed to help your brain to calm down for sleep. Keep the room as cool and as dark as possible for beautiful, restorative sleep.
We want to be mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies and making sure that we’re nourishing ourselves. Stress and cortisol can actually shut down our hunger for a period of time. Among business owners, students, and general high-achievers, this is where we hear “I just forget to eat”. This becomes problematic if stress is rampant or if the cortisol keeps a-coming and a-coming. Then, when we do have a moment to be cued into our bodies and our need for fuel, we crave comfort. This is where foods high in fats, sugar, and salts often make an appearance, and sometimes in excess. Talking to a nutritionist about your unique needs can be helpful here, but some good rules of thumb are to try to make meals as doable as possible. If you don’t have time for bacon and eggs every morning a muffin and a banana in the car is just fine. Schedule your lunch into your day. Keep snacks you enjoy at the office and at home. And remember that vegetables are vegetables, even if you put a little bling on them (i.e., dressings or cheeses).
And finally, and very simply put: Move your body. This can be any joyful movement — dancing, walking, bicycling, hiking. Just thirty minutes a few times a week has an enormous impact of mood, as well as improving sleep and being good for overall health. Bonus points if you can go outside and get all the benefits of nature, too! No marathon training necessary.
Self-care: Get the thing done
Remember that self-assessment you did? It’s time to start looking at how we’re responding to situations and how we’re maybe even contributing to our stressful situations.
If you’re really great at prioritizing, amazing, but for some folks we need a little assistance so that instead of being bogged down in everything we can focus on what really needs to be done. First, make a list of everything that’s on your mind. I’m a huge advocate of the Urgent/Important matrix. When there is a lot of cortisol in our system, everything feels very urgent and very important. Work to identify what is really stressing you out and look at all your other to-do list items accordingly.
Then there’s the kicker — setting aside time to do it. This is a personal preference thing as I know some folks really do perform better under pressure and for others there can be a bit more planning and preparation. But for many, if the time isn’t set aside for it, it might not happen. Just like eating lunch and exercising — put it on your calendar! Choose a time when you know you operate pretty well. Set those phones to silent. Then, get stuff done.
This can easily be a whole article itself, because sometimes it’s not a project or a deadline that’s amplifying your stress, but rather a person in your life. Boundaries can be a tricky thing, particularly if people-pleasing is a common behavior for you. Very similar to the stress self-assessment we already discussed, this can be an opportunity to take stock of who is in your life and what kind of energy they bring (or deplete). Do you get tired after spending time with them? Do you dread the interactions? Can you be your authentic self around them? Can you talk to them about your stress? These questions can be illuminating for your relationships. If you need extra support, reach out to a therapist — this is hard work.
Self-care: Mental health tools
Finally, some simple tools added to your day can be helpful for managing stress.
Scheduling “Worry Time” in your day or week can be a great time to do a self-assessment and dedicate your brain to what’s stressing you out. The trick is once you’ve used up your worry time, you go on with life.
Journaling can be done during an established “Worry Time” or part of your overall self-care process. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a great way of clarifying your experience as well as an outlet for brainstorming and asking yourself questions. It’s also therapeutic to put your experience into an external outlet, creating a sense of distance from the situation that can be helpful for reflection.
Breathing exercises are one of the more cliché, but helpful stress management tools. When we’re stressed, we have a tendency to do shallow breaths into our chest. Focusing on belly breathing, for example, can help effective breaths get oxygen to your brain and the rest of your body. In through your nose and out through your mouth are generally best practices. Imagine doing a deep inhale to smell a bowl of soup, then through pursed lips, blow slowly on the soup to cool it down. The world of Google has many breathing exercises if you’re willing to try them out. Meditation, visualizations, and progressive muscle relaxation can all be helpful additions to breath work.
Accumulating positives is my favorite coping skill to teach. Simply put — sometimes if you can’t find the joy, you have to create it. Take a walk in the fall colors. Get a boba tea. Pet your dog. Have sex. Watch a comedy. Sometimes the best way to counteract stress is to try to balance it with the good stuff.
While stress is an inevitable part of life, it doesn’t have to be your entire life. This article is meant for educational purposes and doesn’t replace seeing a therapist, nutritionist, or a doctor. We all have a rough go of things sometimes, and reaching out for help doesn’t have to mean there’s something wrong with you. If you need support for stress management, that’s okay.