6.5 Self-Care Strategies
– Kristi Ling, happiness strategist
Questions to consider:
- What does self-care mean to you?
- How do mindfulness, gratitude and other relaxation techniques encourage emotional health?
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Understand self-care
- List healthy ways of managing stress and self-care strategies that suit your lifestyle
As discussed in the previous section, stress is not always bad. In fact, some stress is helpful. Good stress is stress in amounts small enough to help you meet daily challenges. It’s also a warning system that produces the fight-or-flight response, which increases blood pressure and your heart rate so you can avoid a potentially life-threatening situation. Feeling stressed can be perfectly normal, especially during exam time. It can motivate you to focus on your work, but it can also become so overwhelming you can’t concentrate. Therefore, it is important for students to manage their stress level and practice self-care.
What is Self-Care?
World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider”.
WHO further asserts that self-care is broad concept which encompasses hygiene (general and personal); nutrition (type and quality of food eaten); lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure, etc.); environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.); socioeconomic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.); and self-medication. Fundamental principles for self-care include aspects of the individual (e.g. self-reliance, empowerment, autonomy, personal responsibility, self-efficacy) as well as the greater community (e.g. community participation, community involvement, community empowerment).
As a college student, there are many ways for you to practice self-care and to manage stress. Take a look at some of the ideas below.
Mindfulness and Gratitude
Deep breathing, mindfulness, and a practice of gratitude are some of the most effective ways to manage stress and take care of your emotional health.
— Rick Hanson, author, Resilient
Mindfulness means being present with your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness is also without judgement—meaning there is no right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.18
Anything that keeps you present in the moment and gives your prefrontal cortex (the reasoning and thinking part of your brain) a break is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can be a slow walk; looking intently at the grass, trees, flowers, or buildings; and being aware of what you are sensing and feeling. Mindfulness can be sitting quietly—even sitting still in a quiet place for as little as a few minutes can reduce heart rate and blood pressure.
Developing a practice of mindfulness is easier than you may think:
- Slow down. From brushing your teeth, to washing your face, to shampooing your hair—can you take the speed out of getting ready in the morning? Focus on the activity, pay attention to what you are doing, stay present (this means don’t think about what happened last night or what’s in store for the day, just stay focused on the activity), and take your time.
- Focus on your breath. How fast are you breathing? Is your breath coming from your chest or your belly? Can you feel the air come through your nose on the inhale? Can you slow down the exhale? Can you feel your body relax when you slow the exhale?
- Connect to your environment. Walk for a few minutes, focused on the world around you—look at the leaves on the trees or the light at the corner, listen to the sounds around you, stay with your surroundings, and observe what you see and hear around you.
When people hear mindfulness they often think meditation. While meditation is one method of mindfulness, there are many others that may be simpler and easier for you to practice. Deep breathing helps lower stress and reduce anxiety, and it is simple yet very powerful. A daily mindful breathing practice has been shown to reduce test anxiety in college students. A 2-4-6-8 breathing pattern is a very useful tool that can be used to help bring a sense of calm and to help mild to moderate anxiety. It takes almost no time, requires no equipment, and can be done anywhere:
- Start by quickly exhaling any air in your lungs (to the count of 2).
- Breathing through your nose, inhale to the count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 6.
- Slowly exhale through your mouth to the count of 8.
This is one round. Do not repeat the quick exhale again. Instead start round two with an inhale through your nose to the count of 4, hold for 6, and exhale to 8. Repeat for three more rounds to relax your body and mind.
With practice, 2-4-6-8 breathing will become a useful tool for times when you experience tension or stress.
Too often people think it is the external factors that bring us joy and happiness, when really it’s all related to internal work. According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, “Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant.”
A healthy emotional self-care practice is to take note of good experiences or when you see something that makes you smile. Think about why the experience feels so good. According to Rick Hanson, author of Resilient, “Each day is strewn with little jewels. The idea is to see them and pick them up. When you notice something positive, stay with the feeling for 30 seconds. Feel the emotions in your whole body. Maybe your heart feels lighter or you’re smiling. The more you can deepen and lengthen positive experiences the longer those positivity neurons in your brain are firing—and the longer they fire the stronger the underlying neural networks become. Repeat that process a half dozen times a day and you’ll feel stronger, more stable and calmer within a few weeks.”
Other Relaxation Techniques
Different relaxation techniques can be used to help minimize stress. Following are a few tried-and-tested ways to relax when stress seems overwhelming. You can learn most of these through books or online exercises. Practicing one of them can have dramatic effects.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. With this technique, you slowly tense and then relax the body’s major muscle groups. The sensations and mental concentration produce a calming state.
- Meditation. Taking many forms, meditation may involve focusing on your breathing, a specific visual image, or a certain thought, while clearing the mind of negative energy. Many podcasts are available to help you find a form of meditation that works best for you.
- Yoga. Yoga focuses on body position and slow, gradual movements are popular techniques for relaxation and stress reduction.
- Relaxation music or audio. Many different relaxation techniques have been developed for audio training. Simply play the recording and relax as you are guided through the techniques.
- Massage. Regular massages are a way to relax both body and mind. If you can’t afford a weekly massage but enjoy its effects, a local massage therapy school may offer more affordable massage from students and beginning practitioners.
The following video features a progressive muscle relaxation meditation for you to try. There are many many others available on YouTube and elsewhere.
Video: Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation
To Access the Video Transcript:
1. Click on “YouTube” on the bottom-right of the video. This will take you directly to the YouTube video.
2. Click on the More Actions icon (represented by three horizontal dots)
3. Click on “Open Transcript”
Please check out our College self-care resources if you are having difficulty managing your stress.
Below is an example of a stress toolkit filled with a variety of stress-coping tools to help you navigate any stressful situation. Why don’t you build your own stress toolkit?
- Take a look at some of the suggested tools for your stress toolkit.
- Which ones have you tried? Have they been effective in helping you manage stress?
- Ask two friends or family members about their favorite stress-management strategies. What has worked for you and others that is not on this list?
- Identify two new tools you would like to explore and articulate how you will determine if they work for you, and then you can confidently add them to your stress toolkit.
Type your key takeaways here.
Image Long Descriptions
Figure 1: Table titled “Build a Stress Toolkit”. The table is a list of stress-coping tools. The tools are “Practice self-compassion”, “Eat clean food”, “Mindfulness such as Meditation, Deep Breathing (2-4-6-8), A walk in nature”, “Exercise/Movement such as Yoga, Tai chi, Dance, HIIT, Run/Spin/Lift”, “Epsom salt baths”, “Hugs”, “Laugh with friends”, “Listen to music”, “Drink calming tea”, “Watch a funny movie”, “Write in a gratitude journal”, “Change phone screen to this picture”, “Change passwords to calming words”, “Keep something in your backpack that reminds you to take a deep breath every time you see it”.
Attributions and References
This chapter adaptations from:
World Health Organization (WHO): Sexual and Reproductive Health
Dillon, D. (2021). Blueprint for Success in College: Indispensable Study Skill and Time Management Strategies. Pressbook.
Book URL: https://press.rebus.community/blueprint1/
Section URL: https://press.rebus.community/blueprint1/chapter/52-stress/
License: CC BY: Attribution
College Success (2022). OpenStax.
Book URL: https://openstax.org/details/books/college-success
Section URL: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/11-3-taking-care-of-your-emotional-health
License: CC BY: Attribution