Beat Stress and Improve Your Mental Health With Simple Self-Care

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Guest Blog by Brad Krause

How often do you hear someone say “I’m stressed!” — and how often is that person you? We lead such busy lives that feeling stressed has almost become a fact of life. Stress is a normal response to anything that is different, whether bad or good, but stress becomes a problem when it leads to poor physical and mental health. However, making time for basic self-care can help you get a handle on stress for a healthier, happier life.

 Even though some stress is normal, we can often prevent it by making regular self-care a priority. Psychology Today describes self-care as mindfully paying attention to yourself “in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you.” Below are a few of the best self-care practices to prevent and manage stress better.

 Check in with Your Body

 Do you ever have a pounding headache, and when you stop to think about it, you realize you’re thirsty or hungry? Self-care involves checking in with yourself so you realize when you need food or water, when you need rest, or when you have sore muscles or tension.

 This is why muscle relaxation is an important part of self-care. Caring for sore muscles releases that tension, which is especially important if you’re on your feet a lot or work out regularly. Pay special attention to tired feet because they are the foundation that allows you to do other activities. Getting a foot massage is great, but when you don’t have the time or money for professional massage (the average cost of an hour-long massage is $60), at-home foot massagers are ideal.

 Unwind to Improve Your Sleep

 Being stressed can really make it hard to get a good night’s sleep, but at the same time, being well-rested is key to warding off stress. To stop this vicious cycle, find a bedtime routine that helps you unwind at night so you can get the sleep you need. According to Shape, it’s important to make relaxation your primary goal, rather than sleep. If you’re trying too hard to sleep, rather than relaxing, the ensuing anxiety can actually keep you awake.

 Find Ways to Work Out

 These days, you can’t go anywhere without running into one article or another that touts the many benefits of staying in shape. Thankfully, you don’t need to do a lot to keep your body healthy. For example, taking a walk once a day through your neighborhood can provide you with a lot of healthy exercise, especially if you’re not the type who enjoys working out. So, look for ways to incorporate light to moderate exercises into your daily routine. This might involve joining a gym — seniors enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan have access to SilverSneakers fitness centers — or joining a group of friends for an impromptu yoga session. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something you enjoy so you’ll stick with for the long term.

 Use Relaxation Techniques

 Sometimes, the best way to relax is to dedicate a few minutes to using relaxation techniques. There are several types of relaxation techniques you can try, including deep breathing, guided imagery, meditation, and progressive relaxation. You may want to add one of these to your bedtime routine, but they can also be done throughout the day. And don’t wait until you’re in maximum stress mode — these can be both preventive and restorative.

 Turn to Nature for Self-Care Staples

 Using natural remedies and supplements in your everyday life can do wonders at keeping stress from overwhelming you. One of the most relaxing ways to use natural remedies is to have a cup of warm tea, such as lemon balm, valerian root, or chamomile. Using essential oils is another easy way to incorporate natural remedies into your routine. Diffuse lavender oil in your home or car, and add it to a bath whenever you have the opportunity.

 Cope with Stress Proactively

 Coping with stress in a healthy way is a very important form of self-care. Our mental health suffers when we let stress add up without dealing with the underlying problems. The best way to do this will be different depending on the situation. It often helps to put the problem into perspective and remember similar situations you’ve gotten through in the past. Sometimes, we end up feeling stressed because of overcommitment. It can be hard saying no, but when you do, you free up time to do more of what brings you joy.

 Another way you can cut down on stress in your life is to simplify your surroundings. If your home is filled with clutter or items you no longer need, you can get rid of those possessions and eliminate some of the anxieties in your daily life. What’s more is you can take some of those items and sell them on the second-hand market, which has exploded in recent years. So, take stock of the items you can part with, decide which need to head to the trash and which could make you some money, and start eliminating some of that stress. Take your decluttering efforts even further by hiring a cleaning service to give your home an intensive cleaning. In Cambridge, these services will likely cost you $116 to $244, but it’s well worth the cost.

 Self-care is about doing simple things on a daily basis to put your needs first, and sometimes that means saying no to things that don’t fit into that equation. Whatever we have going on, everyday self-care is essential for better mental health. Stress will always happen, but self-care can keep it from taking over our lives.


Photo credit: Unsplash

Accepting & Managing Stress as a Normal Part of Life

Stress is necessary for life. Tension is how the body and the world work together and don't fly apart - literally. Stress sharpens our focus and improves our functioning when at a balanced level; when we use it instead of fighting it.

While stress and tension are necessary and valuable, too much stress and tension can be destructive to our mental and physical health and well-being. The goal in life often seems to be to get to a place where one can live "without stress." [see Kelly McGonigal, PhD, "The Upside of Stress"] This place of a totally non-stressed existence is not humanly attainable. Even the most privileged among us has stress; will I get sick, will it rain on my day out, can I take time off, how will I ever retire, will I feel loved, etc. To care about anything in life--including yourself--is to be open to stress, tension, and worries. If you care, you will feel stress. Some people have worked and do work hard to let go of caring about anything at all in life as a way to reach a sort of care free life. Even efforts to let go of attachments to material and emotional "things" requires a lifetime of awareness and continual effort to learn the skill of letting go of tension and stress. This continual practice of letting go of attachments takes effort; even the pathway to "enlightenment" is fraught with stress. While elimination of all stress is not possible while staying alive, it is possible to reduce stress and the negative outcomes of feeling too much stress. It helps us to have a realistic goal for accepting the presence of stress and managing our responses (resistance) to the stress in our lives.

If you are feeling stressed, notice and accept how you are feeling - no judgment - just notice and even name that you feel overwhelmed. Resisting stress or denying it (i.e., ignoring it or pretending it isn't there) actually make the stress worse and the negative effects on your health increase. In a sense, fighting against the stress is like playing tug-o-war with it. The harder you resist the harder the stress pulls and the greater the tension and exhaustion. At some point you are going to fall face first into the mud pit or fly backwards when the rope snaps from all the tension. Why not refuse to start the tug-o-war? What if you could notice that your stress was there taunting you with a rope and a mud pit and instead of taking up the gauntlet, you just nodded to it and kept on walking--kept on living--acknowledging stress is there while choosing to disengage from the struggle. This lack of resistance to stress leaves space and energy to engage in calming yourself and taking actions that reduce the impact of stress and maybe even removes some sources of stress. Consider that in time and with lack of attention, the stress relaxes, or even changes to enable you to keep balanced instead of pulling you off balance. How can you make stress your partner instead of your opponent?

Here are a few ways you can notice your stress sitting there waiting for you to resist, grabbing the tug-o-war rope, and instead invite the stress to work with you to be more effective in creating the life you want. You can be creative using stress instead of stressed out.

Some common feelings pointing to stress and an action to use the stress to motivate you and leverage you away from the negative aspect of stress include:

-Threatened (take action to generate courage and do something empowering)
-Anxious/nervous (make use of the energy to focus)
-Overwhelmed (help someone else)
-Like an Fraud or Imposter (step back and observe yourself from an outsider view without judgement of deflecting your strengths and talents)
-Defeated (observe and learn from the situation)
-Incompetent (take a break and do a small task you are good at, then return)

See the stress and then re-frame the stress into a thought or action that moves you forward using the stress as a motivator and not resisting the stress. If the stress you feel wakes you up early, instead of lamenting the "lost sleep," get up and use the stress-driven energy to do some creative work, to clean the kitchen, to take a walk, meditate, exercise, or do something else productive or pleasant to you (self-care). Consider the extra time you are alert that you might typically be groggy and unfocused as a gift, not a curse, and use that gift of extra focused time to tackle something you need or want to do.

My father used to wake us up at 2AM for family trips. I came to enjoy the very early morning preparations to get on the road so that we could all relax and start enjoying the trip all the sooner. I believe it was how he productively dealt with the stress of planning a family vacation with four children. He got moving with that stress-energy as a collaborator for focus and planning instead of becoming stressed out. Stress can be contagious. If he had given in to the tug-o-war of resisting stress, the whole family would have been stressed out and the trips would have been angry, grumpy, angst-filled brawls for hours instead of magical times of dozing to the rythymic sound of tires on pavement, watching the stars out the windows, and the rising sun -- something as children we really did not typically see since we were in bed early and up after sunrise. His creative use of his stress around family trips for 6 people meant that we were all excited and eager to help. We all caught his excitement instead of his stress and his stress management reduced his own and all our stress.

When we use stress as a collaborator instead of an enemy, we also retrain our response to stress and we begin to anticipate the extra energy from stress instead of dreading the normal stress that comes with life. We learn to have a positive approach to stress and to expect it to work with and for us, not against us. Support instead of sabotage. We, in turn, feel better about our abilities and capacity and we become more positive and effective people to work and live with. We see possibility instead of catastrophe and our hope becomes contagious to others through our vision and confidence from using and managing stress effectively.

The most common sources of stress reported in the US adult population are worry about finances, employment, and the national climate (e.g., politics & perceived or real threats to our society or country).

Ways people might manage daily stress include:

-exercise/movement-walking, etc. (even just 5 minutes)
-Yoga or stretching
-meditation or prayer
-short intentionally planned regular breaks (10-15")
-crying (expressing sad, upset emotions)
-one minute of deep breathing
-playing a game (table or active)
-talking with a good and calming friend
-singing/music (expressing strong emotions, activity that lifts or soothes the mind/soul, listening or playing music that you feel connected to in any way)
-reassess and reduce things planned - simplify!
-rituals (shower, soaking, coffee/tea break, reading)
-show generosity and empathy for another
-keep a gratitude/smile journal & review it routinely
-read relaxing/positive/uplifting statements
-release the worries - write it down and throw it away, shred it, burn it, etc.
-creative writing/journaling
-radical acceptance of what's happening now - choose the moment/pathway you have in front of you without apathy or approval - lean into the moment instead of fighting it
-positive “I” statements/reminders of who you are being and want to be
-make a short list of important tasks and organize them by priority or relevance in the next 3-5 years
-Make something creative or crafty
-use soothing scents
-feel running water, soak your hands, feet, or body
-watch fish swimming or a fireplace (or candle) burning

For more tips on managing stress in a helpful way read, Kelly McGonigal's book, "The Upside of Stress"

Locating OTHER Mental Health Professionals and Clinics

No one therapist or clinic can meet everyone's needs. If you are in need of locating mental health services at clinics or with individual providers who fit more closely what your needs are or who may accept your insurance or possibly offer reduced-fee services, you can look for options using the below numbers or websites. People with insurance may wish to contact their member services to request a list of providers who are contracted to provide services for the insurance carrier's members.

It is ALWAYS a good practice to contact any provider and talk to them before deciding who is the best fit for your your needs and situation. This list does not in any way imply or promise that any providers located using these resources will be the best option for your needs. Hopwood Counseling & Consulting offers this minimal list as a courtesy only.

This is not an exhaustive list.

Fenway Health Behavioral Health: 617-927-6202

HelpNet Inc: 800.652.0155

National Association of Social Workers of Massachusetts: 617.720.2828

Psychology Today Therapists:

Trans Care Resource Site:

The Meeting Point: 877-207-8479

The Danielsen Institute: 617-353-3047

How do you find a therapist in Cambridge, MA?

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Finding a therapist is a deeply personal process. It is most important to find someone you feel safe talking to and who is able to support you as you explore your concerns and plan your pathway to create a life you are passionate about; a life in which you flourish; a life where you are able to express your most authentic self and experience spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being.

Finding a therapist

When you are ready to find a therapist, most people do not know how to start looking. Many people wait until the last moment to look when everything else has failed to help them feel better and nothing is helping them create the lives they want to be living. This makes is difficult to search thoughtfully and to be selective in who you choose to work with.

Some people start by typing "therapist" and "Cambridge, MA" into a web search bar. That might find large numbers of options for anything including physical therapists, massage therapists, mental health professionals. Each listing would need to be reviewed and there are usually links to the websites to learn more about the person or business listed. Listings may or may not be up to date and accurate.

Some people might search on the Psychology Today website for listings of therapists. You can narrow searches on that site to special skills or interest areas (LGBT, men's issues, religion, etc.), gender of therapist, location, insurance or self-pay options, sliding scales, type of license (psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, etc.). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) also has a search site for people looking for therapists. Many mental health professional organizations have such sites (e.g., American Psychological Association-APA; American Counseling Association-ACA; American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists-AASECT, and so on).

Sometimes, people can call the member services assistance number on their health insurance card for guidance on what therapists participate in their health plans, or take their insurance. Sometimes the member services people are able to make suggestions based on specific areas that you want to get help with if the therapist has listed their specialties with the insurer. This may be the best way to find therapists who are able to see you using your insurance benefits along with your expected co-payment for each session. Usually there are some limits on how many sessions anyone gets during a year depending on the reason you are seeking supports. Only your insurance carrier customer services people can answer these questions about your specific plan.

Other people might ask friends, community members, co-workers, religious leaders or family members. There is no right or wrong way to find possible people to contact. At times, after a consultation, one therapist may give you references to contact other therapists who might be a better fit.

What we know from years of research and talking with people who have used therapy to support them in personal growth and reaching or retaining a sense of well-being in their lives is that it is the felt connection to the therapist that makes the most difference in whether a person is able to benefit from their treatment. For this reason it is vital that you talk to more than one potential therapist and figure out who you feel you can be the most open and honest with. Who might feel like the best fit for your needs at this moment when you are seeking support? The therapist will also be looking for the best fit between their skills and training and the person seeking support. Sometimes this means that there is a personal sense of comfort with the therapist, however, they do not have the skill or expertise to provide the type services you need. It is very important to tell the therapist in the consultation or first visit exactly what the issue is that you are seeking support to resolve and how you believe they may help you. Mental health professionals have an obligation not to attempt providing care in areas where they are not trained, experienced, or supervised to learn the skills needed unless it is the most unusual of circumstances and there are no other options. In a city the size of Cambridge and in an area the size of this metropolitan region with over 4 million people, it is unlikely that there is no therapist available who has both the skill and the expertise to support whatever your specific needs are at this time.

Not all therapists work for a non-profit organization. Many work on their own, operating their own single or small group businesses. Being a therapist is a job and running a private practice is a business just like many other businesses. Some private practices and small group therapy offices do take insurance and some do not. Some will accept fees below their full costs (sliding scale fees) and some do not. It helps to know ahead of time what you are willing to invest in your mental health treatment with a therapist so that you know whether you can afford to work with a particular therapist if they do not accept payments from your insurance plan. For those who may find it difficult to pay out of pocket for therapy, there are many non-profit organizations in the area where greatly reduced rates are often available and where people can get assistance to enroll in financial supports when needed. These are most often found in large health care settings such as hospitals, primary care agencies, and community health care organizations.

Start asking around and searching a few different ways. Explore what leads you get. It is possible there may be overlapping names that come up. That is one way to narrow down who to contact first. Until you begin to look, you cannot find the support you need. Take action today to start reaching your goals for well-being and wholeness.