When you look back on your journey toward well-being, you’re excited to see the fruits of your labor. You can cope with distress, your relationships are thriving, and you’re enjoying your life in ways you never thought possible. You’re optimistic about your future, because you believe you can have the life you want.
And then the unexpected happens. Life throws you a curveball in the form of a breakup, an illness, or a change in your work situation. Suddenly, the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings you thought you had left behind come rushing back. You begin to doubt your self-improvement. Was your healing just an illusion?
No, but it is being challenged. Here are a few dos and don’ts to help you hold onto your healing during times of increased stress:
Don’t punish yourself.
You’ve invested a lot of time learning how to help yourself, but current life events have halted your healthy regimen. Rather than acknowledging the stress you’re under, however, you blame yourself for the disruption in your routine. Unfortunately, berating yourself, isolating yourself, or treating yourself harshly may only make your suffering worse.
Do accept reality.
Recognize that revisiting old habits is a common response to stress. Most likely, the years you spent reacting in unhelpful ways still outnumber the years you’ve spent learning new habits. Your new way of coping and responding to stress isn’t as deeply ingrained yet, so it takes a little more effort to sustain when things are hard. To make matters worse, increased stress negatively impacts memory and learning. No wonder your healthy habits feel so far out of reach!
Don’t assume the changes you’ve made are concrete and invincible.
When you view your self-development this way, you might assume that if you’re not continuing to make progress—even during a stressful time—you must not be changing at all. This is called “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing” thinking, and it’s toxic to your self-growth. It keeps you from seeing the complexity of your situation and limits the choices you feel are available to you. You’re either healthy or unhealthy; you either move forward or you fall behind. These types of thoughts can paralyze you and fill you with shame.
Do offer yourself compassion.
The need to work harder to maintain your healthy habits does not negate how much you’ve grown. Remind yourself that your willingness to maintain your current state of health is admirable given the pain you’re experiencing. And remember that maintenance, rather than ongoing progress, is a reasonable, health-driven goal. It’s hard to operate at your optimal level when life gets difficult, so you have to approach yourself and your problems with open-mindedness. Set reasonable expectations about what you’re capable of when emotions overwhelm you or when you’re feeling exhausted. Be kind to yourself when you make a mistake, and give yourself encouragement when things go well.
Don’t give up when you have a setback.
Right now, coping and self-care might feel more challenging. Once you accept this, you can dial down the negative self-talk that only fuels the fire of your stressful experience.
Do get creative.
Recognize you’ll need a few more tricks up your sleeve to maintain your healthy habits when stressed. Think about the methods you used when you began your self-improvement journey. What helped you remember to practice your coping skills or to identify negative thought patterns? How did you prioritize your self-care, even when it wasn’t a habit yet? You could set a reminder on your phone to practice breathing or to check in with how you’re feeling. You could use a brightly colored sticky note as a visual cue to think about your goals or to become aware of your thoughts. When you allow yourself to be a beginner again, you can let go of unreasonable expectations and invent new ways to feel successful. You can see yourself as resourceful rather than helpless.
Don’t give yourself a complete pass.
Yes, you’re under stress, you’re hurting, and you’re tired. But you’re still responsible for how you treat yourself and others.
Do recognize the behaviors that cause you the most trouble. Are you impatient, angry, or self-abusive? Do you let go of self-care when you need it most? Once you’ve identified the areas that need the most attention, you can create a plan to address them. You can give yourself a reasonable goal to work toward and can begin to feel successful with each small victory.
You know life is full of ups and downs, but when hardship strikes, it can still feel like a shock to the system. With conscious effort, you can hold onto the self-soothing strategies, adaptive thought patterns, and loving self-image you’ve cultivated.
Don’t put yourself last.
You’re at the center of this painful experience, and how you respond to your personal needs can set the tone for how that experience impacts you. Putting your own needs on the back burner is like telling yourself you’re not important. That is the last thing you need right now.
Do prioritize self-care.
Make time to promote self-awareness and self-compassion. Make time to give your mind and body what they need. Think beyond “treating yourself” with a brownie or a day off from the gym. Think about nurturing yourself with nutrient-rich foods, vigorous or restorative exercise, and self-reflection through journaling or meditation. During times of stress, you may need more of one kind of self-care, or you may need more self-care overall, and that makes sense! Giving yourself what you need will help you maintain the foundation you’ve built. You won’t be able to stop the storm from coming, but you’ll have an anchor to keep you grounded.
Don’t think you have to do it alone.
Don’t think asking for help means the work you’ve done isn’t good enough. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that being healthy means you don’t need anyone’s support.
Do seek support from loved ones and healing professionals.
Human connection is vital to your well-being. When you feel like you’re drowning, important people in your life can help keep you afloat. When you need more than a good friend, a therapist can offer you the insight and perspective you need to stay on track.
You know life is full of ups and downs, but when hardship strikes, it can still feel like a shock to the system. With conscious effort, you can hold onto the self-soothing strategies, adaptive thought patterns, and loving self-image you’ve cultivated. Let this challenging time be part of the learning process in your journey to healthier living. Let it teach you how much you’ve already learned and how resilient you’ve become.
- DeName, K. (2015). Repetition compulsion: Why do we repeat the past? Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/06/29/repetition-compulsion-why-do-we-repeat-the-past
- Matta, C. (2013). Our brain on stress: Forgetful & emotional. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/05/06/our-brain-on-stress-forgetful-emotional
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