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Prioritizing Self-Care: The Key to Stress Management
Self-care is a crucial part of managing stress. Regardless of the reasons for your stress, practicing self-care regularly will greatly improve how “stressed” you feel and how effectively you deal with the sources of your stress. It can also combat the negative physical and mental health consequences of stress.
Everyone needs to take some time out for self-care, but many people tend to put the needs of others ahead of their own. These people commonly include doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, and others whose job it is to focus on helping other people. This pattern is also common for parents and other caregivers, as well as for women in general (although many men are also unaware of their own needs).
The following tips can help you reduce stress by learning to take care of your own needs first, as only then will you be strong and healthy enough to truly be present and care for others:
1. You often don’t take care of yourself enough because you don’t pay attention to self-care. Just deciding to prioritize self-care will greatly benefit you and those around you. To get started, keep track of how much time each day or week you actually spend on self-care so you can be aware of how little time is spent on this. You may also want to put this time in red ink in a day planner or appointment book to give yourself a visual representation of how well you are (or aren’t) taking care of yourself.
2. Many people feel that when they relax they are “doing nothing”. On the contrary, taking time to relax is very important, regenerating and essential for physical and psychological well-being. Try to make sure you allow yourself some “down time” each day. If you find it difficult to relax without “doing” something, simply focus on taking slow, deep breaths or relaxing each of your muscle groups.
3. Getting enough sleep is essential to your well-being and should be a priority; without it, your mood and ability to handle stress are sure to suffer. A set of good sleep practices called “sleep hygiene” can dramatically improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. These practices include:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends) to help “set” your body’s clock to sleep when you want it to.
- Make sure your body is in good sleep condition when you go to bed. Minimize or eliminate the use of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol for several hours before bedtime. Don’t eat a big meal late at night, but also make sure you aren’t hungry when you go to bed, as this can disturb your sleep. Also, while regular exercise will improve your sleep and your ability to handle stress, try exercising in the morning so your body isn’t “revved up” when it’s time for bed.
- Try not to take any naps. If this can’t be avoided, make sure you nap before 3pm and don’t do it for more than 1 hour (20 minutes is ideal).
- Teach your body to sleep when it hits the bed by doing nothing else in your bed (eg, reading, watching TV, working, etc.). The one exception to this is sex.
- Make your bedroom as quiet and dark as possible. You may also want to invest in light-blocking shades, as the darker the room, the more melatonin your brain will produce and release; melatonin improves sleep quality, stabilizes sleep and also acts as an antioxidant.
- If you can’t sleep after about 20 minutes, get up and do something boring and non-stimulating (like read the dictionary) and go back to bed when you start to feel sleepy. Make sure you don’t turn on bright lights, as this will wake up your body. You can also take a warm bath, as the drop in body temperature that occurs after a bath signals the body to sleep. For this reason, your bedroom should ideally always be cool (slightly below room temperature).
4. Instead of getting out of bed each morning, take some time to face the day. Allow your mind to slowly and peacefully awaken and orientate itself, and prepare your body by doing some gentle stretching exercises. You may want to set your alarm a few minutes earlier so you have enough time to practice this kind of unhurried self-care. You could even just hit the “snooze” button one less time — spending 7 minutes getting ready for the day will help your mood and energy level a lot more than just 7 minutes of sleep would!
5. Make sure you are getting the right amount of vitamins and minerals (e.g. a daily multivitamin, fish oil, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B complex, etc.). Not giving your body the nutrients it needs can make you sluggish and less able to deal with the demands of your day. Consult your doctor regarding the specific vitamins you should be taking; also, he or she may want you to do some lab work to see if you have any existing deficiencies.
6. Take a brisk walk for at least half an hour every day. Regular exercise is good for cardiovascular and bone health and releases chemicals in your body that can improve your mood and decrease the amount of stress you feel. Also, fresh air and a change of scenery can be very beneficial.
7. In addition to the usual lifestyle recommendations of “getting enough sleep, nutrition, and exercise,” think of more creative ways to take care of yourself. For example, you can indulge in “pampering” activities like regular pedicures, manicures, facials, or massages; these services typically aren’t expensive if you only do them once a month, and the benefits to your well-being are priceless. You can also make activities that you really enjoy a regular part of your routine, like going to the movies, eating out at your favorite restaurant, etc.
8. Call a meeting with all of your family members to review household chores and other necessary household tasks. Discuss how often these various jobs need to be done and how long each task takes. Work together to divide household responsibilities equally so that everyone has an equal amount of time for chores, not necessarily the same amount of chores. This way, you can make sure that everyone also has the same amount of free time as possible. To avoid arguments about who should do what, you can keep a chart of this information on your refrigerator door.
9. Having adequate social support is absolutely necessary for mental health and stress management. Cultivate and foster good friendships or other relationships, and find at least one person you trust enough to talk to about anything. If you tend to act as a caretaker in most of your relationships, make sure you have at least one friend you can count on to take care of you.
10. Buy something new (not necessarily expensive) for your home or office, like a painting, plant, or music you like. Improving your environment is often overlooked, but feeling good about where you spend most of your time can go a long way in improving your overall mood and stress level.
(Many thanks to Noreen Keenan, PhD, who has generously provided some of the above information.)
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