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Why Stress Management is Important: Self-Care Tips That Anyone Can Put into Practice

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Due to the emotional nature of their jobs, social workers and nurses can be especially susceptible to the negative mental and physical effects of stress. During National Stress Awareness Month, tackle stress head-on with a number of practical self-care methods.

To a certain degree, everyone experiences stress: we feel nervous meeting with a job interviewer, have anxiety about making it to an appointment on time or feel ourselves holding our breath while watching a tense basketball game. These are all normal, everyday stressors.

However, many people suffer from more severe or long-term stress, which can have damaging effects on one’s mind, body and personal relationships. April is National Stress Awareness Month and USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Clinical Professor Murali Nair and Clinical Associate Professor Kim Goodman share their insights on the importance of stress management, and how stress can be alleviated through a few mindful self-care methods.

What are the Different Kinds of Stress?

Social workers and nurses are at particular risk for compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress (STS). As Nair writes in his 2013 book, Evidence Based Macro Practice in Social Work, this stress can stem from a number of factors, such as role ambiguity, overload (or underload) of work, contradictory expectations, poor preparation or an overly laid-back atmosphere.

“Different from burnout, which occurs over time, STS can result from exposure to particularly stressful or traumatic experiences at any one point in time. Those who are new to the professions are at greater risk for STS because they often have not had the time or experience to develop effective coping mechanisms for the types of pain or suffering we can be exposed to on a daily basis,” says Goodman.

“Instead of isolating when we experience compassion fatigue or STS, it should serve as an alarm bell,” says Goodman. “We should recognize that we need more supervision and more self-care to be able to cope with the stressors we’re experiencing.”

Why Stress is a Real Health Issue

In small doses, stress is not necessarily detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing. “We all need a little stress in our lives, or else we won’t get up in the morning and complete our daily tasks,” says Nair. “But we do need to create awareness surrounding the threats of chronic stress.”

If not properly managed, stress can take a serious toll on our physical health. Longitudinal studies have shown that sleeplessness, migraine headaches, weight gain, irritation and lack of concentration are just a few of the potential side effects of long-term stress. What’s more, these harmful effects can fan out and have a more serious effect on one’s physical and mental health.

“Chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, low tolerance levels and interpersonal relationship challenges,” says Goodman. There is also a connection between stress and potentially life-threatening health issues like diabetes and heart disease. “When we’re under stress, sometimes we cope negatively in the social sphere—whether by smoking, drinking, using drugs or engaging in other high-risk behaviors—all of which can be connected with devastating health outcomes,” she says.

Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

One of the best ways to combat stress, large or small, is by practicing effective self-care.

The caregiving nature of social work and nursing may inhibit many professionals’ abilities to set boundaries and prioritize their own wellbeing. According to Goodman, social workers and nurses often see caregiving as a central part of their identity. However, in the midst of caring for clients, patients, friends, family, parents or children, they often forget to care for themselves. Self-care is a critical component in relieving stress and attending to one’s overall health needs, whether mental or physical.

Many social workers and nurses do not invest properly in self-care due to the perceived time commitment and monetary demands of activities traditionally associated with self-care, such as getting a massage or taking a vacation. While both Nair and Goodman agree that self-care has, in many ways, become a multi-billion dollar industry, they affirm that there are plenty of powerful self-care techniques that are not time-consuming or expensive.

“Simple things like breathwork, exercise, yoga, music and art don’t require a single penny, and can be incredibly effective in relieving stress,” says Goodman.

Nair favors breathing and stretching exercises, in addition to simply laughing—he teaches weekly laughter workshops on the USC campus for students, faculty and staff in which participants practice evidence-based laughing techniques as a way to relieve stress and boost their moods. Other stress reduction techniques he recommends include spending time with those that matter to you, practicing mindfulness, developing more realistic expectations for yourself and finding a hobby or recreational pursuit that you enjoy.