The Common Quick Fix That Actually Won't Help Your Stress Problems

June 10th 2016

You might have noticed the term “self-care” popping up in your Instagram or Tumblr feeds recently.

While taking care of yourself is not a new concept, “self-care” is a term that has been gaining traction on the internet over the past year, from a popular Tumblr hashtag to the deceptively simple online game “You Feel Like Shit: An Interactive Self-Care Guide.”

You Feel Like Shit

So what is self-care exactly?

“Self-care is a way to recharge from the demands of work, family, and life in general," said Megan Bearce — a licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, and author of “Super Commuter Couples: Staying Together When a Job Keeps You Apart” — in an email interview with ATTN:. "When people hear the term ‘self-care,’ typically they think of things like yoga or meditation or exercise, but I think that it can be much broader than that.”

Scrolling through the photos tagged with #selfcare on Instagram, you see the same types of images coming up: hands holding a warm cup of tea, a selfie of someone in a soothing face mask, a serene yoga pose in a calm setting, or a healthy dish of colorful veggies.

But, Bearce said, self-care can also take the form of setting boundaries, learning to say “no,” or questioning why you feel obligated to take on certain tasks. “I like to think of self-care as any act that lowers anxiety, reduces [feelings of being overwhelmed], or makes you feel better,” she said.

Why has self-care become such a buzzword? Take a look at the life of the modern American worker.

About 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job, according to the American Institute of Stress.

It’s no wonder self-care is trending. But self-care isn't a cure-all for work-related stress, especially when it comes to overworking. In an era when the 40-hour work week is actually closer to 50 hours, relying only on forms of self-care such as exercise might not be enough to recover.

In a blog post, psychotherapist Zoë Krupka discusses why “wellness” isn’t the answer to overwork:

“[Despite] the fact that the very best evidence we have about the causes of work stress and burnout point to factors present in the workplace rather than in us, the stress reduction industry and the helping professions' focus on individual self-care strategies is at an all-time high.”

Self-care, in some cases, acts more as a bandage solution and doesn’t address the root cause of the problem. Krupka offered a more direct solution:

“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less."

Krupka added:

"Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue. We need to be reminded of this, because tired long-haul drivers can be deluded into thinking that coffee, a can of Mother, or an upbeat bit of music might help them stay awake. For the madly overworked, we need reminding that the only cure for working too much is to stop. It’s as simple as that.”

“If the work-related stress has to do with a poor career fit or interpersonal conflict, it may take more effort to reduce it," Bearce said. “Maybe it’s a total career change. Maybe it’s a request to move to a different department. Maybe it’s addressing perfectionist tendencies and how they are contributing to stress.”

Ask yourself why you overwork.

The answer may lead you to discover your problematic reasoning, from people-pleasing to perfectionism to being a workaholic, Bearce said.

At its worst, self-care has been criticized as being classist: “an importation of middle-class values of leisure that’s blind to the dynamics of working class (or even family) life."

But self-care has its place.

At its best, self-care is as writer and black radical feminist Audre Lorde described it in her book of essays “A Burst of Light”: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Lorde’s sentiments ring especially true when you consider the following: In the United States, women report higher rates of stress than men, and people of color report higher rates of stress than white people. 

“Self-care is the first and most critical line of self-defense in managing stress,” said Rachelle J. Canter, a career consultant, social psychologist, and the author of "Make the Right Career Move," in an email to ATTN:.

How do you know when self-care isn’t enough?

“There is no clear line about when self-care alone won't work, but be vigilant for some warning signs,” Canter said. These are among the signs that seeking help would be a good idea, she added:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Excessive and habitual reliance on drugs and alcohol to get by
  • Recurrent heart palpitations
  • Self-destructive thoughts
  • A sense of helplessness 

“There is no shame in asking for help: Learning to ask for help is an important career and life skill,” Canter said.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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