Written by Claire Imber,
6 Minute Read
Medically reviewed by:
Erin O'Callaghan, PHD
Director of Therapy
10 Minute Read
Life is full of moments and events that can create stress, which is a physical or mental response to an external cause.
Moving homes, reading the news, giving a presentation, starting a new job, or having a baby are just a few examples of times when you’re likely to experience stress. Sometimes, stress can be beneficial as it helps you prepare for big changes or motivates you to meet a deadline. There is an optimal level of stress according to the Yerkes-Dodson law—too little and we aren’t motivated enough to prepare, too much and anxiety can affect our performance.
When stress does get out of hand, it can negatively impact our physical and mental health. It may affect our sleep or lead to burnout, acute stress disorder, anxiety, and/or depression. According to the American Psychological Association, “Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.”
So, while it’s safe to say stress is a part of life, there are things you can do to help manage your stress levels for better health. One important element of this involves self-awareness. As Stress Resilient Mind explains:
Self-awareness is a prerequisite for choice and control. If your thoughts and feelings are operating outside of awareness, then they control you. If you want to control them, the first thing is to open up a window of awareness that is an opportunity to pause and consider, before choosing, deciding, and acting.
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is being aware of who you are—of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Having self-awareness doesn’t mean you have to thoroughly understand every single emotion you have or justify every thought. Instead, being self-aware simply means you observe your internal and external experiences.
Hogan explains three main components of self-awareness:
- Understanding our own strengths and opportunities for change and growth
- Understanding how our strengths and challenges relate to those of others
- Understanding how to adapt our behavior to increase our effectiveness
Why is self-awareness so important when we’re talking about stress? Because stress is a physical or mental response, it’s vital that we recognize what we’re experiencing and why. If you’re self-aware, you might realize that you’re not eating as healthy as you used to, you’re feeling anxious, or that your work has become more challenging and cut into your free time.
In this way, self-awareness can help reduce stress—if you first start to recognize the causes, you can then more effectively manage the stressor or response.
Tips for building self-awareness
If you’re looking to boost your sense of self-awareness, you can:
- Keep an open mind. Try not to judge your thoughts or feelings.
- Note your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re having trouble, you could ask a trusted loved one for help.
- Practice being mindful. You can write down what you’re experiencing or try breathing exercises.
- Take time to reflect. Think about your actions and reflect on why you may have behaved in a certain way.
When you’re thinking about building self-awareness, it may be helpful to consider these buckets: thinking, feeling, doing, wanting, and sensing.
Self-awareness is also important for emotional intelligence, which is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others. As Psychology Today says, “The emotionally intelligent are highly conscious of their own emotional states, even negative ones—from frustration or sadness to something more subtle. They are able to identify and understand what they are feeling, and being able to name an emotion helps manage that emotion.”
Stress management is key to better health
Now that you have a better understanding of self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, let’s consider how that can help reduce stress. By being self-aware, you can start to notice your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as signals or clues to your overall health.
If you catch yourself feeling run down, exhausted, or irritable, you can pause and consider what may be the stressor and take action to resolve or manage it. Maybe you realized that reading the news so much is causing you stress and worry. As a result, you can consider actions to take that may give you more control over your life or help you enact your values: You might donate to a cause, limit yourself to watching the news once a day, or talk to a loved one about it but then do an activity you enjoy.
This is known as stress management. Therapists at Brightside Health can help you improve how you manage stress with various skills.
Here are some stress management techniques to try yourself:
- Try to exercise, eat nutritious foods, and get enough sleep. What’s good for your physical health is also good for your mental health.
- Avoid drinking a lot of caffeinated or alcoholic drinks. They can affect your mood and sleep.
- Practice relaxing techniques like visualization or meditation like yoga. You can start with just 5 minutes a day.
- Take a walk in nature. Getting outside can help you gain a fresh perspective.
- Start a gratitude journal. Focusing on positive aspects of your life can help boost your mood if you’re feeling stressed or down.
- Pursue an activity you enjoy. Pick up a hobby you once loved as a child or try a new activity you’ve always wanted to learn.
Over time, you may learn to stress and worry less about things that are completely outside of your control. As far as the things within your control, you can take steps to manage the stressor with the techniques above.
As our blog about stress and depression says, “Stress isn’t something that can be fixed overnight, but by taking small, consistent steps and sticking with it over time you can see impactful changes.”
Stress, anxiety, and depression
If you’re having trouble dealing with stress, it’s a good idea to talk to a mental health professional. Even if you’re self-aware and practicing management techniques, sometimes stress may be constant. In this case, you may be experiencing anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition.
At Brightside, you can access care online with support every step of the way. Our therapists and psychiatric providers can develop a personalized treatment plan for you that includes therapy, medication, or both.