Most of us realize when life becomes too much to handle. We feel tired all the time. We have trouble falling asleep. We go through bags of chips. Or we just need to zone out because our brains are fried.
Enter self-care. It can mean different things for different people, notes Anna-Kate Schneider, a licensed mental health counselor at HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston. But at its core, self-care is asking yourself, “What makes me feel at my best? What gives me energy? What helps me feel more prepared to cope with the day?” says Schneider.
Maintaining a self-care routine (or at least blocking off dedicated daily or weekly time) goes a long way to keep anxiety at bay. To get you started, we rounded up advice from local health and wellness experts.
Sometimes what’s causing stress are goals that seem way out of reach. Other times, it’s that “embarrassing” thing you blurted out at the meeting. Whichever one is taking space in your head, it’s leading you to ruminate—what Schneider calls “a looping in your mind.”
To stop the cycle, either narrow or widen your focus, says Schneider. If clearing out the garage seems insurmountable, look at it task by task. What’s the first one that needs to get done? Then do it. If an incident at work has you down, look at the big picture. Schneider suggests you ask yourself, “How did the rest of the day go? Did I complete all the things I needed to get done?”
How it helps: You’ll focus on your accomplishments and break the worry loop. “There have been studies with athletes and marathon runners about how they surpass other runners. It’s by focusing on the runner right in front of them as their goal,” says Schneider.
When you’re running late and hitting every red light, use those stoplights to refocus instead of stewing, says Elisa Gwilliam, Ph.D., founder of Poughkeepsie’s Hudson Valley Healing Center. Wiggle your fingers on the steering wheel or very slowly breathe in and out twice. “If you do that every time you come to a red light, you’ll be surprised on how much of a habit you’re actually subconsciously forming,” she notes. Or do something equally simple: Wiggle your toes or observe what’s around you. (Aw, a cute puppy just walked by!)
How it helps: You’ll bring yourself back to the present moment instead of sweating over what may happen in the future, explains Gwilliam. By doing something concrete and physical, you’re also activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes over the fight-or-flight response that triggers your stress hormones—so your blood pressure drops and your heart rate slows.
One way to figure out your most important needs is to become more aware of them. Mini-mindfulness breaks help you check in with yourself, says Schneider. Scan your body and see where the tension has settled: Is it in your shoulders, your stomach, or your head? Then ask yourself what’s going to be effective for getting rid of the ache—a shoulder roll, a self-massage, or maybe a cat nap.
How it helps: You’ll bypass those judgy thoughts. “Part of mindfulness is the ‘non-judgmentalness,’” says Schneider. “If we get into the ‘should ofs’—like, ‘I shouldn’t be sitting at the computer like this’—you get stuck. It’s kind of like getting trapped in that vortex of things that aren’t helpful.”
Mindfulness breaks help you check in with yourself. Scan your body and see where the tension has settled, then ask yourself what’s going to be effective for getting rid of the ache.
When she works with clients, Gwilliam will start with simple skills (such as breathing techniques and using “I am” statements, like “I am honest”) and then adding on. “I always end with generosity and gratitude,” she says. What does that look like? Active changes: Letting someone go ahead of you in line or bringing your neighbors flowers. Or go the passive route by telling a colleague you like their sweater or wishing the barista a great day after ordering your matcha latte.
You don’t want to make it too checklist-oriented because that puts pressure on people to complete tasks, explains Gwilliam. Instead, “it’s about spreading kindness and joy and receiving it from there,” she says. The gratitude part comes from reframing. “Sometimes I’ll be walking the dog and I might be resentful, like ‘Come on, hurry up,’” says Gwilliam. When that happens, she stops and thinks of all she’s grateful for. “I’m outdoors. I have a beautiful, healthy pet. I’m able to walk in a gorgeous location. We have the stuff we need. I’m going to take the next five minutes and enjoy it instead of putting my day in a bad state,” she explains. Reframing works for other chores, like dishes, driving kids around, and getting ready for work.
How it helps: You create different neurological connections when you change your behavior, says Gwilliam, who wrote a dissertation on interrupting anxiety cycles. You build up more gray matter in your brain, which helps you process and control emotions, among other things. So instead of being reactive when you’re stressed, you’ll become more patient.
Well, maybe not in winter. But grounding can fight against the unhealthy effects of stress, says Maria Eanni, RN, a holistic nurse at Pellegrino Healing Center in Hyde Park. What is grounding? Walking, standing, or sitting with your bare feet planted on the earth’s surface.
“Science shows that electrical energy and electrons in the earth get transmitted through then get transmitted into our bodies where they act as antioxidants, according to researchers from the University of California, Irvine, who studied the benefits of grounding.
How it helps: Grounding not only reduces inflammation, but it also improves your sleep and tamps down stress hormones. “It releases endorphins,” says Eanni. “All those things work together to help achieve the balanced state that we all really need to get back to.” Boost stress-reducing by combining grounding with rhythmic breathing, says Eanni. Try box breathing (four counts in, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four) or triangle breathing (three counts in, hold for three, breathe out for three).
Trying to sit in silence while you meditate can be tough. To be successful, take a cue from Melinda Macchiaroli, founder of Bodhi Spa & Yoga in Hudson. “I lie on my mat, put on my noise-canceling headphones, and listen to binaural beats,” she says. You can find binaural frequencies on Spotify or YouTube. There are beats geared to reducing stress and anxiety and improving focus and sleep. As she listens, Macchiaroli practices breathing and getting into a meditative state. “You’re settling into your own body and allowing your whole system to just let go and be present.”
How it helps: Binaural beats are two tones that have different frequencies. When you listen to the tones, your brain then creates a third frequency that, depending on the brain wave it activates, can either help you feel more alert or more relaxed. There are several studies that back up these benefits, including one done in Spain that showed binaural beats were effective at easing anxiety.
You’ve heard it a million times. Exercise can reduce stress by releasing those feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. “They attach to your brain’s reward centers and keep you coming back for more,” says Steve Farris, founder and lead coach of Fit Social, a fitness studio in Poughkeepsie.
In other words, the more you exercise, the more you’ll want to continue. And you can start releasing those endorphins by being active for just 10 minutes. To get the full effects, aim for a 20-minute workout, three times a week. Go for a brisk walk, do HIIT training, or hop on your bike. His tips for making exercise a priority: 1) Bring the gym to you. There are classes and workouts on YouTube, including free ones from Fit Social and 2) Join a community. Whether it’s one friend or a group, having support and accountability can keep you going. Many Hudson Valley libraries offer walking and/or hiking clubs. There are also groups for moms and babies (like Fit4Mom Dutchess County) where you can hit the rail trail with your stroller.
How it helps: Besides its stress-busting benefits, regular exercise can keep your heart and brain healthy, lowering your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and dementia. It can also help you sleep better and improve your mood.
Besides its stress busting benefits, regular exercise can keep your heart and brain supple and healthy, lowering your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and dementia.
If other people’s negativity has been getting you down, Macchiaroli advises “clearing” practices, like sage smudging, at home. “Something to clear space, clear energy, and start over,” she explains. In Indigenous cultures, burning white sage is thought to purify your home (and your life) by warding off bad energy. You can find sage smudging sticks in many wellness shops in the HV. If burning something isn’t your thing, try a smudge spray such as Cold Spring Apothecary’s Casa de Lulu which contains sage, lavender, chamomile, eucalyptus, and sandalwood.
How it helps: There is some science behind this ancient practice, especially when it comes to easing anxiety, according to researchers in Mexico. There’s no one way to reduce stress. “It shifts,” says Macchiaroli. “Sometimes one thing works better, sometimes something else.” It can also change as time passes, explains Schneider. “You’re not going to write a script for what self-care is for me today and the rest of my life. My self-care today is going to look different than next year.” So yes, it is a journey but “It’s cumulative so you may not feel the work right away. But it’s always available when life gets tough—like an emotional piggy bank,” adds Macchiaroli.
Yoga has a multitude of health benefits—all backed by research. Among other things, a regular practice can ease anxiety and stress, help you sleep better, and improve your mood. “Any amount of yoga is good, but to make a lasting impact, we suggest practicing at least twice a week,” says Alyssa Scalora, owner of Alma Yoga in Newburgh. Can’t get to a studio? There are yoga classes on YouTube and pose instructions on Instagram and TikTok.
Scalora suggests trying one of these three quick poses to calm your mind: Lie flat on the floor on your back and put your legs up a wall (or in the air). Get into child’s pose—lie on the mat with your knees spread slightly apart and your forehead touching the mat and your arms extended. Lastly do a forward fold. Bend from the middle and reach your hands to the ground. Hang your head. You can do this sitting down or standing.
How it helps: Legs up the wall can improve circulation (especially if you sit all day). It’s good to do before you tuck in for the night, notes Scalora. Child’s pose can relieve back pain. And a forward fold is an inversion, like legs up the wall, which “helps increase oxygen as well as dopamine and serotonin. That boosts attention and improves your mood,” explains Scalora. Try it in the morning to set yourself up for a better day.