By: Lorena Ruci, PhD, CCC

As we return from a busy Christmas and holiday season, the clock starts to run faster and our steps start to quicken. Suddenly, work and school deadlines are upon us and calendars fill with obligations and tasks. Here comes STRESS. Stress is a normal response to such transitions, but if it causes anxiety and it makes you feel overwhelmed, it can take the joy out of every day life.

Not all stress is bad, especially when it makes you mobilize your resources, energizes you and motivates you to be productive. Such stress is important because it can make you re-prioritize, push you outside your comfort zone and challenge you to pursue new goals. However, when stress is perceived to be limiting, uncontrollable and prevents you from taking care of yourself, it can negatively impact your physical and mental health.

The following symptoms are common when stress has started to impact your health and well-being:
– Irritability at work/school/home
– Fatigue
– Stomach aches or headaches
– Difficulty sleeping
– Racing thoughts/inability to relax
– Forgetfulness/ inability to focus
– Skipping meals/not eating enough /over-eating
– Feeling bad about yourself
– Avoiding people/social situations
– Smoking, alcohol/drug use
– Increases in illnesses, like colds and flu, which signal a weak immune system

First, it is important to recognize and accept that stress is a part of life and it won’t go away. Furthermore, stress management does not involve a quick fix. Instead, it is an ongoing process that involves practicing self-care, identifying your stressors, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

1. When was the last time that you did something nice for yourself? When I ask this question to my clients, they pause for a long time- then admit that it’s been a while. It is normal to prioritize work and family obligations sometimes, but if we get into the habit of doing this all the time, our physical and psychological health will suffer. Start by making a list of the things that you enjoy doing but you haven’t done in a while (e.g., hobbies, learning a new skill, being in nature, reading for fun, listening to music, scheduling quiet time, etc). Then, commit to doing at least one of the items on the list once a week. When you get into the habit of taking care of yourself on a regular basis, you will be able to more effectively take care of others, in addition to being happier and healthier!

2. How many items are there in your daily list or weekly agenda? When you go through them, how do they make you feel? If you were to remove some of those items, would your day/week look and feel more manageable? Take a pen and mark those items and think about delegating them or doing them when you are less busy. The most useful part of this exercise is that it forces you to prioritize. You can then think about tasks and plan activities that add joy and meaning to your life (e.g., spending time with friends and family, relaxing, doing a hobby, etc).

3. Breathe. It sounds simple, right? Even this most, simple and basic function becomes compromised when we are feeling stressed. In such instances, we engage in short and shallow breathing, which most people describe as “having a weight on their chest”. Notice what you are feeling in your body when you are stressed. Pause, and take a few deep breaths. Imagine that your belly is a balloon that you’re filling up with air. When you focus on deep breathing, you are essentially short-circuiting the “fight or flight” response (the body’s adaptive and essential system of mobilizing resources to fight or flee danger). After a few deep breaths (I recommend starting with 10), notice how you feel. Repeat as needed.

While this has been a short overview of transitioning into the Winter season, managing stress and improving mental health, we should not neglect the basic needs that contribute to being healthy, body and mind. This means nourishing your body by eating healthy foods, cutting sugar and processed food from your diet, reducing alcohol and hydrating with water. Resting your body means prioritizing sleep. When we sleep, our body and our brain are recuperating from the wear and tear of the day. Sleep is essential for our physical and mental health and if you are routinely getting fewer than 7 hours/night, you might be running on a sleep deficit.

Last but not least, exercise. Physical activity can take many forms, from walking in the park to hitting the gym. The important thing is to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day, which has been linked with higher cognitive functioning, better emotional health and better physical condition. In the end, what matters most is a step forward, regardless of how big that step is.

Until next time, be kind to yourself and one another.
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