Radical Self-Care—Coming Home to the Body to Manage Stress

April is Stress Awareness Month, and building awareness around our stress and how to manage it is essential these days. We live in a modern, tech-focused society where we are constantly on the go, always striving for more, focused on being productive and successful. On top of that, we often measure our accomplishments against others, and thus feel excessive external and internal pressures.

Our Bodies Were Made for Stress

We all experience stress. Actually, we experience over 50 stress responses per day. Stress is meant to keep us alert and protect us from potential danger. Stress is physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension that is a reaction to a situation where we feel threatened. Our ancestors needed it to ward off tigers and other real environmental threats.

But our modern stress comes in a different package. These days, stress stems from our thoughts: Will I get that job? Will I ever find a partner in life? How will I get to that meeting on time? When will I ever have enough time for myself?

Fear Dressed Up in Stress’s Clothing

Lissa Rankin, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine and six other books, asks “What is ‘stress’ if not fear, anxiety, and worry dressed up in more socially acceptable clothing? While we tend to view worry, anxiety, and fear as signs of weakness, most of us are perfectly willing to admit that we are stressed.”

This is interesting. When we say we are stressed, we often mean we are afraid, or we’re anxious or worried. However, if we were to say “I am afraid,” we may judge ourselves and be judged by others. Instead, it has become more socially acceptable to say we are “so stressed” for many of the situations we face. In some circles, stress has become almost a badge of honor. If I am stressed, I am important, I have “a lot going on.”

We run around feeling fear or anxiety, dressed up as stress. In some ways, this makes sense, as fear is primitive, a part of our survival response, and it is normal to feel this way. Yet, we also try to escape this experience, because we don’t like how fear or anxiousness feels in the body.

Whenever we try and escape, ignore, or suppress an emotion like fear or anxiety, we often create unhealthy ways of coping with this unprocessed emotion and energy—too much smoking, alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, rumination, or eating.

In actuality, as much as we are wired to experience fear and stress, we are also wired to let it pass naturally.

How We Talk About “Stress” Shapes Our Experience

There’s stress, and there is being overwhelmed.

“Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body.”

 Sometimes, we mistake stress for being overwhelmed. It is important to make a distinction here because “When we say we’re overwhelmed, it’s really telling our body, ‘Things are happening too fast, we can’t handle them. Shut down! Shut down!’” Brene Brown said in her podcast, Unlocking Us.

That’s where we start. By learning to assess if we’re stressed or if we’re overwhelmed. When we’re stressed, we may feel a lot of outside (or even internal) pressure, but generally we know what actions to take. We can logistically and emotionally take on those actions, even if we’re concerned about how much time and effort they’ll take.

Overwhelm, on the other hand, means we’re incapable of taking action. The level of anxiousness is extreme and cognitive intensity is too much. We’re so consumed by the pressures on us that we can’t do anything about it. We are in a state of hypoarousal in our nervous system, and unable to function. This is how trauma is defined—an inability to function in the face of threat. In other words, most of us can function when stressed, but we can’t function when we are overwhelmed.

It has been estimated that 75–90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems. When we do not practice healthy ways of managing our stress, we find that it can turn into chronic stress, living in a state that overwhelms and impacts all aspects of healthy functioning, for our heart, lungs, reproductive system, sexual desire, nervous system regulation, to name just a few. Stress impacts both the here and now as well as our long-term health and longevity.

Thus, learning healthy ways to cope with our stress, or better yet what we fear or are anxious about, is essential to living a more fulfilling, healthy, and vibrant long life.

There are many ways of taking care of oneself that have been proven to manage stress, including:

  • Practice basic self-care: Eat healthy, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, drink water, get outside, take deep breaths, take breaks for yourself, reduce screen time.
  • Develop close connections with people where you feel safe sharing your concerns and feelings, with a family member, friend, doctor, spiritual leader, or counselor.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. These can create additional problems and increase the stress you are already feeling.
  • Recognize when you need more help—know when to talk to a counselor if things continue.

In addition to this kind of basic self-care to cope with stress, I want to introduce you to another element that is always available and essential—radical self-care.

What Is Radical Self-Care?

Radical self-care is the assertion that you have the responsibility to take care of yourself first before attempting to take care of others. taking action to attend to your own needs first. Put your own oxygen mask on first, as the saying goes. It’s necessary to fill your cup first, then give to others from the overflow. This is what gives you the capacity to heal and move forward in your life.

Radical self-care recognizes that you matter; you are worthy of attention, kindness, and care—from you. You don’t need to exhaust yourself to warrant care. It’s not contingent on anything you do or accomplish. It is not self-indulgent, but rather self-preservation.

Lama Rod Ownes, Buddhist minister, author, and activist, says of radical self-care, “It’s radical because a lot of us don’t know how to care for ourselves. It’s difficult for many of us to determine what we need to be well. When you start shifting focus to what you need, you begin to figure out that you must make some drastic choices about how you’re living your life. This takes courage.”

In order to determine what we need, and therefore fill ourselves first, to be well, we have to become aware of what we feel. We have to get in touch with our inner lives.

Radical self-care goes to the root of our inner experience. This takes courage because the root of our experience can be utterly uncomfortable, as it is where we feel our most vulnerable emotions, like fear and other distressing emotions. When we dare to look and feel, we find ourselves stepping into unknown territory, places we have been ignoring, escaping, or numbing.

Radical self-care is intentionally being with this moment of fear, with how the energy manifests in the body and mind, and feeling it with curiosity and compassion instead of judgment. This is badass stuff! It is trusting our natural and innate ability to feel all of our experiences, and bring caring attention to ourselves rather than aggression or reaction. In this 180-degree U-turn, we choose to be responsive rather than reactive to our experience.

You could think of it like parenting yourself in the best way—with curiosity, rather than judgment; warmth and kindness instead of aggression. This is self-compassion—seeing our suffering with a genuine attitude to help.

Some may say, “Why do this” or “This is self-indulgent.” Yet, this is actually what we are naturally wired to do. We have a built-in calming function to our nervous system—the parasympathetic. When accessed, which we can do, we find we are able to feel resourced and resilient in times of stress. We have the capacity to feel calm, clear, and caring toward ourselves. This essentially relyies on our own inner resourcing so we can be more responsive for managing our own stress, which benefits ourselves as well as others.

When you do this, you learn you can tolerate the distress you are feeling and choose to respond in those moments as well as other moments in your life.

Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Radical self-care includes choosing to respond to your experience rather than react. It is taking care of yourself by listening to what you need, and doing your best to meet that need. When you do, you find your capacity to meet life, rather than fight it. This is empowering, restorative, and liberating.


To learn more about radically taking care of yourself, contact me to schedule an appointment.