Stress hinders change — Is your mental outlook affecting the way you take care of yourself?

Many of us have goals of taking better care of ourselves. We know a lot of things we should be doing to be healthier. Then why aren’t we doing them?

There are a number of factors that affect our ability or motivation to make lifestyle changes. Today’s world is full of stress — it is almost expected. What may get lost in this chaotic lifestyle, is the openness to make changes to improve our health. It is much easier to sit back and continue to do what we always have done. Try to reduce some of the stress and time pressures so that you can prioritize your health.

When it comes to making changes, trying to be more flexible can help. This means being able to shift gears to another set of actions toward our goals or taking smaller steps as necessary. Often, however, we let the stresses of daily life interfere and challenge our ability to remain flexible. For example, if you have planned to walk for 30 minutes and time constraints don’t allow you to do it for the full time, walk for as long as you can rather than not walking at all.

When stressful events do occur, how quickly we rebound can determine future self-care. It is easy to let stress control our lives. People who maintain health goals tend to be more resilient to obstacles and stressors that could otherwise derail them. Think of relapses in meeting your goals as lessons to learn from, not failures, and then move forward again.

Making changes for a healthier lifestyle requires self-appreciation as well. Many people have unrealistic expectations when it comes to goals for better health. Instead of taking time to self-congratulate for even small changes, they get frustrated and angry at themselves for not being able to meet their goals. Give yourself due credit for any forward motion.

Self-appreciation also means self-understanding. When we recognize and acknowledge our personal strengths and weaknesses, we can better formulate a plan of action toward lifestyle changes. By using our strengths to our best advantage, we are more likely to succeed. We also need to remind ourselves that none of us is perfect. We can only do the best we can based on the information we have and our personal capabilities. This does not mean we should use imperfection as an excuse for not trying to improve. It means we need to forgive ourselves for falling short of our goals sometimes. It also could mean we need to revise our goals. Tomorrow is another day.

Time for self-nurturing — taking time to do things for oneself that feel good — is often neglected. Not only does this provide a sense of self-appreciation, but it is a time to mentally (and in some cases physically) heal from the pressures of life. When we are feeling more relaxed, we can put our lives in a different perspective — like being able to look at the forest and not just the individual trees. It can help us prioritize and better organize our plan of action. It can remove some of the stress so that changes for better health do not seem quite so overwhelming. You may also be more efficient and effective in the rest of your life.

Consider what has worked for you in the past relative to meeting goals. Some people are self-motivated and can reach their goals independently. Others find the support of others helpful — either professionals or friends. One example would be those who like exercising on their own and progressing at their own pace. Others may enjoy exercising with others to help with accountability and motivation to continue and improve.

Mental and physical health can both benefit from regular physical activity. Exercise can help improve mood and reduce depression. It is also a great stress-buster. Doing exercise can provide a sense of accomplishment that can result in more self-confidence and a greater feeling of control in other areas of our lives. Often lifestyle changes are not attempted or are sabotaged because we feel we can not succeed, maybe because of past failures to reach our goals. Being successful with meeting exercise goals may also motivate us to attempt our food goals.

Adequate and high quality sleep can help with mental wellness that leads to better self-care. It is part of the foundation that fortifies us to meet the world and allows us to recover from the stresses of the day. Lack of sleep can directly affect mood and motivation. It can counter the energy we need for healthful exercise. Often when we are tired, we fall prey to less healthy food choices or overeat.

Being mindful when we are eating or exercising can improve adherence to health goals as well. It allows us to think of food beyond calories or body weight and appreciate the positive aspects of eating. Rather than thinking of food as the enemy, think of it as nourishing and supporting your overall well-being. When we are exercising, it helps to appreciate all the things our bodies can do rather than chastising it for what it looks like. When we demean our body, we are less likely to want to take good care of it.

Consider the obstacles or excuses you use not to make positive lifestyle changes for better health. Are they real or imagined? How could you reframe the way you think or use your personal strengths to increase your chance of being successful? Being more open-minded about the possibility to change can open the door to success.

Pamela Stuppy, MS, RD, LD, is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and at Whole Life Health Care in Newington. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy.

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