Stress is a natural part of life. It arises from all sorts of high-pressure situations, from finances to relationships to health. Short-term stress increases our awareness, stretches our capacity, and helps us achieve goals. Feelings of stress may also reduce our pain sensations and prepare us for danger. However, prolonged and unattended stress can affect our health, leading to adverse health conditions such as cognitive impairments and anxiety [1,2].
The novel coronavirus 19 (COVID-19) has posed unprecedented challenges to our physical and mental health. We have seen the spread of an invisible virus accompanied by its silent ally – fear. Naturally, we worry about the impact and uncertainty of COVID-19. Not to mention the impact of public health actions (i.e. lockdown or social distancing in addition to our usual responsibilities) which can leave us feeling anxious and overwhelmed. During these strange times, we need to make further efforts to manage our emotions and mental health.
Self-comfort and self-care are considered distinct approaches when mitigating long-term stress. Exercising both techniques is beneficial to our wellbeing and neither should be neglected, as both serve different purposes.
Self-comfort provides an immediate distraction during a difficult circumstance, by short-circuiting our emotional distress and providing immediate relief. Classic examples include self-indulging behaviours such as enjoying a bubble bath, having a cocktail or dessert, shopping, etc. Self-comfort usually does not remedy the root cause or situation that is contributing to our distress.
In contrast, self-care serves to understand the underlying reason for it and take appropriate habits to prevent (or decrease the chances) that it will occur again. Self-care addresses your fundamental needs and aligns your behaviour with your values. This requires introspection and an understanding of how to care for these needs — irrespective of judgment from society or culture. Examples include learning to say ‘no’, setting boundaries, getting adequate sleep, or eating nourishing meals. While meditation and yoga retreats are heralded to reduce stress, we have to be honest with our intentions and reflect on how the activities are serving our values. Otherwise, we run the risk of perpetually cycling in stress, temporary relief, and waiting for the next burnout to occur again.
Reacting with Self-comfort and Preventing with Self-care
When we find ourselves in distress, it is a natural tendency to seek comfort and soothe ourselves. Self-comfort is certainly vital as a short-term reaction to our feelings of stress. It relieves our mind and body and gets us through the moment. However, if we neglect self-care and consistently indulge in self-comfort, we run the risk of emotional, financial, or physical burnout.
Self-care is a proactive approach to prevent long-term or ongoing stress. It bids us to take time and reflect on why the stress developed in the first place. Sometimes in the heat of a moment, it may seem very obvious why we are distressed. However, overwhelming emotions and feelings (especially those that recur) can manifest from invalidated or unaddressed fundamental needs. Through self-care, we identify these needs so we can identify long-term habits that mitigate perpetual stress. Self-care is sometimes the mundane unglamorous maintenance activities that keep us clean and nourished. Cleaning our bathrooms and eating our vegetables may not go viral on the internet, but these are necessities that provide a foundation for sustainable wellbeing.
What Does Self-Comfort and Self-Care Look Like?
Methods of both self-comfort and self-care are different for each individual and may even be situational. Self-comfort can be any behaviour or activity that distracts you during your distress. These range from screaming into a pillow, kickboxing, talk therapy (aka venting), a cocktail, or even a bubble bath.
Self-care can start with introspection and asking yourself a series of questions:
1. Can you acknowledge your feelings of stress?
2. Do you understand how or why your feelings emerged?
3. What can you do to replenish yourself now?
4. What do you need to ensure the stressful situation is not ongoing?
As the terms imply, only you can determine what does and does not work. Self-care and self-comfort do not have to be complicated; the key is to keep it simple and aim for consistency, and not perfection.
Regardless if we are on the frontlines or sidelines of COVID-19, exercising self-comfort and self-care are both beneficial to our wellbeing. Even when the pandemic ends, life can still be challenging, and we will encounter stress periodically. Practicing self-comfort and self-care will help to mitigate long-term stress and increase your ability to cope with challenges in life.
1. Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI journal, 16, 1057–1072. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480
2. Kimball C. P. (1982). Stress and psychosomatic illness. Journal of psychosomatic research, 26(1), 63–71. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(82)90064-2