Stress manifests itself in many ways, including physical and emotional symptoms like irritability, headaches, anxiety, fatigue and muscle tension. However, stress can also spur us to engage in negative behaviors like overeating, withdrawing from social activities and drinking alcohol. We know that these outlets are not good for us, but we feel almost powerless to stop.

People who are under a lot of stress, like family caregivers, often find it challenging to practice self-care. This is a normal consequence of feeling overworked and underappreciated. But, when one goes beyond skipping weekly workouts and also begins subsisting on junk food, it can set a dangerous cycle of self-neglect in motion. For some people, especially those with a history of addiction or an inability to deal with stress constructively, alcohol, drugs and even gambling may be used as a makeshift escape from the difficult emotions that taxing situations elicit.

Why We Sabotage Our Own Well-Being

The irony of self-destructive behaviors is that we do these things to relieve stress and make ourselves feel better. Ironically, these behaviors usually make us feel worse. Not only will you feel physically crummy after overindulging in food or drink, but you’ll probably end up feeling guilty and disappointed in yourself for not setting some boundaries and respecting them. This only causes more tension in your life and will likely cause you to perpetuate this behavior.

Being in a caregiving role is challenging enough to make anyone turn to an easy source of comfort. Unfortunately, most immediate stress relievers like alcohol, food and drugs take a serious toll on the body, especially if they become a regular source of relief. Your mental and physical wellbeing are very important, not only for you but also for those who love and depend on you. Forming negative habits at such a difficult time will only increase the likelihood that caregivers will fall ill themselves or pass away before their care recipients.

How to Put an End to Harmful Habits

It is not always easy to recognize and admit our own problems and faults but doing so is the first step in finding a solution and embarking on a healthier path. In the same way that we learn self-destructive behaviors, we must also learn how to bring them to a stop. Use the following steps to help work through your unhealthy coping mechanisms and find beneficial activities that will more effectively relieve stress.

Identify Your Indulgences

You probably already know what your self-destructive tendencies are. You know you should be exercising regularly, but you don’t. You eat an entire box of cookies in one sitting even though you’ve already had dinner. Perhaps you enjoy a few extra glasses of wine in the evenings. You’re well aware of the fact that these things are only short-term sources of enjoyment, but you still can’t seem to do anything meaningful about it. Once you recognize which parts of your routine are detrimental to your health, you need to pinpoint what exactly is causing you to engage in them.

What Are Your Triggers?

What is happening in your life at the exact moment that you feel the urge to “misbehave”? These events are called triggers. Keeping a diary for a few days or weeks can help you identify your triggers and their influence on your behavior. For example, every time you feel the need to smoke a cigarette, binge on a bag of chips, or reach for a bottle of vodka, write down what’s going on in your life at that very moment.

Most likely, you will see a pattern emerge. You might find that every time you get a phone call from your sibling asking how your elderly parent is, you reach for a cigarette. It could be that verbal abuse from your husband with Alzheimer’s disease causes you to seek out junk food for comfort. Or you might discover that whenever finances become especially strained, the only solace seems to be alcohol.

How to Counteract Your Triggers

Once you have identified your triggers and unhealthy coping mechanisms, you must figure out how to counteract them. Make a list of beneficial coping skills that fit into your schedule and will help you clear your mind and release tension. Examples could be as simple as going for a walk, calling a friend, taking a bubble bath, or participating in an in-person or online support group. The next time you experience a trigger, try to replace your go-to negative behavior with one of these healthy coping skills. You will be surprised at how good you feel when you succeed at resisting the urge.

Take Baby Steps

Depending on how ingrained your bad behaviors have become in your everyday routine, it may be wise to start slowly when it comes to swapping out coping mechanisms. Begin by reducing the frequency and severity of your unhealthy reactions to stress rather than trying to go “cold turkey.” Aim to smoke only a few cigarettes, eat a couple of cookies or have one drink rather than going all in on a binge. Remember, cutting back is still considered progress. Easing into this change will help ensure your efforts are successful and sustainable over the long term.

Banish Unnecessary Triggers

There will always be sources of anxiety and tension in life—that is a fact. But, it is important to understand that you do exert some level of control over the stressors you let into your life and you can choose how to react to them.

If your siblings contact you only to criticize how you handle your parent’s care, you can elect to set stricter boundaries regarding communication with them rather than allow them to continually upset and belittle you. If your to-do list is growing exponentially and you feel you have no time or energy to tackle these tasks, opt for respite care to free up some of your schedule or a professional service to take a few “to-dos” off your plate. Even a few extra hours a week can have a positive impact. If you’re approaching or have reached the point of caregiver burnout, it’s crucial to consider other resources like senior housing to provide the care your loved one needs and allow you to reclaim your life.

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While they may not be easy or ideal solutions, there are options for minimizing stress in your life. You just have to be honest with yourself about your needs and open to trying new things.

Get Help When You Need It

Engaging in self-destructive behavior is not unusual and it does not make you a bad or flawed person. Most people have some sort of outlet that isn’t considered wholesome, and even healthy coping mechanisms can become counterproductive if a person relies on them too heavily. We can learn better ways of coping with what life throws at us, but if we refuse to address our underlying triggers, it will be impossible to achieve a healthy and peaceful mode of existence.

If you’re struggling to minimize stressors in your life and adopt new coping mechanisms, it’s important to seek assistance with these goals. Not everyone can conquer these challenges alone. There is no shame in getting professional help from a therapist or counselor. Be honest about your feelings and behaviors so you can get the help you need to stop self-destructing and begin nurturing yourself.