Stress & Self Esteem: Raising One by Lowering the Other

In our article about Exercise & Stress, we looked at the way these two factors form a self-reinforcing cycle that can work for us. With stress and self-esteem, however, the relationship is negative ? both in the technical sense of the words (i.e. as one increases, the other decreases, and vice versa), and in its ultimate result upon the person concerned.

Study after study has found that increasing someone's self-esteem will reduce the amount of stress they experience. The jury is still out, however, about whether increasing someone's chronic stress (without giving them time to relax and recharge) will reduce their self-esteem levels. There's anecdotal evidence that, if you start with high self esteem, stress doesn't seem to affect it. If your self-esteem levels start out low, however, stress will often reduce them even further.

So what's going on here? Why does the relationship between stress and self-esteem work the way it does? Part of it is probably just logic and semantics. Self-esteem is the level of regard or value we have for ourselves ? and it's a complex thing. It encompasses how we feel about ourselves, the image we have of ourselves, and what we believe we are and aren't capable of. If we define stress as 'our reaction to encountering a situation that requires us to adapt further than we believe we can currently cope with', it makes sense that anything that increases the level of 'what we believe we are capable of' will therefore reduce our stress.

Part of it is also about what we will and won't accept in our lives. If my self-esteem is high, I'm less likely to just tolerate things I find stressful. Instead, chances are I'll do something about them ? either find out how to fix them or avoid them ? simply because I believe I deserve better than to have to suffer them. So from this point of view, the relationship isn't just a matter of semantics. In a very real way, higher self-esteem *causes* behaviours that reduce stress.

The question then becomes, if we know that raising our self-esteem is going to help us manage our stress, what do we do to boost it? How do we go about building our self-esteem to the level that we're in the optimum state possible to manage all those daily stressors *before* they start to 'stress us out'?

As with every self-help topic, there are many theories ? some more complex than others. One of the simplest and most 'user friendly' models we've found was suggested by the Counselling & Mental Health Centre at the University of Texas. This proposes three basic steps for improving self-esteem:

1. Rebutting your Inner Critic ? dealing with that inner voice that constantly tells you that you 'can't do it'

2. Practicing nurturing yourself ? keeping up your own mental and physical resources

3. Getting help from other people ? knowing who you can turn to for help when working alone isn't enough

Although this model suggests sequential steps (i.e. you'd need to deal with your Inner Critic before you began to nurture yourself), there's no reason why you can't work on some ? or all ? of them at the same time. So, for example, you could use the help of a coach while you experimented with different ways of nurturing yourself, without having paid any conscious attention whatsoever to your Inner Critic yet. Because everyone is different, the right combinations and sequence for one person aren't necessarily going to be the right ones for another.

Irrespective of order, however, we need to understand each step individually if the model is going to be any use in helping us raise self-esteem levels. The remaining articles in this series will explore each step in detail, starting with next issue's article, which will examine exactly what our Inner Critic is, and some of the most useful ways of dealing with it. Until then, may every day bring you closer to living your optimum life!

Copyright 2005 Tanja Gardner

Optimum Life's Tanja Gardner is a Stress Management Coach and Personal Trainer whose articles on holistic health, relaxation and spirituality have appeared in various media since 1999. Optimum Life is dedicated to providing fitness and stress management services to help clients all over the world achieve their optimum lives. For more information please visit check out http://optimumlife.co.nz, or contact Tanja on [email protected].

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