The Stress/Self-Esteem Cycle
Let's look at how stress can subtly undermine your self-esteem. While it's often hard to pinpoint where the cycle begins, imagine for a moment that you've had a very stressful day. (Maybe you don't have to imagine!)
It seems like everything has gone wrong. You smacked your shin on the bottom step. You spilled coffee on your jacket on your way out the door. Your car wouldn't start. And then, at work, your boss dumped a project on you that will make the next two months extremely difficult. You envision many long nights ahead. You have to miss lunch. A colleague tells you that you “look terrible.”
Then, when you get home at the end of the day, you scrap your plans to go to the gym and you order a pizza and eat the whole thing. Then, you feel guilty. You feel bad about skipping your exercise, about giving in to junk food, about eating way too much. You feel so guilty that you make yourself an ice cream sundae and stay up late watching TV. Forget the dishes.
In the morning, you wake up puffy and lacking energy. A messy kitchen greets you, you go to work exhausted, and you've got all the same stress you had the day before. So, the cycle continues. You keep overeating, undersleeping, and not doing anything about the things that are causing your stress, whatever they are — maybe because you don't have the energy, and maybe because you have no idea what you could possibly do about it.
What do you see when you look in the mirror?
Most people focus on external features first, but gazing at your reflection in a mirror can be a form of meditation. Gaze into your eyes, deeper and deeper until you no longer recognize your features but the self behind the eyes. This is both an exercise for relieving stress through focus and a technique for pursuing self-knowledge.
Instead, you begin to feel worse and worse about yourself because you are so tired, so overwhelmed, and so unable to exercise your willpower. The worse you feel about yourself, the more you are likely to continue in the destructive pattern.
Of course, this is just one example. Stress from a chronic condition like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or chronic fatigue syndrome can take a heavy toll on your self-esteem. You wonder why you can't do all the things other people can do. You get so weary of feeling badly that you don't enjoy yourself anymore. Self-satisfaction seems a distant memory.
The stress cycle works in both directions. Stress can cause low self-esteem, but low self-esteem can be a major contributor to your stress level. If you don't feel good about yourself, lack confidence, or doubt your ability to succeed, you'll be more likely to let stress overwhelm you.
Likewise, stress that doesn't allow you any personal time makes you feel like you aren't important enough for personal time, or that everyone else is more important than you are. Stress that keeps your mind racing and scattered can make you feel like you aren't capable of focus.
So, what are you supposed to do about this insidious cycle? Solutions are often difficult to come by, especially since the problems don't seem to begin anywhere in particular. How do you jump in and slam on the brakes? By jumping in and slamming on the brakes, that's how!