The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. – Pema Chödrön
By Kristy Jansen
Back in 2006 when I was about 6 months pregnant, I went in for my semi-annual teeth cleaning and dental check-up. Shirley, my dental hygienist, gave me high marks for keeping up with regular brushing of my pearly whites despite my “condition”. I was amused at her compliment, but she informed me that often women who are pregnant lose track of this daily task.
Maintaining a daily ritual, so habitual that in its absence I cannot fall asleep, seemed like an unremarkable achievement. I mean, sure, being too busy or too distracted to keep exercising or cooking healthy meals I understand. But brushing my teeth? Washing my face? In fact, it is often the littlest details of self-care that go out the window when we go through periods of intense change. This is true when the life-transformation is a joyful one like growing a new human, but it’s exponentially more true in the midst of a crisis.
Dealing with Stress – the importance of Self-Care
We featured an article on the Optimist Daily last month about three different types of stress and how to manage them. As outlined by the American Psychological Association (APA) there are three types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic, and it’s no surprise that each affects our psychological and physiological health in different ways. Acute stress is caused by short term events, think giving a speech in public or doing a 10-mile hike once in a while. While the anxiety and intensity surrounding these types of events can raise heart rates, make us faint, or result in extremely sore muscles, having these types of stressors can actually make us stronger, more confident, and more resilient once we recover. The stress/repair cycle is how we grow. It’s the episodic acute and chronic stressors that wear us out, and it’s these types of stress that can knock us down in the absence of sturdy self-care habits.
Episodic acute stress is caused by repeated, intensely stressful events. It can feel like moving from one crisis to another and can occur if you have a high-stress job or are caring for a sick loved one, or perhaps even obsessively checking the news these days. I think of this as fire-house stress, always on alert. In the midst of this type of stress we go into crisis mode and put off mundane tasks like paying the bills, eating breakfast or having a morning stretch.
Chronic stress, as its name suggests, is prolonged stress over a significant period of time. I think of this as death by a thousand paper-cuts stress. This type of stress leaves the body flooded with stress hormones and can have detrimental effects on immune function and heart health. Situations such as unhappy marriages, abusive relationships, or constant financial worry can contribute to chronic stress.
Right now, for many of us in quarantine, in the midst of unprecedented job losses, sheltering in place with equally stressed out partners or family members, or all alone with just our own self-critical minds, we are definitely suffering chronic stress. In the midst of a new frightening virus that demands hypervigilance, we have the double whammy of episodic acute stress as well. On top of everything else, many of the stress-management routines we might have enjoyed in normal times – regular work-outs, lunch with friends, restful dreamless sleep – FUGETABOUTIT!
The answer for all of this stress, we keep reading, is to practice “self-care”. Be gentle with yourself, meditate, eat balanced meals full of fresh fruits and vegetables, get restful sleep, exercise, talk to friends. The list goes on and on, all the positive daily habits that keep us centered, boost our immune systems and help us be our best selves. From personal experience, I know that doing these things makes me feel great. Going to yoga or doing an intense kickboxing class brings great relaxation. A vibrant social life, shared with thoughtful friends with whom I can explore messy feelings or share a belly laugh has helped keep me centered. Delicious meals from my favorite restaurants, especially shared with my husband or friends, help balance out my nutrition. The occasional massage or salon visit made me feel like a million dollars.
I don’t know about you guys, but in the last few months, despite all the time saved from no more commuting, going to the movies or out to visit family and friends, there are days I can’t find time to take a hot shower. So much for routine self-care!
So what can we do to take care of ourselves in this time of great uncertainty? Perhaps the first step is making friends with the idea that we’re not up to this moment. That being not ok is ok. That feeling unsettled is part of the journey. And then, pay attention to our minds, our bodies, our spirit and find whatever works best to bring us back into alignment. All I can offer here is a rundown of some of what I’ve found useful lately in thinking about self-care and how to tune up my habits.
Sleep is absolutely foundational to self-care. In the fast-paced go-go-go culture of the past few decades, however, shorting ourselves of this basic human need has often been celebrated as a symbol of success. A way of showing that we’re tougher, stronger, and more powerful than the next guy. In her 2016 book, The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington rightly points out that we play this game of sleep deprivation at our peril. Many have since added to this conversation, finding a range of disorders linked to lack of sleep. Among other benefits sleep has to offer, a stronger immune system is high on the list.
In the first few weeks of staying at home, I actually felt pretty great. I enjoyed having more time in my house, being able to cook a great lunch, water my plants, and spend more time with my dog. Since I was working from home without a commute or the need to wash my hair, I started sleeping in. Since I wasn’t going out to dinners or to visit with family or friends, which I used to do three or four evenings a week, my husband and I started going to bed early. My average sleep time increased from 6-7 hours a night to above 8 hours. After a week of sleeping more, and having a more relaxed schedule, I was starting to feel rejuvenated.
After a few weeks though, as the sameness of each day went on and on, the lack of external stimulation and the growing awareness that this was not a “just a couple weeks” situation began to wear on me. My dreams took on new hallucinogenic narratives, and the wee hours of the night became wakeful. I’ve had other periods of anxiety-driven sleeplessness, and for me listening to a podcast is one of my best tools to get back to sleep. Before this lockdown, I found listening to history podcasts soothing, but now, hearing about the collapse of ancient Rome or how medieval England rebounded from the Black Plague just made me more anxious. Thankfully, our writers found a list of good podcasts specifically designed to help with sleeplessness. Now I find that listening to a slightly boring story about taking a walk in nature eases me back to sleep. For you, it might be listening to rain, or an inspirational interview. Whatever works, use it!
One issue linked to sleeplessness is an anxious mind. With the sudden curtailment of normal human interaction as we shifted to working and learning form home and stopped casual social interaction, we are spending a lot more time in our own company. This is when our habits of mind can really shine, or alternatively take us down.
Developing a meditation practice has been shown to be a powerful tool in the self-care tool-box, but for some individuals, the idea os sitting still in the midst of inner or outer chaos is too much. This is especially true if we hold ourselves up against a rigid ideal of silent zen masters sitting in stillness for hours. But there are many paths towards mindful contemplation that can help us master our inner worlds, and finding the ones that work for each of us is a personal journey.
For me, journaling has started to play a bigger role in my daily self-care practice. I was obsessive about journaling in my younger days, but not so much in recent years as my life filled up with satisfying work and relationships and my emotional health was handled in therapeutic circles, sitting meditation, and deep friendships. As I’ve found myself more isolated and cut off from the socially-oriented tools I had been relying on, opening my notebook again to work out my feelings and reflect on my daily observations has been working wonders.
Other mentally supportive techniques we’ve featured in the Optimist Daily include daily gratitude practice, self-compassion techniques, and humor meditation. Literally anything done with mindful attention can be a stress-relieving contemplative practice — walking, poetry, coloring, gardening, knitting, or even doing the dishes. Also, if you are finding it hard to quell a run-away mind, it’s ok to seek out professional help.
Even extreme introverts are saying they miss people these days. Physical and emotional contact is a human need, and even before this era of social distance, loneliness was being described as an epidemic. Touch and pressure are so vital to our well-being that their absence can create serious impairments in our physical and psychological health. Eye contact and face to face communication lower stress hormones and boost immunity. Reportedly, some national health ministers are even recommending that single people find “sex buddies” to weather this lockdown. Other places are exploring the concept of “social bubbles” to address the human need for connection while also managing the spread of this virus.
I’ve done what I can to stay emotionally connected with my family and friends who have fallen outside my quarantine bubble for the time being. Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime have become essential tools for me for staying in touch, but two-dimensional communication has serious limitations. I am lucky to have a couple of warm bodies to shelter with, but I miss my wider network. This week I threw a zoom party for my husband’s birthday, and it was fantastic to see our friends and joke and sing together for a while. I enjoyed observing the various intergroup reunions almost as much as I loved seeing each person on the call. Still, I really look forward to when we can hug each other again.
Aside from sleep, a proper diet is seen as the key ingredient to optimal health and thus something wellness experts pay massive attention to. Eating lots of vegetables and fruits, good fats, healthy proteins, high-fiber grains, and just the right amount leads to healthy body shape, longer life, and strong immune systems. Consuming too much sugar, too much processed food, and unhealthy fats cause massive inflammatory reactions in the body and are linked to the chronic underlying health issues that plague modern societies around the world.
But in a society that has a schizophrenic obsession with consumption and thinness, what we eat is often a fraught subject. Highly processed foods like breakfast cereal, packaged cakes, white bread, mac’n’cheese, cured meats, and soda are also the treats we grew up with and loom large in our psyche as comfort foods. As someone who struggled with disordered eating and body shame for much of my life, in stressful times, food is usually the substance I am most likely to abuse. For others, it might be alcohol or nicotine that quells the nerves.
I am grateful that I’ve achieved a healthy balance in my relationship with food and other substances at this stage in my life, but that doesn’t mean I never indulge. I feel for folks struggling to manage this aspect of their lives. For me its about acceptance, humor, and paying attention. I’ve been using my time at home to cook more often, and this is an enjoyable stress reliever. In this time of pause and reflection, we have the chance to make new habits, and perhaps redefine what “comfort food” means. Rediscovering new-old recipes, perfecting a culinary technique or finally baking an edible loaf of bread might spark a new romance with the healing power of food, and reconnect us all to our power to nourish bodies and while lifting our spirits.
Exercise offers a tangible way to manage our stress and help us feel we have control over something in these anxious times, but there is no need to take it to extremes. If you have the time, space, and energy to do intense hour-long cardio, lifting, or CrossFit sessions – fantastic. But no need to feel like a failure if you aren’t cut out for that. Just getting daily movement, in general, is a key self-care practice. For me it’s been ten-minute yoga sessions with a YouTube instructor, 5-minute “intensity” breaks running up and down a set of stairs, and an easy 30-minute walk with my dog that has zero cardio benefits because he loves to sniff his way around the block.
The Optimist Daily recently featured some specific yoga poses that address fear and might be a useful tool in today’s anxious world. Just getting my blood moving, my heart rate up, my limbs and spine stretched, brings me joy, and grounds me in my body.
Coming Together and Falling Apart
In one of my wee hour podcast sessions this week, I listened to Krista Tippet and Devendra Banhart discuss the deep wisdom in Pema Chödrön’s classic When Things Fall Apart. Like Tippet and Banhart, I have found this book to be a wonderful resource through many life ups and downs. One particular passage they read felt particularly relevant for right now and inspired me to write this essay. Allow me to share it here:
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
It has been two months since I worked from my office, two months since I shared a meal with anyone I don’t live with, two months since I hugged or held my nephew who will be two years old next week (or most anyone else I love for that matter). The initial shock of everything shutting down overnight, the saying goodbye to accustomed routines and familiar faces has worn off, and now I find myself moving from “crisis mode” into a deeper realization that this might just be how things are – for who knows how long. I’m thinking about the lessons this pause has given me, the things I want to let go of, the things I want to keep doing, the habits to take with me into my post-pandemic life.
By letting go of the yearning for “back to normal” and feeling fully the grief and the joy of this present moment, I am hoping to let things fall where they may, and I am making room for the healing that comes with that.