Self-Care for Stressful Times: Three Ways I’m Good to Myself When Overwhelm Threatens
Jan 25, 2017
A few days ago I was talking to a family friend and mentioned that I’d hit an overwhelm threshold the week before. His response: “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t overwhelmed.”
I mean, for many of us, life itself feels pretty overwhelming, no?
I recently spoke with a yoga teacher friend about “self-care.” She has dedicated her vocational life to educating and supporting people in the art — and necessity — of self-care. She was conducting a survey of 100 women about their own relationship with self-care, and one question was, “What does self-care mean to you?”
The truth is, the word “self-care” evokes mixed feelings in me. I’ve always bristled a bit at the idea of “pampering” myself, which is the association that comes to mind when I hear terms like self-care and self-nurturing and being “good” or “kind” or “gentle” with myself. Often these phrases accompany an ad for a yoga retreat, spa day, wine tasting, cruise or weekend getaway. (The meme “Treat yo’ self!” comes to mind.)
Even the phrase “slowing down” seems to carry a connotation, in my mind, of self-indulgence and excuses. Laziness. Weakness. My conditioning — what I learned in my early childhood environment — placed more value on productivity and pushing myself than nurturing the vulnerability that always lies just beneath the surface of my experience.
As I’ve plunged deeper into awareness work, anything that highlights the word “self” has begun to change (and even lose) meaning — this thing I call my self is really just a construct, a character I’ve come to identify with. Not to get too heady, but the times I feel the most present, the most connected, are actually the moments when I’m not focused on my “self.” I may be losing myself in the creative act of writing or dancing or baking, intently listening to another, helping someone in a practical — and self-less — way, or just immersed in a level of focus that leaves no room for ruminating on the Keleigh character and her story. In short, what feels true is that, in the words of my teacher, “no self is true self.”
And yet this self-care thing is an essential part of growing and becoming more conscious. Translated most simply, caring for myself is about getting present. It’s about following an internal prompt to stop and tune in to a deeper — and sometimes counterintuitive — call to action. Often this looks like literally stopping, getting still, releasing the incessant thoughts narrating and interpreting my experience, and breathing until my nervous system relaxes and recalibrates. Sometimes it looks like a more active release: using my physical body as a channel and conduit for energetic intensity. Like a dog “shaking it off,” I can reset a mental spin cycle or emotional reaction by moving (and sometimes literally shaking) my body.
So, to help remind myself when life gets frenetic and overdrive kicks in, here are a few very simple ways I relax, reset and release — no yoga retreat required.
1.Take a bath. Sylvia Plath said, “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” Granted, things for Sylvia didn’t end so well, but I have to echo her sentiments. A hot bath is one of the most reliable ways to wash away any negativity I’ve generated or absorbed throughout the day, as well as decompress and reconnect with myself. I always feel very innocent and tender in the bath, naked and vulnerable and warm in my makeshift womb. It’s a great place to read, cry, journal or just be still and quiet.
2. Stretch and sweat. In my early 20s, I realized exercise was literally an antidepressant. While I can sometimes use working out as an escape — being a “runner” in every sense of the word — I am acutely aware of how exercise of all kinds helps to release emotional and physical toxicity. I love to dance, run, do yoga and push myself in high intensity interval training. I like riding my bike across town, standing up in my pedals like a 10-year-old careening home from school. Moving my body, sweating and stretching and opening, puts me in touch with an ageless part of me that loves to play and express. The body is a wise animal, as somebody once said.
3. Lay low (literally and figuratively). Literally: lie on the floor. There’s something about getting low to the ground, feeling supported and held by the earth. It’s true: the earth is always supporting us. A bed works too, especially if I can imagine myself sinking into and becoming one with the mattress. This is different than taking a nap; it’s more like a disappearing act, dissolving into oblivion for a little while, until my mind can turn off and slough off the projections marring what is otherwise a pretty straightforward existence.
Laying low can also mean unplugging — letting go for a short while of the phone, computer and anything else tethering me to distraction, and see what happens when left to my own devices. To drift in quiet, uninterrupted presence.
What I see now is that integration — living consciously — means knowing when to “push through” and knowing when to stop, drop and care for myself. It’s not honorable to be a martyr, and it’s definitely not productive to feel victimized by overwhelm. Self-care really just means relaxing and letting go — which, according to my teacher, is the recipe for enlightenment. I’ve never heard anyone say that they had a “presence hangover” or they “over-indulged in relaxation.” So let’s start thinking of Presence as the best possible way to “treat yourself!”
Keleigh is a team volunteer for the Awareness Institute.