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How to Practice Self-Care during the Pandemic, Part 1: This Sucks

It’s time for a little trash-talking. We’ve heard a lot about how healthy it is to stay positive and express gratitude during this difficult time, but let’s be real: this past year has been horrible. And that was before the acquittal.

By now, most of us feel depleted.  Many of us are in a bad mood too much of the time, having trouble concentrating too much of the time, and having trouble sleeping too many nights.

Our fundamental structures –work, school, routines, and support systems have been totally disrupted. Our homes, once a sanctuary, may have started to feel like prisons. We may be tempted to Zoom-bomb our own Zoom meetings. It’s been a stressful, even traumatic time.

To make matters worse, few people can even fall back on their usual stress relievers during the pandemic. No gatherings with friends, weekend getaways, or going to sports games.  When you think about it, in many ways we’ve lost our whole way of life.

What are we to do with all this uncertainty, worry, and stress? Tomorrow, in part 2, I’ll talk about positive responses to the difficulties we’re facing. Today, though, I’d like to focus on the value of acknowledging, if not wallowing in, those difficulties in an attempt to “struggle well” (1).

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Accept that life is different right now, and not in a good way

There is simply no way to adjust to the “New Normal” when that changes every week. We’re facing problems for which there are not solutions, at least for a while. We’re worried about the future for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country. No one can function at full capacity when that’s the way things are. This is a terrible time, and that’s the way it is. Accept that as a baseline.

2. Expect less from yourself

Most of us have heard for most of our lives to expect more from ourselves in some way or another. Now we deserve to give ourselves permission to do the opposite. No one’s going to die or get arrested if the report you write isn’t perfect. Your kids will learn long division next year. Spotless floors are overrated. Good enough is good enough.

3. Write it down

You know how when you wake up from a nightmare, you want to tell someone about it? In fact, you may even wake up your partner to tell them, despite knowing that it will sound absurd and perhaps infuriatingly uninteresting to them. If there’s no one to share it with, you may just lie there and try to think about all the elements, sorting them into a more coherent story. I think this is about transferring disturbing feelings and experiences from the unconscious to the conscious so you can grapple with them in effective, even creative ways.

This is where Expressive Writing (2), the act of writing about negative thoughts and feelings, comes in. Just as with telling someone about a nightmare, writing about a stressful experience may help people express emotions and organize thoughts . Doing so may help relieve stress and anxiety (3) and help people move beyond the mental cycling of blame, guilt, and other forms of misery that do nothing to help people more forward (note to self).

Tomorrow, I’ll continue with positive responses to negative times. No, I’m not talking about always looking on the bright side of life or doing a happy dance (I’m a Jew, after all). But I will offer some suggestions from people who are smarter than I am.

Stay tuned.

 

References

(1)DeMarco M https://elemental.medium.com/that-powerlessness-you-feel-is-called-moral-distress-291795756fff

(2)Pennebaker JW, et al. “Expressive Writing and Its Links to Mental and Physical Health,” in Friedman HS, ed., Oxford Handbook of Health Psychology (Oxford University Press, in press).

(3)Harvard Health Letter. July 2011. Expressive writing for mental health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/expressive-writing-for-mental-health

(4)Ramirez G, et al. “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom,” Science (Jan. 14, 2011): Vol. 331, No. 6014, pp. 211–13.