SELF-CARE STRATEGIES FOR WHEN THE SHIT HITS THE FAN

I am completely late with this blog entry because all last week I really struggled with everything I tried to write; nothing seemed to be important, nothing seemed like it would make any sort of contribution at all.

I have been unable to write for the past week because I have felt completely heartbroken by the news of the murders of two unarmed black men within 24 hours of each other.  This was compounded by the violence in Dallas, especially after the horrible events in Orlando just last month.

Every time I have opened a new document on my computer and tried to start writing anything at all I have felt overwhelmed with the feelings of grief, fear and powerlessness that have been brimming inside me all week.  It seems I could only acknowledge those feelings, but not actually do any creative work.

I don’t feel like I have anything to add to the current conversation about these events, and as a white man, I don’t think it’s necessarily my place to add right now.  It’s much more important for me to listen and act as support as much as I am able.  That is the choice I am currently making.

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On Friday I did what I often do when I am struggling with something or feeling upset, I called my best friend Elijah.  When I told him I felt crushed by grief and unable to write he simply said, “you could just not write one this week, it’s okay.”  I push myself very hard in all things, and if I could be 1/10th as kind to myself as he advises me to be I think I would be so much happier and probably infinitely more productive (but since he is working all weekend long, I will just say, I’ll relax when you do, bud).

And then he gave me a great suggestion, which finally allowed me to access my creativity, “you could write a post about self-care, that would be really important for people right now.”  True, my dude!  Self-care, despite my hard-driving nature, is something that I have worked really hard on and am good at fostering in others.  And in my grief I had forgotten the thing which makes me feel the most connected to others, the most hopeful and the most useful:  caring for those around me.

This week I have witnessed such collective sorrow, which I have only seen a few other times in my life on this scale.  The emotions that all of us are feeling right now, and on the heels of several other tragic events this season, are all natural and normal.  There is sorrow and grief, and also anger, fear and despair.  We can and should make space for these emotions.  And we can and should take good care of ourselves and each other, because those feelings are rough.  Those feelings can wear us down, drag us down the street after them and drain us of all hope for a better world.

To all those around me who feel raw, rough, tired, worn down; let me offer you these strategies for self-care.  I hope that you will take the time to be gentle with yourselves.  Speak to yourself as your best friend would.  Be as kind as you can, you are precious and you deserve to be treated that way.

Strategy #1:  Physical Movement

When we are under stress, no matter the source, our body responds with a wash of hormones, specifically cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline.  Stress-response hormones only become problematic when we have a long-term stress response, in other words when we are constantly thinking about something that stresses us, or are constantly exposed to that thing (in the media, on Facebook, etc.).

A biological system that is constantly exposed to stress-hormones is at risk for depressed immune function, high blood pressure, unwanted weight gain, impaired sleep and cognitive abilities, mood disorders and chronic inflammation (which can effective us so negatively that I literally don’t have room here to list everything, I’ll keep it short and just say: all the heart diseases, stroke and some researchers believe it may have links to cancer).

So what can we do to mitigate the fact that our lives are filled with long-term stress and that at certain points in time that stress can spike, taking a harsh toll on us?  Our first strategy should be physical movement.  If you have a pet dog, or have ever spent time with one, you may notice that they routinely “shake off” after a stressful or even stimulating situation.  Most other animals do this as well, it’s a way for them to make sure that their stress-hormones are being returned to their appropriate glands and don’t continue to circulate in their systems and create any of the damage listed above.

If you’ve even been in a highly charged situation and noticed yourself shaking afterwards this is exactly what is going on.  Am I encouraging you to “shake it off” just like Fido?  Really, if that works for you, whatever, go for it!  If that’s not your jam, take a walk or even better, do a short sprint.  Energetic dancing would also work, or some jumping jacks or a quick set of push-ups.

If you are under long-term stress prioritize physical movement of some kind to keep your body and mind as healthy as possible.  This strategy is so integral to your health and well-being that pre-scheduling this is just as important as making it to a doctor’s appointment.  Schedule yourself 20-60 minutes of activity every day.

Strategy #2:  Go To Sleep

Not getting the amount of sleep that we need each night has such a drastic effect on our mental state, hormonal balance, emotions and physical bodies that researchers are starting to equate coming to work on less than 6 hours of sleep with coming to work drunk!

Much like chronic stress and chronic inflammation, chronic under-sleep is an irrefutable threat to our health and well-being.  It is of utmost importance that our bodies, and especially our minds, have a period of inactivity.

The minimum sleep requirement is 7 hours, but many people require 8-9 hours.  How can you tell how much sleep you, personally, need?  Simple, go to sleep, don’t set your alarm, when you wake up is the amount of sleep you needed.  Once you’ve determined the amount of sleep you need make sure to go to bed that many hours before you need to be up in the morning.

Creating a ritual of at least 30 minutes pre-bedtime, to help you wind-down can be very influential on being able to get and stay asleep.  Many people find that a pre-bedtime bath or hot shower helps them relax and unwind.  I, and many people I know, write a list of at least three things they are grateful for before bed so that their day ends on a good note.  Other natural sleep aids are meditation, magnesium supplements, evicting your electronic devices from your bedroom and using “black-out” curtains or a sleep mask.

Getting enough sleep can make us more productive the next day, can give our bodies the time it needs to repair itself and stay healthy and can also keep us emotionally balanced which is very important when dealing with long-term, emotionally-charged stress.

Strategy #3:  Keep Yourself Alive (aka: EAT)

It’s very easy to skip meals or go with convenience foods when our lives get chaotic.  If ever there was a time to make sure that you’re getting all the important macro- and micronutrients as well as adequate nutritional intake, now is it!

I absolutely understand that sometimes the only thing that will keep us from feeling absolutely crushed by The Big Thing That Is Crushing Us may be a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.  It’s cool, I completely get it!  I also know that you might feel a little extra wired and have a bit of a stomach ache after that.  How do I know that?  Because I’m a human being and I’ve done my share of ice cream self-medication, of course!

Do your best to get the nutrients into your body that allow your body to take care of itself.  And when the time comes for you to eat all the ice cream consider doing so after a good healthy meal that showcases protein, vegetables and a little bit of healthy fat.  That way you get both what your body needs and what your brain is telling you will make you feel better. And, adequate nutrients prior to an occasional ice-cream-and-tears party will keep you from feeling like a weepy toddler coming down from a birthday cake binge.

So, what are the ideal nutrients for your body?  That is a somewhat complex question since we all have different bodies and put different demands for fuel on them.  The absolute simplest way to think about it is this:  look at your hand, that’s your food measurement device.  For women, shoot for 1 palm of protein/meal.  Two palms/meal for men.  5-7 fists of veggies/day for everybody.  Add 1-2 thumbs of healthy fats or 1 cupped palm of slow-burning carbs (something like beans, brown rice, oats as opposed to donuts, potato chips, animal crackers) per meal depending on your activity level and personal taste.

Strategy #4:  Get Outside

Remember that physical movement I suggested in Strategy #1?  Why not take it outside?

Going for a walk is a great way to reduce stress, clear your mind, improve your cardiovascular function and get some fresh air and Vitamin D.  Human beings are animals and the outside world is our natural environment.  Nothing refreshes the mind and heart like the sight of trees, big water or a big, open blue sky.

Whether you live close to “nature” or not, nature is in fact all around you.  No woods to hike in?  Go to the park.  No parks in your town?  Check out your yard, a cemetery or historical area, the grassy strip by the mall, whatever.  Of course, being in a spot where cars aren’t driving past you every second will be a lot more relaxing, but do what you can with what you have.  Some days the only “outside” experience I have access to is the parking lot behind my house, but it’s surrounded by trees that are homes to squirrels and birds and just 5 minutes of watching them always brings a smile to my face.

The point is to find any opportunity for peace that you can in the middle of whatever crazy stress-filled events you are currently trying to survive.  Even if it is just 5 minutes, taking that time for yourself can make the difference between surviving an event and being steam-rolled by it.

Strategy #5:  Targeted Relaxation

For those times when things are getting really out of hand, drastic measures are called for.  Targeted Relaxation means that you schedule time for yourself to relax and then use any of your preferred methods in that time.  Scheduling time for something means that you are prioritizing it.  In effect, this means that you are prioritizing yourself, your health and your own self-worth.

For those of us in the fitness industry we understand that training is important and has to be scheduled so that results can be obtained.  We also understand that recovery is just as important, if not more so, than training.  So recovery must also be scheduled, and it must be respected.  For many athletes recovery is sleep and adequate nutritional intake, but it is also relaxation.

Relaxation strategies that may work for you are meditation, reading poetry or fiction that is removed from your current situation, going for a leisure walk (a lot of these overlap), taking a bath or using a hot tub, getting a massage, working on a hobby or craft, spending time in nature, spending time playing with your kids or grandkids, visiting a museum or enjoying something that you find beautiful like music, etc.

There are a lot of times when circumstances in our lives or the world around us bring powerful and challenging emotions to the surface.  You are not dishonoring painful events or your own feelings by finding a way to take care of yourself.  It is perfectly okay to take a break to do something that brings you joy so that you can continue to be useful to those in your life that count on you.

Strategy #6:  Love Yourself

We do not need to look far to find reasons to doubt the goodness of the world around us, if that’s what we are looking for.

We do not need to look far to find reasons to believe in the goodness of the world around us, if that’s what we are looking for.

The events of this past week have made me feel very small.  And my greatest wish is that I can offer something that may ease someone else’s pain.  I have gone with a thing that I know and that I feel confident in sharing.

I believe in the goodness of the world around me, of the people around me, of myself.  No matter what.  This is why I work ceaselessly to be the most true version of myself that I can be, why I try to be helpful and to connect with those around me.  Because the world deserves that.

The world deserves you; the best, most true, most beautiful version of you.  Please take good care of yourself.  We need you.

Elias Gross