“Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
Sometimes, we can go through life and forget that we are all out to sea in a vulnerable, unstable boat. But not this year. This year, that boat sunk.
Collectively, we have been adjusting to a life of constant isolation, processing the way systemic racism shows up in police brutality and mistreatment of people of color, and living in a state of constant panic around politics. We have watched people we love or know die from Covid-19, we have been unsure about whether we would get an effective vaccine, and many of us have felt powerless against the hate that exists in our country as illustrated during the riot on the capitol. Some of us have faced extreme loneliness living alone, and some of us have felt strain on our relationships with our housemates.
We have all been through trauma this year. And for marginalized groups, that trauma has been complex and practically inescapable.
What does it mean to ‘care for one’s self’ during a time when self-care feels impossible? How do we maintain positive attitudes when there is so much pain and suffering in the world? How do we nurture ourselves when we may not be receiving nurture from anyone else, when we feel depressed, when we don’t care to even get dressed in the morning?
Caring for ourselves during difficult times is a radical act of love both towards ourselves and towards others. When we feel supported and cared for, we have more space for others. When we balance fun, play, exploration and rest in our lives, we can see the larger picture. Here are some tips for getting out of the pandemic slump and coming home to the truth of our connected, wild and ever-changing existence.
- Reframe/see the larger picture. Even though we have endured many hard things this year, we have also come together and made amazing things happen. Democrats won the presidential election and the senate. Many people came out to protest and supported the black lives matter movement. Staying home helped lower carbon emissions during the time of COVID. Great scientists created a vaccine in rapid time. Personally, many of us have grown during this time, connected more deeply with friends and loved ones on the phone, and learned to love working from home. We naturally focus on the negative (see my previous post about the negativity bias), and we have to make an effort to see what’s positive. When we do make this effort, with time, we may be overwhelmed by how much we have to be grateful for.
- Try to play. I know this one can be hard when feeling down or depressed so you don’t need to force it. Sometimes we need to let ourselves feel sad (I fully advocate giving yourself full permission to cry it out or to curl up with Nextflx). But if it feels good, play with the dog. Do an improv game with your partner or roommate. If you live alone, think about an online game with friends. If connecting with others isn’t an option, find a way to move your body at home or (even better) outside. Go for a hike and connect with the natural world. If it’s too cold to go out, do a YouTube dance class or a calming yoga.
- Get a change of scenery/get into nature. I recently took a COVID-safe road trip, and it helped remind me of how magical life can be and that we will have the freedom to connect in person and explore in the future. Sometimes a road trip isn’t possible, but making it a priority to get outside can be so helpful. Being in nature reduces cortisol levels and boosts endorphins, and for many of us, can be a spiritual experience. Have a snowball fight or go for a walk in your neighborhood, a hike, a snowshoe excursion, or go cross country skiing. Even smelling the essential oils of a fir or cedar tree can boost endorphins. Forest bathing lowers blood pressure, improves the immune system, and can help alleviate depression and anxiety (see this article).
- Remember what you can control. You are a human, living a fleeting life full of sorrows and joys, uncertainty and ambiguity. Many humans throughout history have lived through something challenging, and we look at the people who endured the holocaust or slavery with admiration. Though we cannot control the time we live in, we can control how we make meaning during that time.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes,
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
How do you want to spend the time that is given you, and how can you let go of what isn’t in your control? Think about your future self, down the road in 10, 20, 30 years. Looking back on this time, what would she want you to know and how would she want you to have shown up for yourself? This moment is a blip in time, and everything is always changing. There is no ground beneath our feet. So what is this moment here to teach us? How can we make meaning of this time that we have, right here? Can you imagine how this moment might be an opportunity for your own growth and awakening? How have other hard moments in life contributed to your growth and your relationship with yourself?
- Make something. Being creative slows the heart rate and calms our minds (see here). Some people liken being in a creative state of flow to being in a meditative state. When we are creative, we can process things that our logical mind can’t process by simply thinking or sometimes even by talking things out because we are connected to our bodies. In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Nagoski and Nagoski report that being creative helps us avoid burnout and ‘complete’ the stress cycle (where we allow emotions to fully pass through us and can release them). Being creative also helps us make meaning out of things that seem nonsensical, and remember the playful, childlike parts of ourselves. Maybe you like to paint, work with clay, cook, write, or make something with your child. Maybe being creative means re-arranging a room. Let your mind and body do what feels right without judging or criticizing what you create.
- Help another person. When we realize that we are inextricably interlinked, we feel less alone and we focus less on our own pain and suffering. People who volunteer are consistently happier than those who don’t (see this article). Helping others releases endorphins, helps us feel more connected, and can give us a ‘helper’s high.’ Helping also allows us to see that we matter and have something to contribute. Volunteer, give money to charity, start a facebook charity drive, or talk to a friend who is struggling, When we help, we see the good in ourselves and we see the good in others. The world feels less bleak when we are affecting positive change.
One of our most painful experiences is feeling disconnected from others. This pandemic has put us all in the same boat—a very rickety one at that—and has left us feeling disconnected. I hope that you can come home to the knowledge that you are a vital part of this complex, ever-changing world. You belong here and are worthy of joy. We are all on rickety, sinking boats–but we are on them together.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist women in their 20s and 30s practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.