Self-Care in a Pandemic? It’s at Least a Two-Person Job: Little Gestures Shared Often Keep Us Afloat

For millions around the world, the U.S. election results this weekend meant a new beginning: A new vision and balm of healing of broken hearts and hopes, a much-longed for surge of energy and momentum. Whether you resonate with these feelings or not, what unites us all is that our lives are interwoven and the only way to control this virus impacting everyone across the globe is to work together. The virus has taken its toll on all of us in one way or another. We are grieving the loss of loved ones, of economic stability, of a future we can trust.

The burden of the emotional backlog and burnout from worry, compassion-fatigue and overall weariness, weighs on all of us, some more than others. Feeling unmotivated or frozen is not a character flaw in 2020. It is a logical consequence of the cost to our mental health that this pandemic has wrought, even for the most resilient. We have to get through and we need to take care of ourselves and each other in order to do that. That, in a nutshell, is what this post is all about. If you got energy this weekend— we need to find ways to be generous and “throw” that energy back into the communal pot of humanity determined to move forward. With each of us giving the little bit of bandwidth we have, we’ll meet in the middle, and help each other out. Pooling our unique perspectives, resources, and staples of our spirit, we will keep each other afloat in these hard times. More than ever, self-care is not a luxury, it’s a “we” thing.  So here goes, my thoughts about self-care:

Self-care. Self-care? Self-care! Our increasingly depleted souls need this now, but can we really expect those same weary souls to also do the heavy lifting of taking care of our weary souls? In a good year, maybe, but in a pandemic, election, sometimes apocalyptic-feeling year? I’m going to say no. I think we need a new model for what has become the Herculean task of tending to our emotional survival. Hint: We can’t do it alone.

In the faraway “before,” self-care often meant navigating around the struggles that our anxious minds created for us. It feels almost a luxury in retrospect which we would afford ourselves, by choosing to say no to something in our overly full lives—like a work function or a night out with friends—and instead, after anguishing over even that decision we’d stay in, turn inward, slow everything down, and spend some quiet time with ourselves. Oh, the things we took for granted.

Now what? Turning inward is pretty much all we’ve had since March. We are each stuck in our version of Stuckland. That’s how it feels anyway a lot of the time. We may find ourselves frozen in the uncomfortable numbness of shutting down from so many difficult feelings and feeling guilty for being too tired to feel—loss, grief, fear, suffering. We feel bad that we are estranged from our own loving hearts. (More about that here). While compartmentalizing and shutting down are in some ways adaptive, they only work if we also have a reliable way of getting ourselves unstuck and unfrozen and back to feeling alive, connected, or simply just moved by something. That’s where all of us come in.

We could think for months about how to get unstuck, but we don’t fix an overthinking problem with more thinking. Separately each of us can’t muster the energy we need to mobilize in body and spirit—but we can get unstuck with help from each other, even if we can only spare a tiny bit. Fortunately, small sparks might be all that we need to give our spirit a lift. Small things, often.

I keep going back to a scene in the movie Awakenings, about the work of the late and brilliant neurologist Oliver Sacks. One of Dr. Sacks’ patients had been frozen in a trance, motionless for decades. When the doctor, played by Robin Williams, drops his glasses towards her hand, she instantly and to the shock of all catches them, perfectly. When he throws her a ball, she is released from her from her statuesque stance, and again she unfreezes, reaches out and catches it without stumbling in the least.

How? The young doctor explains, “It’s as if having lost all will of her own in which to act, she borrows the will of the ball.”

“Borrowing the will of the ball….” I first wrote about being frozen in the context of depression and anxiety back in 2010 in my book Freeing Yourself from Anxiety. I offered suggestions of what people could do to borrow momentum from each other. The ways we were frozen ten years ago have nothing on us now.

We are tired, momentum-less. It can feel way too daunting and taxing to get the ball rolling in our lives, generating motivation and startup energy is much more demand than our emotional supply can afford, but if someone “throws” the ball to us, with a kind gesture, it’s much easier to react. That takes less energy. So, let’s throw each other little sparks to react to, as often as possible.

What do we need to “throw?”

Self-care right now is about feeling something, feeling alive, feeling connected, more than about feeling good or pampered (though that’s great if you can). The flatness and sameness of the inscrutable shape of time is wearying, languishing day after day in the four walls of our compressed lives. Difference will revive us, surprise will stir our souls, or at least move us to get through that moment of that day. It’s the connection, the change of scenery, going somewhere in your mind or in real space, a new song, or the reminder of an old favorite, whose beat helps us get our laundry done, that keeps us afloat.

The way we create momentum and movement in ourselves is to throw the ball to each other: Small sparks, sharing proof that the human spirit prevails!

You can be as creative or as practical as you like. Just stay in touch with each other. It doesn’t have to take much effort because we don’t have it, letting somebody know that they are being thought of, that’s the only point. It’s like emotional homeopathy—or the butterfly effect—a little ping, here ripples out the good.

This is not a time to second guess how good your spark is, it might fall flat sometimes, that’s OK. Just do it.

The silly little drawing that you made of a duck– someone else will LOVE that and that will ripple will keep going. A warm-hearted check-in, a caring emoji text, a reminder from a friend that CHOCOLATE EXISTS makes all the difference. We don’t need someone to give us the actual chocolate, we just need the reminder, the idea, pinged at us and aha! we can take it from there.

Share a piece of music you love, send a doodle, old photos, schedule a facetime 80’s dance party, a virtual happy hour, a recipe that worked. Connect with those in your “pod” regularly and also keep your eyes out for opportunities to connect with those on the margins of your life, be generously grateful, compliment, smile with your eyes behind your mask, gesture big your appreciation.

Schedules help: Set it and forget it! Make some of these little sparks a weekly or monthly habit, so pull out your phones and schedule reminders. The couple of minutes you spend setting up the schedule will buy you so much time when the “alarm” goes off. Our family got in the habit for several months of putting paper and pencils at the dinner table every night and we would write haikus and then read to each other—peeking into the tiny worlds that we created in the 5,7,5 syllable patterns was really delightful.

The perfect is the enemy of the good: Great is not the target here, different is the target. Seek the unexpected or different, introduce new variables into the mix of your life. So please, please don’t have high expectations that what you send has to be some great fantastic revelation, brilliant, hilarious or gorgeous. Just throw the ball. You’ll feel better.

Novelty, novelty!! One person’s ordinary is another’s inspiration: What are the meals you’re sick of? Tell your friends, because then they can tell you the meals they’re sick of—they’ll be new to you! The songs you listen to on repeat (they are likely different from others), the movies that are your favorites—even if you are close friends—your lists probably don’t overlap completely, and you’ll be reminded of something that will give you an inspiration.

Buddy up! Hard things you have to do? Have a cleaning buddy, a shower buddy, a go to bed earlier because what the heck? buddy, a writer’s block buddy, a gratitude buddy, a prayer or meditation buddy. A “bookend your day” buddy—sending good day and sweet dream wishes.

Get up and move! Especially helpful now that we are all fight-or-flight adrenaline-surged and nowhere to go. We need to move. Walk, run, jumping jacks, dance, jump rope, I actually pulled out hula hoops from the garage the other week. No shame in a pandemic. Create a weekly three song dance party (our latest playlist: Madonna, Like a Prayer; The Kinks, All Day and All of the Night; and Stevie Wonder, We Can Work it Out).

When in doubt, reach out: New rules (that we can carry into our lives even after this pandemic)—when in doubt, reach out. That’s it. Simple as that. Stop the second guessing if someone wants to hear from you, they do. Everyone appreciates being wanted. Even if you get a less than enthusiastic response—or no response—you’ve sent the good will out there, mission accomplished!

It’s the thought that counts and we always feel better when we are thought of, but right now that’s truer than ever. The love is in the gesture.

Here’s a bonus! Look at this video one of my readers’ family did with their extra energy in the pandemic, this is amazing, please enjoy!!

Fortunately, you don’t need a whole bunch of friends to make this work, even if you have just one other person you are collaborating with on this most fundamental pandemic project—surviving the pandemic—passing the ball back and forth with whatever moves you, you’re good. This pandemic is teaching us in so many ways that we are all connected, and we need to take care of each other. So we mask-up to protect each other’s physical health, and we kindness-up with the little things that together bolster our resilience. We will all help each other through. So, here, catch! I am throwing the ball to you with this post. Please pass it on! Love to all.

©2020 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

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