“Take care of yourself” – these are the words that seem to roll of our tongues when we try to comfort others who are going through a tough time. In fact, we probably say it unthinkingly to others even when they are not.
This week I want to touch on why it is important – really important – that we do just that if we are travelling a difficult path. It can really be an act of survival.
As an estates lawyer, I often speak to my clients who are in the midst of deep grief about this – but these things apply to all of us if ever we find ourselves sideswiped with the stuff of life that shakes up life as we know it.
When awful things happen, the kind that shatter your world, it can feel like you are trying to work out how to rebuild amidst the ruins of a life left devastated by a tsunami wave. You have lost so much. There is no “normal” to return to. You don’t even have a choice. You have to find a way to survive each day, each week, each year from here on, in a forever altered landscape.
I get it. Looking after yourself can seem unimportant in the scheme of what you are facing, but it is one of the tangible ways that you can really change how you experience your difficult circumstance. Finding ways to be kind to yourself can reduce your suffering – even if it doesn’t take the pain away.
In this post I will outline just a few ways you can “take care of yourself” in times of stress.
1. Try new things
Try your best to find a new routine. Think about making some small changes to help you find your way to move forward. It might be changing where you shop for groceries or where you take the kids to play in the park, or changing other things that you once did, but which bring up painful memories. Making small changes, that you choose, and then deciding for yourself if those changes are helping you feel better, can make you feel like you are in control which can be really important if the event that shook your world was not.
2.Reward yourself with things that bring you moments of joy
You didn’t deserve what has happened. You don’t deserve having to deal with the aftermath. But you do deserve kindness. You know best what brings you joy – so why not plan to do those things as a way of taking care of yourself. You deserve that – at least.
Consider setting yourself small rewards for making it through each day, each week, each month. It might be buying yourself flowers, or finishing work early, or going to see a movie, treating yourself to your favourite food, or booking a weekend away. Indulge yourself. Have a massage, soak in a hot bath, try a new perfume or aftershave, cook something different to eat, try a new restaurant. Whatever the reward, make it for you and only you – don’t do things because you (or someone else) thinks you should. This is something you control and something that will help you get through. It will over time mean that you will sense joy more and more, despite your pain.
3.The importance of decent sleep
Make getting the sleep your body needs a priority. Being overtired is not helpful when managing emotions. Let’s face it, when unexpected events occur they can literally turn your world upside down. It can do the same to your sleep. You might find that all you want to so is sleep, or you might find you can’t sleep no matter how hard you try. You be unable to sleep through the night, and then find it near impossible to get out of bed through the day. You might have recurring dreams or difficult images that seem to wake you.
Sleeping all the time or not being able to sleep are normal when you are dealing with life changing stuff that set off your fight or flight responses. If you are finding managing your sleep difficult, then speak to your GP about the ways in which you can restore a healthy sleep pattern. Being mindful that pre-bedtime routines can be important. Investigating other natural ways to help you sleep might also be useful.
4. How to eat when you lose your appetite and how to stop if you are taking too much comfort in food
When under severe stress it is quite normal for your appetite to be suppressed. Production of morphine like “pain-killing” chemicals is just one of the ways in which our bodies respond to intense stressors like grief, loss or disappointment. These same chemicals can relax our digestive system and make us lose our appetite. For that reason, grazing on nutrient dense foods may be better than trying to eat full meals. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, oily fish and eating easily digestible food like eggs, cereals, yoghurts, soup and salads is quite important. If you want further information about how you can, with a minimal of fuss, eat better then you don’t feel like eating – I have included a link here. If nothing else start taking a multi-vitamin daily to help give your body the vitamins it might not otherwise be getting.
If your difficulty isn’t a loss of appetite but rather overindulging in every comfort food in sight, then your focus might need to turn to finding alternatives to eating (like the ones suggested in this post) or filling your house with healthier snacks, so that if you do find yourself reaching for food for comfort you aren’t filling up on food that will ultimately make you feel worse. If you want further tips on how to manage comfort eating – I have included a link here.
There is no need to stop drinking alcohol if you enjoy having a drink – just be aware of overuse it really can muck with our brains particularly when we are dealing with difficult stuff. Alcohol and drugs might seemingly numb the pain, but that is only momentary. Some of my friends and clients have told me that they found setting a rule for themselves that they would not drink alone a helpful way to manage the temptation to keep drinking when it wasn’t healthy to do so. If you feel yourself slipping into overuse of drugs or alcohol, be sure to get professional help quickly.
5. Get moving
Be conscious of the need to get moving (even if it is by doing the chores, gardening, taking the dog or yourself for a walk). By moving our bodies, we work out the chemicals that are released into our bodies when we are stressed. Often our well-meaning friends and family jump in to do these things for us, which is of course a wonderful support, but you may need to graciously take back doing some of these things for yourself if only because you don’t have the energy to get out of the house to exercise more strenuously. Try to get outside every day, to breathe in fresh air, to feel the sun and the wind and the grass or dirt beneath your feet. By closing our eyes and turning our face to the sun for just 10 minutes a day, we can literally change our biochemistry, so that our sadness doesn’t become depression. If nothing else – try and do that.
6. Express yourself
Find a way to express your thoughts and your feelings. This might be by speaking to a few trusted friends (who won’t judge your or try to “fix” you), or it might be keeping a journal or diary of your thoughts and feelings. If you don’t like writing, it might be painting, gardening, cooking, playing sport, going to the gym, walking or working. Finding ways to express the multitude of emotions that you seem to experience over and over is another important way to “process” the pain. Looking back over your journal or your painting or your garden can give you a sense of “progress”. Remember it is more about finding ways to build your life around the pain caused by your unexpected event, and learning to live along-side it than “getting over it”.
Try to set up routines of calm and rest –try to set aside 5 or 10 minutes to stop and breathe. It might be taking those long deep breaths while you are in the shower, or before you step out of the house, or before you get out of your car. Slowly counting and breathing deeply when you feel anxious is shown to reverse the overwhelming feelings that come when our emotions take over. Making your exhale longer than your inhale literally calms your nervous system down.
If tears come, let them. They too have their place in keeping your emotions on the level. It is ok to cry. It doesn’t matter how often, or whether others feel uncomfortable. It is frankly not about them, but about how you feel. And let’s face it – it works. Having a good cry makes us feel better. Why? Because of how our amazing bodies work! Tears wash out the built-up chemicals that stress releases. So – let them do their job, as often as you need to.
If other emotions hit you, don’t push them away, instead try to work them through. Scream if you have to, punch an inanimate object, go for a run, listen to music, pray, meditate, pull a doona over your head – whatever works for you. Reach out to those around you who support you the way that is right for you. Accept their help. Accept their invitations to do things as you feel able but let them know that you may need an escape route if you need that. It will probably feel as if you are “pretending” to be happy sometimes, but try anyway. See what works for you, what restores your joy even if for only a moment, and do more of those things. Over time more moments of joy will return, you will find reasons to smile and laugh again even if the underlying sorrow of your loss remains lapping at your feet.
What three things can you resolve to try this week, to take care of yourself a little better than you have been?