I’ve thought a lot about what I want to say this week. It seems like there are endless topics I could cover, but I’m not quite sure I’m ready to delve into those in the depth that they need. I realize there are probably dozens of others writing about very similar things, and right now very few people are able to read/hear and respond with open minds to anything they don’t already agree with.
According to Terror Management Theory, that’s part of the effects of being forcibly reminded of how fragile life is: we all cling to our worldviews all the more tenaciously because they give us a sense of order and meaning.
I get that. I see that happening. And I’m choosing to wait patiently for people (myself included) to return to a more open-minded place before asking anyone to engage in much discussion with me.
One thing that is relevant right now but isn’t being talked about nearly as much as I would like is self-care.
Whether it’s a national tragedy like the shooting in Orlando or your own personal crisis (or a combination of both as it is for many).
Whether you’re on the front lines as a first responder, among the wounded or ill, working publicly as an activist or quietly in the background caring for the wounded, weary, and discouraged.
Whether you’re out or closeted; gay or straight.
No matter who you are, self-care is important. It is essential. In fact, it’s so much so that it’s ethically mandated for those who work with crises professionally.
Yet it can be difficult to understand how to take care of yourself when your whole world seems to be falling down around you.
So I created a short list (distilled from what I was trained to do for myself) of some simple but very important things people can do during and following tragedy.
Your body needs certain things to function well every day: liquids, food, sleep, bathroom breaks, probably showers and brushing teeth. If it’s possible to get those in the normal amount, do so. You function much better when you’re not depriving yourself of basic necessities.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember to drink water or grab lunch when chaos demands your attention, so set alarms or create a system with others to help look out for each other.
Sleep can be an elusive bastard following catastrophe.
Some people’s jobs might require less than ideal hours during times like this.
Others find it difficult to shut down the mind when it’s time to sleep. Our bodies release adrenaline and other hormones during emergencies that are designed to keep us alert—which is good when we need to stay up but can make it difficult to rest even when it’s possible. Those hormones don’t just disappear because the clock says it’s time to go to bed.
Still, get what you can. A lack of sleep impairs the ability to think clearly and make sound judgments. For ways to help your body prepare for sleep during stressful times, the following points will be helpful.
- Discharge the energy
Staying awake isn’t the sole purpose of the hormones mentioned above. Alertness is a side effect of the main purpose. Our bodies are designed for fight or flight when faced with threat, but in our modern world, neither of those may be a viable option. That doesn’t stop our bodies for preparing for it, and we have to find something to do with that energy to prevent it from stagnating.
Exercise is a good way to burn through those chemicals. I love running because it is such a literal way of working through the flight urge, but any kind of cardio that you feel drawn to and physically capable of is effective. Play sports if you like competition. Go for a bike ride if you have trouble running.
It’s summer, so swimming can be an excellent form of physical activity with low impact and high yield.
Dancing can have many of the benefits of movement and exercise while also tending to the emotional side of things with the music and expression, not to mention social connection, which can be a very important component to resilience.
The goal of discharging the energy is to do something that tires you out. It’s not the “lose weight” kind of exercise, so don’t worry as much about calorie burn as you do about whether it helps your body feel better.
Don’t just discharge the energy. Ground it as well. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises can help center and calm you.
Breathing can be especially helpful for trying to go to sleep. To still the roaring, circling thoughts, try counting during your breathing to occupy the mind’s focus. Presumably a count of four on the in-breath, holding for a count of seven, and exhaling for a count of eight is like a magic formula for sleep. I can only verify that it’s never failed for me.
In further grounding techniques, look for ways to engage the senses. Grab your emotional first aid box, if you have one. Or create one and get in some creative expression at the same time!
One of my favorite sensory engagements is drinking aromatic herbal tea. The warmth of the liquid feels comforting. The tea is nourishing to my body (and also addresses basic needs). And the aroma of the plants is so pleasant that I end up breathing more deeply as I take in the luxurious scent. My favorite heart-care blend is catnip, lemon balm, and rose petals.
- Take Breaks
No one can sustain any amount of strain indefinitely and maintain good functioning, so make sure you take breaks as necessary.
For those literally on the front lines (nurses, emergency workers, police, counselors in the immediate area), breaks might be shorter by demand, but even five minutes to half an hour can help (and let’s face it, first responders who may be reading this probably have been trained in how to balance the demands of the crisis with self-care, so you probably just need a reminder that it’s important. Yes, you can hate me for being that person).
For those who are active on long-term goals rather than short-term emergency response, breaks are necessary both for your own mental health as well as for the sustainability of your cause. There’s a lot of shame and guilt that gets placed on care-takers and activists for taking time for themselves, but as Audre Lorde pointed out, self-care is “self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” No social justice campaign is worth its salt if the activists involved cannot value their own sustained functioning.
So as hard as it can be, turn off the news, close out the social media feeds, and set aside the debates periodically. Balance out your work with a focus on other things in your life. Allow yourself to play, relax, read, watch a fun movie, and have pleasure.
Humor is also an important form of taking an emotional break. Look for ways to laugh. Laughter is one of the most important forms of coping. The more heavy the work, the more you need to laugh. I was once asked at an interview whether I had a dark sense of humor. It was a make-it-or-break-it question for the job because it was so important for the mental health of those doing it to be able to find humor while they were working with tragedy.
Nature is nurturing, helps to calm the mind and lift the mood, and provides a necessary respite from technology. Get out in it. Feel the earth. Commune with plants. Bathe in moving water. If you don’t have access to nature, visualize it or look up a guided meditation online…and then close your eyes or turn away from the screen if you can as you listen to the meditation.
Breaks are not a betrayal of your cause. It’s creating a sustainable model of work. Allowing yourself to have a break will allow your mind to be fresh when you return; breaks are healthy and essential for creative solutions and effective action.
- Process your feelings
The range of what people are feeling during crisis runs the whole spectrum: shame, guilt, confusion, fear, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, desperation, numbness.
It’s okay to feel all of that. Your feelings, no matter what they are, are legitimate.
They may not be telling wholly accurate stories right now.
Sometimes it’s possible to take feelings as they come, but during a crisis, you often need to take some extra time to understand them.
It’s a tough task to be with your feelings, validate them, and hear them out while also questioning the story they are telling you. It’s tempting to want to either believe everything they say or push them away entirely.
Usually, feelings make sense, but sometimes you have to get underneath a few protective layers. They might be saying, “This person is your enemy because they don’t agree with you!” when what they really mean is “I’m really scared and confused, and people having a different opinion from me feels threatening because it reminds me of how uncertain everything is right now.”
Give yourself time to really feel the feeling in all its intensity. Maybe write about it in a journal that you can read through later…or talk over your feelings with trusted support, be they friends, family, or counselors.
Big decisions may not be avoidable with intense emotions following a crisis, but if you can’t put decisions off, make them carefully and have feedback. The higher your emotions are running, the higher the likelihood of making a decision that is out of character for you and the more likely you are to regret it later. Intense emotions don’t have to result in bad decisions if you are aware of that possibility and approach them with enough care to avoid obvious pitfalls.
Also allow yourself to experience other emotions like joy, love, and gratitude. They might have their own story—that you shouldn’t feel them because of the crisis or that it’s wrong to experience positive emotions. But that story is about as false as the one that says it’s wrong to engage in self-care. Positive emotions build resiliency and give us the capacity to work through the shadow emotions.
Bonus (You thought there were only five?!)
Remember when I said that people are clinging to their worldviews right now?
One important but often overlooked aspect of post-crisis care is identity affirmation.
You (and everyone else) are unconsciously searching to affirm identity and regain a sense of safety and control following a tragedy anyway (hence the frenzy to defend the “rightness” of a worldview and the extreme sense of threat that might come when someone disagrees with it).
So bring that motivation to the forefront and consciously choose activities that affirm who you are in constructive ways. Create art or music, get together with people in your community, do something you find meaningful to contribute to the world, engage in spirituality, work towards a goal, or…write a blog post. 😉