Practicing Self-Care While Coping with Crisis
This is a strange time. Some are calling it a global health crisis. Others are calling it a collective trauma. Regardless of how you’re choosing to frame what is happening in our world at the moment, I have no doubt that your stress has increased, even if undetected, and I would like to offer some simple, therapeutic ways to cope during this uncertain chapter of history.
In addition to being a Telehealth therapist for King Health Associates, I am a therapist at an Eating Disorder Treatment Center in Spokane, WA. In this role, I lead multiple therapy groups each week, most designed to assist clients in digging deeper into the underlying causes of their eating disorder symptoms. This process often involves uncovering unresolved trauma and starting the process of bringing healing to those wounded parts. In planning for my groups recently, two things occurred to me:
- I was having symptoms of distress that significantly reduced my internal resources for leading trauma-based therapy groups, and
- My clients were in distress and did not have as much capacity to engage in such a group.
I quickly recognized that my priority needed to be mitigating trauma that was occurring in the present moment.
When our brains kick into stress-mode (the emotion being ‘fear’), our nervous system recognizes the danger and begins to respond with survival as our number one priority. It quickly assesses a strategy to keep us safe. During a global pandemic, the threat is real, but fighting isn’t an option and fleeing won’t do any good. When the nervous system can’t fight or flee, it starts assessing other options, which looks like hypervigilance in humans. Merriam-Webster defines hypervigilance as “extreme or excessive vigilance: the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat.” I know I’m not the only one who has been obsessing over the news, googling symptoms, and fixating on social media posts. Essentially we are frantically trying to identify and target our perceived threat.
When no solution can be found, the system becomes overwhelmed. This type of overwhelm can lead to dissociation, numbness, helplessness, and hopelessness. I want to emphasize that this is not a dysfunctional response to hyper-arousal. It is protective in nature! In time, you should pop back out of it when the threat has cleared. But some of you may, instead, get stuck in the hyper-aroused state, searching for fixing behaviors to regain a sense of control and stability. This can look like dieting, exercise obsession, task-mastering, and perfectionism. Alternatively, if there is not enough resilience to distress, a person can also get stuck in the under-aroused state, or depression.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see how easily this pandemic could cause some serious, long-lasting, mental health complications. So what do we do about it?
The ultimate goal is to give your nervous system breaks from stress-mode by inducing periods of safety. This is where the Self-Care Wheel comes in. There are many adaptations of the “Wellness Wheel” that you may have seen before, but with this one, I asked my clients to consider 8 different categories of self-care that they know are key ingredients for self-soothing and feeling grounded or safe. I then asked them to identify activities that reliably bring a sense of calm and relaxation. For example, in my wheel I put “Art & Creativity” as a category, and then included activities such as “watercolor, calligraphy, making cards and sending them to friends and family.” I also had a “Joyful Movement” category that included yoga, stretching, tennis, and walks with my husband. I encourage my clients to come up with their own categories so it is completely tailored to their needs. Get as creative with your wheel as you want to (a colleague of mine created a watercolor one for herself--it’s beautiful!) and then put it somewhere where you’ll look at it every day. Our brains need regular reminders right now that we are safe. Activities like art, fishing, and basketball activate the parts of our brain that tell our nervous system that everything is safe in the world and it’s ok to play.
Now, a word of caution to you Type-A’s out there. The self-care wheel is NOT intended to be a To-Do list! Please don’t create a wheel and then put pressure on yourself to accomplish every activity on it by the end of Quarantine! That will defeat the whole purpose. Go back to the basics if necessary. Fill your wheel up with things like: “Take 10 big deep breaths,” or “Lay in bed and stare at the ceiling.” You might even remind yourself, “It’s ok to cry.” Yes. Crying can be a self-care activity (have you ever noticed that it’s very hard to cry when you don’t feel safe?).
I encourage you to create your own self-care wheel (or spreadsheet, list, or whatever speaks to you!), even if you don’t think you’ll ever use it. When I created mine, I found that simply shifting what my brain was thinking about and letting it dwell on activities that soothe me was enough to radically change my mood. Give it a try! #coronaselfcarewheel