8 tips for self-care in hard times

All weekend – the slowest, most anxiety-ridden weekend I've had in a long, long time – I kept telling myself I'd use some of the extra time to write. And every time I started thinking through one of the essays I was working on, my mind would check out. I don't feel like writing about that right now, I thought, with the sort of foot-dragging exhaustion reminiscent of college paper-writing days. But I didn't want to write about the coronavirus or COVID-19 or pandemics, either.

Slowness, especially at a time like this, can lead the mind down endless rabbit holes, apocalyptic tangents, and compulsive cart-filling on Amazon. Anxiety and idle hands on Sunday morning led me to try a new cooking technique for breakfast (cooking sweet potatoes and eggs en papillote, or in parchment packets), propagate 8 new pothos plants, and start seeds for vegetables and herbs. Finally, after a few too many scrolls through social media – which has become an echo chamber of both doomsday information and people who aren't taking this quite as seriously as they should, I took a step back and called my parents.

This is what made me think about self-care. And more specifically, the nature of self-care, which is about exploring, setting, and enforcing boundaries. It's interesting to me how imposed boundaries – such as the preventative social distancing measures taken by Ohio, which have included cancelling school for 3 weeks (and maybe more), banning events and large gatherings of people, and closing all bars and restaurants starting at 9 p.m. last night – force us to take a step back and explore our relationship with this boundary concept.

Boundaries may get a self-help woo-woo rep, but they’re actually a helpful thing. Not just in a situation like this, where we all find ourselves affected by a global pandemic, but within our daily lives and our smallest interactions with ourselves and those closest to us. The self affects the whole, and the self can often be the first to go, whether dismissed because of the daily grind of (previous) life, or in the crisis situation we’re all waist-deep in right now. It is easy to lose a meaningful sense of self in the middle of chaos. But if there’s one thing that years of therapy has taught me, it’s that I can’t do much for the whole if I’m not taking care of me.

When the structures of our daily lives shift – or, like now, when they’re completely yanked altogether – we feel overwhelmed. A quick glance through Facebook gives me a very real snapshot of everyone’s anxieties made public, and I can feel my own adrenaline spiking as I read. This has a pile-on effect, and while social media can be valuable connective tissue during social distancing or isolation, it can also have the opposite effect.

That leads me to this: consider your self-care in these hard times. Think about self-care in the context of boundaries – those which you will create for yourself and how you will operate, and how you will choose to interact with others. And come up with a plan for how you'll honor those boundaries, because that creates a path to succeed.

Below I’m sharing some of my own self-care in hard times tips. Some are from my own general practice, others are ideas I love that I’ve read about from others (and I source when possible). I hope they’re helpful. I hope they remind you that you aren’t alone, and that for better or worse, or six feet apart, we’re all in this together.

  1. "Try to be scared without being scary." I've been repeating this Brene Brown quote to myself, and sharing with others who have been honest about how they're struggling. Anxiety is at an all-time high right now. (On Saturday morning, I cried in my car because I was so overwhelmed.) But our actions do have an impact on others, and what you might think is just some off-the-cuff venting can put someone else in a really dark place. If we can acknowledge that this is, yes, absolutely scary, we can understand that this is something we're feeling together. Which leads me to my next tip.
  2. Social-distance, but don't isolate yourself. Stay in close contact with the people closest to you. One thing I told both of my parents was that I felt like we needed to be in more regular touch right now – specifically, that I wanted more phone time with both of them. Call your friends. FaceTime your family members. Check in on them. But you can get creative with this, too: have a Skype hangout. Play an online game together. Text each other memes.
  3. Accept that you'll have to adapt. One thing I committed to this year was getting my exercise back on track. After two and a half months of consistent workouts, I haven't hit the gym since last week, and I don't have plans to anytime soon. And I have to admit – I feel pretty lost without that habit. My husband suggested putting together a makeshift gym in the basement with some free weights. A friend of mine suggested resistance routines relying solely on body weight ("no equipment necessary," she said).
  4. Don't dive into habits that hurt you. It's tempting in times of anxiety and crisis to want to throw caution to the wind and engage in self-destructive behavior (alcohol and substance abuse, giving up on your healthy eating plan because it's impossible to get groceries right now, etc.). But these things aren't going to help. Here's a great tweet I read from local business owner and fitness professional Jason Harrison, who owns Present Tense Fitness: "Dayton, a theme I'm going to keep hitting between now and St. Patrick's Day is that one of the most important things you can do to support your community is to keep your immune system strong. Please don't get up at 5 AM and start drinking. Go have the breakfast or whatever." (Jason also put up a video guide to some great home workouts on his website.)
  5. Look at this as an opportunity. To form new habits that serve you, to try something you've always wanted to do. You've got the time to think about it. And you've got the time to do it. Yesterday, I wrote up a list of things I can do when I start to get bored, stir-crazy, or both. A couple items on that list: do a jigsaw puzzle, make pasta from scratch, try making my own sourdough starter, grow all the plants.
  6. It's okay to let some things go (or put them on pause). One of my best friends from childhood, a fearless educator and entrepreneur, launched a successful business last year. But as of last week, she was faced with the time-intensive task of teaching her fellow colleagues how to host classroom learning. So she decided to take a step back from the business, knowing full well that she could reconsider down the line. "I feel so much better," she told me. Pumping the breaks isn't failure. Pumping the breaks is assessing the situation, and responding in kind.
  7. Think about how you can help. This takes many forms. Maybe you focus on sharing information that's helpful to your community (a list of ways to help, or a list of places offering free or discounted meals). Maybe it's volunteering at the local food bank. Or maybe it's finding ways to help organize around the biggest needs. As Brene Brown would say, that takes the emphasis from "I" to "we" -- and this collective mindset is needed in crisis more than ever. There's no right or wrong to do this. There's no way to help that's "too small." The most important thing about this is that it should feel good -- and feel right to you.
  8. Be patient. With yourself, and with others. Everyone processes experiences differently. You can't expect people to respond or react in the same ways you do. Additionally, when humans are under a lot of stress, they can act like jerks. Give them a little grace.

Wishing you patience as you navigate this, and may you stay safe and healthy.

Ashley Bethard is the Director of Digital for Dayton Daily News and Ohio Newspapers. You can email her at ashley.bethard@coxinc.com.

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