In times of high stress, we tend to focus outward. We concern ourselves with urgent responsibilities, external events, and the needs of others, often forgetting about ourselves. Although it feels counterintuitive, in challenging times like those we are facing now, we should actually be doubling down on our self-care.
This isn’t about denying reality or forcing positivity. Science has shown the value of practicing self-care and cultivating positive emotions, and major universities and organizations are publishing research that supports the mind-body connection. Below are some science-backed steps we can all take to tend to these critical parts of ourselves, so that we can bring fierce compassion, whole-hearted dedication, and balanced wisdom to the important causes in our world today.
Have fun to recharge.
When it comes to stress, we should apply the advice we hear every time we fly: we need to put our oxygen mask on first before we can be helpful to anyone else. In difficult times, we sometimes feel guilty, like we should be doing something more “productive” with our time. But in fact, doing more of whatever brings us joy makes us more effective in every aspect of our lives.
Laughter is an underrated therapy -- it lowers stress hormones, reduces blood pressure, and boosts mood -- and one that rarely costs much. Especially when we’re spending more time than usual working with strong emotions and stressful situations, laughter and fun help balance us. Make plans with friends who make you laugh, watch a funny movie, or, if there are children in your life, spend more time with them -- they’re the best laughter role models. Do things you enjoy. Spending time with your pets, listening to music, and creating or seeing art are therapeutic and help us reconnect to the best parts of ourselves. (Karaoke is at the top of my list in this category.)
Practice healthy, holistic habits for body, mind, and soul.
Quality sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise are essentials if we are to be at our best. When we’re sleep deprived our mood is unstable, we make poor decisions, and we can’t focus. In her book, The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington makes a compelling case for prioritizing sleep, and I’ve written about the benefits of good “sleep hygiene” in previous blogs.
Similarly, exercise not only helps keep us physically healthy, but it also promotes mental wellbeing. Some studies suggest it can be as effective as medication in the treatment of depression. Yoga, along with dance, are my go-to physical activities to stay healthy and balanced. Yoga is particularly calming and rejuvenating during stressful times, and it’s also has been shown to promote healing, emotional regulation, and confidence in the long term.
Take digital media breaks.
Especially when there’s a lot happening in the media, checking our favorite websites and social media can quickly become obsessive and unhealthy. While it’s important to stay informed about current issues, we also need to give our minds and hearts a chance to reboot. In a previous blog post I shared advice from various experts for managing the stress of constant media, and this piece by digital media expert, Joanne Tombrakos, outlines a comprehensive plan for getting your digital time under control. When I feel my media consumption becoming addictive, I fall back on the motto: Just say NO.
Taking some time for complete stillness can rejuvenate mind, body and soul. More and more, research is demonstrating the beneficial effects of meditation. For the laundry list of perks, as well as basic instructions for getting started, Harvard has a great resource and there are also dozens of apps that can support your practice.
Prayer, in whatever form feels most comfortable to you, can also provide comfort and stability when we’re facing challenges. It doesn’t have to be formal or connected to an organized religion. Some people experience spending time in nature or serving others as forms of prayer. Prayer can be as simple as taking some time to find stillness, to tune in to your sense of a higher power, and bring to mind whatever feels important to you, whether in the form of a mindful action, a question, or a thank you. In my case, incorporating daily mass into my schedule has been a source of strength and calm.
Write about it.
Journaling can help us process our emotions and make sense of our experiences, and you can take it in a lot of different directions beyond the classic diary style. To stay aligned with your purpose, jotting down a daily or weekly intention can be useful. A gratitude journal -- in which you regularly write down a few things you are thankful for -- is particularly supportive in difficult times, as it draws our attention back to what’s truly important and can help us gain perspective. (This practice isn’t limited to any one form; I make gratitude lists all day long both in writing and in my head). One of our favorite resources for gratitude is Tara Dixon’s Gratitude Designs: healing, integrative work combining art and gratitude. Recent science has revealed the power of gratitude to reduce the risk of anxiety, depression and substance use, and to reduce feelings of anger and bitterness in favor of joy and enthusiasm. And perhaps most important for all of us who are feeling anxiety right now, according to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, gratitude can give us a “deep and steadfast trust that goodness exists, even in the face of uncertainty or suffering.”
Engage in small acts of kindness.
When we feel threatened or fearful, the impulse can be to withdraw and hold back our love and kindness. However, we can actually combat feelings of defensiveness, hostility, and disconnection with feelings (and acts) of compassion. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley has an incredible library of resources with information about the powerful science behind kindness and other positive emotions, as well as ways to create a kindness habit in your everyday life.
Kindness, like anything, improves with practice. One way to cultivate kindness is through intentionally reflecting on the good in others and wishing them well. Guided compassion meditation can be helpful. The classic practice begins with sending kind and loving thoughts toward a loved one, and gradually expanding the circle to include strangers and eventually even those with whom you experience difficult emotions. Incorporating random acts of kindness in your day can also be transformative -- check out this list of 101 ideas to get you started. I am constantly amazed at how helpful this is and have ramped up my random acts of kindness each day.
Right now and for the foreseeable future, we all need to be at our most energized, most alert, and most resilient. We can’t be any of those things, or be there to support others, if we don’t tend to every aspect of our health. Leading with love and compassion for ourselves and others is the most powerful path to peace and healing.
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