As with everything I post here and on social media, I share tips and tactics I use in the hopes that others will find the information helpful. I don’t claim to be a therapist. Heck, I don’t even claim to be a trained chef. (I have written a cookbook however!)
Americans currently face a growing mental health crisis. The strategies in this post can help with stress and mild anxiety but if you feel paralyzed by stress or suffer from clinical depression, please speak with a healthcare professional.
The big business of self-care
Definitions vary but essentially self-care refers to undertaking activities that reduce stress and improve our mental and physical health. While writing this post, I looked up the hashtag #selfcare on Instagram to get a gist of how people use the term. That search turned up 37 million results. Well, you know we call 37 million people with a common interest—a target market.
Millions of Americans need help managing their stress and anxiety. Unable to afford a trip to the doctor, many rely on self-care. Companies peddling self-care products and quick solutions have rushed in to serve (or exploit) this market and today the self-care industry is worth $450 billion.
These marketers have appropriated the term self-care in order to slap it onto just about every product that they can target at women: silk pillowcases, unbleached organic cotton socks, hairdryers, face masks, beauty products, lotions of all kinds, even Botox. They’ve all been rebranded under the umbrella of self-care. I think we should call this type of labeling “care washing.”
I’m not saying we should never buy anything or never treat ourselves; just be aware of the marketing lingo. The following self-care activities won’t cost much, if anything.
Create a to-not-do list
Things on my current to-not-do list include:
- Checking news, social media and email in an infinite loop all day long
- Worrying about things that haven’t happened yet
- Beating myself up when I’m not “productive”
- Beating myself up when I do anything on this to-not-do list
- Accumulating more jars
When I was younger, my to-not-do list also included worrying about what other people think. As I grew older, worrying about other people’s opinions became too time-consuming and exhausting. This liberation came in my 30s.
Call in your social supports
Thank goodness we can connect and see each other virtually during Covid on Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet, WhatsApp… I’m not sure what the holidays will look like this year. Many people find the holidays difficult during a good year. The holidays during hellacious 2020 will be hard for many more.
Some members in your support group no doubt also feel anxious and upset. You can practice empathy by asking them how they feel, listening and trying to understand. The world needs more empathy. To prove this, I would link to some of today’s headlines if my to-not-do list above did not prevent me from checking the news too often.
Practice meditation and yoga
I’m a big believer in both of these to help reduce stress. But in order to reap the rewards of meditation, you need to practice it daily, not merely at the moment when stress overwhelms you (although deep focused breathing can help with that). I learned to meditate using the hong-sau method. There are others.
Yoga provides similar anxiety-reducing benefits. If you’re new to the practice, check out Yoga with Adriene. Several years ago, I repeatedly attended a very difficult hot yoga class that almost killed me. Frustrated, I searched online for something less, I don’t know, competitive, and found Adriene. She’s great.
Knit, sew or make something
The repetitive, meditative motion of knitting has helped calm my nerves through anxiety-inducing events such as my daughter MK’s surgeries when she was 7 and 8 (she has a non life-threatening condition). During a 9-hour surgery, I remained in my waiting room seat, knitting non-stop. I made MK’s stuffed bear, Bearette, some beautiful turtlenecks.
Yes hobbies can create waste and cost quite a bit of money if you let them but you can choose your materials carefully—natural fibers and upcyled fabrics for example—and not waste those materials. My produce bag sewing group has given away over 3,000 reusable produce bags at the farmers’ market but we have not spent a dime on fabric. People have donated unwanted fabric and sheets and I’ve actually had to turn down donations.
Cook your favorite dish
Or cook something new if you enjoy experimenting. To occupy myself as the polls began to close the night of the election, I made a sourdough discard pizza topped with ratatouille. Delicious! I then started a batch of fermented cashew cheese to spread on the next pizza (recipe coming soon).
Limit the caffeine and alcohol intake
I haven’t completely cut black tea—I love it so. But I avoid twitch-producing consumption levels. If you enjoy the ritual of drinking tea but caffeine affects you similarly, stick with herbal.
I’m not a teetotaler—merely a lightweight—but please go easy on the self-medicating with alcohol. At the start of the pandemic, alcohol sales increased by 54 percent and online sales increased by 262 percent compared to the same time period in 2019. You don’t need to be a therapist to understand that these increases will create problems.
Keep a gratitude journal
When my kids were little, every day (well, most days), I would list five things for which I felt grateful. A notebook or even a notepad made out of paper destined for recycling bin will work to jot these down.
Perhaps I occasionally wrote something profound but usually my lists resembled the following:
- Charlotte slept for five hours straight last night
- MK didn’t run around the table during dinner
- I went to the bathroom alone—twice
- I wore clean sweat pants today
When I want to get work done on my laptop, I block distracting websites for up to 24 hours using Self Control (compatible only for Macs, not PCs or phones). Once I’ve hit the start button, I cannot do a thing to override the app. I use Forest to stop myself from checking my phone constantly. If I check my phone with the app running, I will kill the tree growing on my screen. Its ensuing sad and withered appearance makes me feel terrible so I avoid picking up my phone. I do wish Forest actually blocked apps but it has helped. Freedom blocks many but not all apps.
Even with various apps and tricks, during the pandemic, I haven’t been accomplishing as much as I’d like to in a day and that’s fine. Like many of you, worrying about our intertwined, simultaneous crises—Covid, the climate crisis and a society increasingly so unjust to so many that it can only either radically change or implode—makes focusing a challenge.
You’ll feel better if you get out of your pajamas. A quick shower will also help. I don’t bother showering every day though (even before Covid, I found that every other day sufficed). Daily showers strip your body of beneficial bacteria that help kill the bad bugs.
Take a nap
You may have to work long hours, or work at home or look after small children. But if you haven’t been sleeping well and you are able to take a nap, then take the nap. Napping does not make you a lazy slacker. Naps can help relieve stress. However, they can make depression worse. Again, if you are depressed, speak with a health care professional.
Spend time in nature
Getting out in nature can reduce anxiety, improve memory, boost immunity and improve physical health. You may not be able to go on a hike or visit a park during Covid but if you have a yard, spend some time there or gaze out the window at a tree.
Growing plants indoors also provides benefits as indoor plants can reduce stress and alleviate anxiety. I find that by nurturing living things—even so much as a basil plant—I focus less on my stress. This might help explain my obsession with preparing fermented foods—they are alive after all!
Read a book
A study from the University of Sussex showed that reading a book or newspaper for a mere six minutes can slash stress levels by 68 percent, more than listening to music (61 percent), drinking a cup of tea or coffee (54 percent) or taking a walk (42 percent). But do try those methods as well!
Reading forces the mind to concentrate, which relaxes the muscles. And like meditation, reading prevents your mind from wandering.
Many libraries have opened to the public or offer curb-side pickup. So go online and put some books on hold that you’ve wanted to read. Or support your local independent bookstore.