How to practice emotional self-care

May 4, 2020
A woman opens her arms wide and breathes in fresh air as a way to practice emotional self-care
Photo: Getty Images.

Right now, many of us are living somewhere we never wanted to be. Our comfortable home at the corner of Familiar and Reliable has been moved — and we’re pretty sure we don’t like this new address at the intersection of Uncertainty and Worry.

Many of us thought that the coronavirus pandemic would be over by now. Things may yet change, but it looks like our “normal” lives aren’t returning anytime soon. Some businesses and schools have tentatively reopening, but what we’re moving toward is still unclear. A lot of uncertainty remains about jobs, school, and travel.

As we shift our thinking to longer-term impacts of this pandemic, it’s important to remember the things that haven’t changed. Many of the same habits and techniques that apply to shorter-term stress apply equally to longer term concerns. Self-care becomes even more critical. Thankfully, although stress can have a cumulative negative effect on the mind and body, we can manage much of it through intentional choices.

Practice healthy habits for emotional self-care 

We understand that exercise, a good diet, and enough sleep is essential for health — but emotional self-care can be easier to overlook. Caring for our mental health, however, is just as critical as our physical well-being — and during this pandemic it becomes an even more important element over the long term.

For better or worse, short-term issues are often endured through a certain amount of just gritting our teeth. If the pandemic had resolved in a month or two, the impact would have been big enough (and devastating for some). In the beginning, the tunnel seemed short enough that we could see light at the other end: jobs would come back, summer plans would unfold, school would start up in the fall, the world would open back up a few months after this all started.

As we move into the next stage of this crisis, we’ve started to recognize — with perhaps a spike in our worry and sadness — that we have to adjust to a changed reality for longer than we may have expected. As the challenge in front of us extends, it helps to be intentional about our feelings.

For our own mental health, we have to acknowledge that our lives have, in fact, not just been interrupted but disrupted.

couple riding bike as getting exercise and being outdoors is important for emotional self-care.
Exercising and getting outdoors are both great ways to address your emotional self-care. Photo: iStock.

Don’t suppress or ignore your feelings

Tips in practicing emotional self-care

  • Be gentle on yourself and others. Everyone, including you, is doing the best they can.
  • If news or social media make you feel worse, take a break. It’s good to be informed, but it’s also OK to cut back if it’s making things harder.
  • Care for your body. Get exercise, ideally outside. Get enough sleep. Eat well.
  • Connect with friends and family responsibly. Physical distancing is still important to reduce spread of COVID19.  Acknowledge that virtual connection isn’t the same as being together. Being unable to look people in the eye (because you’re either looking at the image or in the camera, but you can’t do both) is disorienting and fatiguing. The absence of human touch is profound, especially for those living alone.
  • Take time to acknowledge and express your feelings: sadness, fear, frustration, overwhelmed, anger are all normal responses to this deeply abnormal time.
  • Focus on what you can control and keep to a reasonable routine.
  • Notice what you’re grateful for.
  • Get the support needed for you and your family. Kids especially need extra love and care to manage these difficult times.

Denying the impact this tiny virus has had on pretty much all the systems in our lives can make things worse. We can try to deny, suppress, and ignore, but those emotions eventually come out one place or another. The more open and honest we are with friends, family, and ourselves about our fears, the better we tend to feel. We have to acknowledge how we feel about all the things we’ve lost or may yet lose.

And what is happening to us is a form of loss. Some parts of this loss are concrete: jobs, school, vacations, perhaps even loved ones. Other elements are more abstract: the loss of certainty, security, connection to friends and family. Either way, the human response to loss is grief, and the way to deal with grief is to mourn. Just as when a loved one passes, we acknowledge how our lives have changed through their absence, so too we need to acknowledge how this pandemic has changed our lives and our world. And just as with a death, we rarely go back to things exactly as they were. Rather, we learn to live with a new reality.

And this is okay. Major events and disruptions should lead us to new perspectives. Maybe we emerge from this time with a new habit of handwashing, a new respect for health care workers, or a new appreciation for the simple joys of hugging a friend and sitting down for a cup of coffee or a beer together. This is always our choice in difficult times. Will we dwell on the pain, frustration, and anger? Or do we acknowledge our loss, honor our feelings, and eventually look to what we can learn about how to live more thoughtfully and fully having endured these losses?

The sadness, loneliness, confusion, stress-eating, sleeplessness, fatigue, anxiety, anger, and irritability many of us feel these days are all signs of normal stress, but they are also signs of grief and mourning.

Consider the Stockdale Paradox

It’s important to recall that we are far from the first people to find ourselves, unwillingly and unhappily, in this space. People in every generation have had similar challenges. The corner of Uncertainty and Worry is surely where Londoners found themselves during the devastating Blitz bombing by the Germans. Those who lived through the Great Depression knew this neighborhood well. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 created all the same feelings we’re experiencing — without modern medicine and technology to stay connected. We can look to those who survived for guidance on how to adapt and endure.

Admiral James Stockdale was tortured and abused as a POW in Vietnam for seven years. He survived by finding a balance between knowing that he would get through it, yet not denying the severity of his situation (what’s now called the Stockdale Paradox). As he put it, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

He balanced optimism and faith with realism and honesty. In fact, he noted that the pure optimists among his fellow prisoners often did worse because they kept putting all their faith in specific timelines — being released by Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then Easter. The repeated disappointments were harder than knowing this would eventually end, but not setting unrealistic deadlines. Adm. Stockdale’s example can help us. Know that this will pass, the pandemic will end — we just don’t know when. So we hold on to the knowledge that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, but since we don’t know the length of the darkness, we just keep walking, shedding as much light as we can through kindness and compassion, looking forward to the day we emerge from the other side.

Know you can choose your response

Dr. Victor Frankl also offers wisdom on surviving difficult times. Dr. Frankl was, like many Jews and minorities, imprisoned in horrific concentration camps. He watched as fellow inmates suffered and died. Frankl lost most of his own family during the war.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he reflected on what helped some survive the devastating experience of being in the camps: attitude. He wrote, “Everything can be taken from a (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

We cannot choose what happens to us — whether that be cancer, the loss of a loved one, or a pandemic — but we can choose how we will respond to those circumstances. We can choose to be kind, to be hopeful, to be helpful, and to care for ourselves and others in ways that sustain and strengthen us. The pandemic can take many things away from us, but it cannot take our freedom to choose how we respond.

Frankl, Stockdale, and countless others have endured tremendous hardships. And while suffering isn’t a competition — someone else’s tragedy doesn’t mean your feelings of struggle, fear, and loss are less meaningful — perspective helps us recognize that we can find the strength to endure. This is hard. This new place of ours, between fear and uncertainty, isn’t where we want to live forever, but most of us are here right now. By exploring the neighborhood a bit through acknowledging and expressing our feelings, practicing good emotional self-care, and connecting with others in safe ways, we can make it a bit more familiar, a little less scary, quite a bit more tolerable.