Self-care in difficult times

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Sometimes things happen that are overwhelming to us. That can be a natural disaster, a political situation, a personal crisis. It can be illness, or weather, or a personal situation that we can’t get a grip on. Inside, much more about these five things you can do:

  • Overwhelmed? Step back from the media cycle for a bit, find things that bring you some joy
  • Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? Fixing these will help everything else.
  • Find methods of catharsis and integration that help you.
  • Consider cleansing, shielding, cleansing, filtering, and protection techniques for yourself.
  • You are not alone. There are resources out there and people who want to help.

Introduction

One of the roles of religion is to help us through tough times. We can’t fix the world all at once, but we do have tools that can help us sort out what’s going on, make choices that will help us keep moving forward, and hopefully come out the other side still more or less in one piece.

A wise and brilliant man I had the great privilege to know briefly (John M. Ford, known better as Mike) wrote an excellent piece in the wake of Katrina about what to do in times like this. I recommend his words, too.

Below, tips on things you may want to try in hard times, to keep going. This is a long essay, but I hope having it all in one place will be helpful.

Overwhelmed?

For many of us, it’s really tempting to have the TV on all the time, to be constantly checking Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook. But these things can be overwhelming rather than supportive. If you’re feeling like it’s all too much, here are several suggestions that might help.

Reduce the number of inputs

I find myself feeling really overwhelmed by the endless cycles of TV or radio, especially when they get into the endless rehashing of the same 10 minutes of news over and over again. You have permission to turn it off. Turn on the TV for 10 minutes every couple of hours to see if anything’s changed. Or the radio.

If you want to keep up on every small update, consider finding a written source: many people find processing text less overwhelming in an endless new cycle. You can still see minute to minute changes, but in a way you have more control over. (Also, in many of these sources, you can stop reading when you need a break, and come back, rather than feeling like you missed something because you stepped away to make tea or go to the bathroom or take a walk.)

Find supportive community

In times of stress, spend more time with people who support you, care about you, and care about the same things you do. Echo chambers aren’t great, but spend more of your time with people who give you hope about the world, whatever that looks like for you.

Let your friends know if you’re okay with people reaching out to you, one on one. Sometimes people don’t want to ask, but sometimes the best thing is finding someone else to talk to, share worries or fears with.

You may find that some people wind you up in ways that don’t help you – I sometimes find this in group conversations. If that’s the case, see about talking to people one on one, or find ways to keep the conversation about being together, sharing feelings, rather than being all about fear.

Do something else

Volunteering to help during a crisis is great, if you’re up for it. But it’s also okay – necessary – to take a break. Turn off the computer, take a walk, pet a cat (or a dog), smell something that you love. Even a brief break can help a lot – and some kinds of activities can help your body process the physical effects of stress much better. (More on that in a minute.)

Some things you might try:

  • Find a distraction. Let it distract you for a bit. The world will be there in an hour.
  • Work on a project that will feel like you’ve accomplished something, no matter how small. (Cleaning, reorganising something, making something are all good choices.)
  • Listen to music or read or watch something that engages you. As Mike says in his article, linked above, it doesn’t have to be happy. Just engage you.
  • Do something to document how you feel right now that’s about you – journal, create art, make a collage. Give yourself a chance to work through things in your own head.
  • If exercise is a thing for you, consider doing some. These days the Mind Lab Pro prices are affordable and could be the boost you need. It will help with the physical parts of stress, and it’s also a good distraction in its own right.
  • Anything that brings you joy is a reasonable choice for a bit. (If it’s a thing you have trouble limiting, though, maybe spend your willpower other places right now than picking that thing up.)

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Listen to your body

If you’re under a lot of stress, your body is shouting at you. Some of what it’s shouting may not be a good idea, but listen to the fact your body needs things. Signs of physical stress include inability to concentrate, moodiness, irritability, anger, memory problems, headaches, nausea, insomnia, fatigue, and a variety of physical pain. Here’s a more complete list.

Check in with your body. Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? These four things (HALT) are classic signs of stress, and things that if you tend to them, will help you process what’s going on around you, make better choices, and keep going.

Hungry

When we’re stressed, many of us start to have trouble eating (or we feel like something is too big or too important to make a proper meal, or we don’t want to make it, or we don’t feel hungry.) Only problem is that if our bodies get too hungry, we start to have more trouble reacting, we’re stressing ourselves more.

In the immediate aftermath of a stressful thing, expect that your reactions to food may change over time. You may find yourself unable to think about food, and then an hour or two later, be ravenously hungry. You may find you’re hungry for different foods than usual. You may have weird cravings or aversions. These things are pretty normal reactions.

Depending on your resources, you may want to put aside a bit of money for take out, grocery delivery, or other options that can give you more flexibility. (This is probably not a time to make a major overhaul to what you eat, or cook complicated new recipes for the first time, unless that’s your chosen distraction. It’s probably not a great time to make a dozen servings of something unless you’re about to have a lot of friends over.)

Long-term, it’s a good idea to have some food in the house that doesn’t take much preparation and still makes a decent meal. This might be stuff in the freezer, canned soup, canned tuna and crackers, always having hardboiled eggs handy, having a few meal bars you like as a last resort. Cheese is a handy food for me, and I always have some decent chocolate on hand. Your foods are probably different.

Angry

Stress can put our emotions on a roller-coaster. If you find yourself getting upset more easily, see what you can do to take a step back. Recognising that you’re upset or irritated is often a first step in doing something different.

Exercise can be a big help here. It doesn’t need to be exhausting exercise or high-energy. A walk around the block might help. A little dancing to a favourite song. If you have mobility concerns, even stretching or the gentlest movement you can do safely will help release tensions in your body.

If exercise is out of the question, consider ways to express your emotions on paper – drawing, writing, scribbling, tearing things into little scraps of confetti, whapping a pillow on your bed, or anything else that will help you get some of that tension out.

Do you have a pet? A spouse or romantic partner? A child? A friend you can hug? Physical contact with another living being who loves us and cares about us can also help with some of the same overwhelming feelings. In the absence of any of the above, a big huggable stuffed animal is not just for children.

If you continue being overwhelmed by anger, you may need help from a professional. Helplines and hotlines can connect you. Check and see if your workplace offers an employee assistance program (this often includes a few sessions with a therapist for free – see the resources section below.)

Lonely

Such a hard one to deal with – if you’re already feeling lonely or cut off, it can be even harder to reach out. However, there are other people out there who would be glad to talk, and spaces in which people can congregate. Which ones work for you is going to be a mix of things, but here’s some things you might consider:

  • Going to a physical community space like a library, community center, etc. where you can interact with other people in a low-key way.
  • Finding an online space where you can chat (not necessarily about the stressful thing!)
  • Finding somewhere to volunteer – it can help you feel like you’re helping others, but also connect you to other people in a way where it’s sometimes easier to make connections.

Long-term, I’ve found a lot of benefit from building lots of different connections in my life. I’ve been single for over 10 years now, so no romantic partner, but I have friends I talk 1-on-1 with on instant messenger (or occasional texts), I have an online chat space I hang out in outside of work, and I have a couple of other spaces I pop into, especially if I’m stressed.

Some of my favourite online sites include places to chat about other topics than the site focus, with people who have similar interests or takes on the world. If you’re up for forums, this is a place Pagan forums can be very helpful too.

Tired

The last of our four main symptoms. Stress can play havoc with our sleep, our sleep patterns, and whether that sleep does us any good. Fixing sleep is also really hard, especially if our brains are going a mile a minute. Some things that can help:

  • Try and keep a regular sleep schedule (whatever is normal for you). Don’t stay up extra late reading all the things. They’ll be there in your personal morning.
  • Take a break from media sources for at least an hour before you try and go to bed to give your brain a chance to quiet down. (Computer screens, phones, and tablets also have light that can keep us awake, though there are some alternatives for this like night modes or f.lux.)
  • Consider meditation (of the ‘letting distracting thoughts go’ form, below), free-writing, or other techniques to get your anxieties a bit more out of your head.
  • Read something distracting before going to bed.
  • Consider lying down and resting even if you can’t sleep. Classic sleep hygiene advice says you should use your bed only for sleeping, but I often find that lying down in the dark and reading something soothing, even if I can’t sleep, helps a lot more than not doing that.
  • Moving meditation during the day (dance, walking meditations, tai chi, etc.)

A meditation:

The ‘lettting things go’ meditation goes like this: Use whatever method works for you to getting into guided meditation (more background about meditation elsewhere on this site). Imagine yourself sitting on a riverbank with a fast-flowing river in front of you. Settle into a reflective breathing pattern that works for you. As thoughts crop up in your mind, create a symbol of them, and then imagine them floating off down the river, away from you. (If you’re not great with images, you could imagine holding a symbol of them and tossing it in the water, or whatever else works.)

Some people find this doesn’t work for their anxiety, but a lot of people find it helpful in reducing and acknowledging intrusive thoughts. Symbols can be anything that works for you. For example, if you’re worried about bills, you might see a bill envelope with the payment floating away. If you’re worried about your car, it might be the car. For less tangible concepts, you might imagine sending a suitable object out into the world: if you’re scared about fear, you might choose people hugging or a heart shape. The goal is to acknowledge the thing that’s intruding and upsetting, and then let it go for now.

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Find methods of catharsis and integration

This is where the Pagan stuff comes in for me. Catharsis is the term for releasing (and as a result, getting relief from) strong or repressed emotions. We have lots of ritual tools we can use for this. The techniques below can get you started, they will fit with many different practices.

Execration

This is a Kemetic ritual technique, and thanks to my local ritual group, a part of my ritual year now. Ancient Egyptian cosmology felt that there was a lot of chaos in the world, and at times, you would need to cast off or protect yourself from enemies or destructive forces of chaos. The same concepts can be used in other magical workings.

The basic process is that you name things you wish to execrate, write them on something that can be destroyed, and then destroy it. The ancient Egyptians would include names of individuals or other enemies, but modern practitioners may find that doesn’t fit with their ethics and choose concepts instead.

One of the best documented methods we know about was inscribing names on red pottery, then destroying the pots, but you can achieve the same results in other ways. In each case, you’ll want to identify the things you’re execrating in advance. You may want to pick a suitable magical number.

  • Write each item on a piece of paper. Once each one is written, scribble over it with markers, crayons, or ink until you cannot read the items. Tear up into little pieces, and stomp on them. You can also burn the pieces.
  • Melt wax into a shallow pan and carve the shape out (fishes are traditional and easy to trace for most people). Inscribe each shape, and melt in a bonfire or in a fireplace. (You may want a fire-safe container to catch wax at the bottom for easier cleanup in some cases.)
  • Buy inexpensive small pots (as for plants or craft projects) from a home repair store or craft store. Paint the items, each on one pot. Somewhere outside or otherwise safe, break the pots and grind them down into dust. If you don’t want pieces to go everywhere, you can double bag them in paper or plastic bags and hit them with a hammer.

Historic texts and additional resources are available online – this site has one set with some illustrations and a good starting bibliography.

Ecstatic ritual

The concept of ecstatic ritual is creating a ritual container for transformation and integration, and then entering into that container with your entire self. It’s a very dynamic approach that offers flexibility for different emotions, goals, and desires. In general, you create a ritual container (through casting a circle, inviting elements or other beings, etc.) and then raise energy toward your goal using different methods. Meditation, chant, dance, drumming, toning are all common – things that engage your whole body.

Sources that may help about this include a lot of Starhawk’s work. Her book with Hilary Valentine, Twelve Wild Swans has a lot of great advice and exercises to try and many examples and stories of rituals that might help. You can read more about ecstatic ritual in an article from River Roberts and Laurie Dietrich called Ecstatic Ritual: What it is and why we do it (based on the Diana’s Grove approach).

Books, music, the arts

The arts are one of the ways humankind has long tried to make sense of our world – that includes both creating them and taking them in. In hard times, make time for the arts, let yourself spend time with the ones you’re drawn to. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Books. Fiction and poetry have ways to help us make emotional sense of the world. Science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction help us imagine what the world might become. History and biography can help us make sense of how things got like they are.
  • Movies tell us powerful stories, and can give us visions of what might be, or help us understand what matters to other people (and better understand what matters to us.) Going through the building emotions of a movie to its conclusion can help us figure out how to get through something ourselves. Movie quotes can help us explain something to people who care about us.
  • Music comes in so many forms. We might get lost in trance, explore ecstatic dance, listen to a song that makes us cry, or one that makes us shout. We can find words and beats and harmonies to fill us up until it spills out into something new and changed.
  • Find something beautiful and look at it. Put something that matters to you as your phone wallpaper, on your computer, hanging by your bathroom mirror, all the places you can be reminded.
  • Make art yourself. Write a book or a poem or a story or a song. Draw and sketch. Make a collage. Make a playlist of how you’re feeling, and play it until you stop needing it.

Remind yourself what matters

There are lots of little ritual acts you can do each day to remind yourself of what matters to you. Some ideas:

  • Get a temporary tattoo with words or symbols that make you smile. Put it somewhere you can look at it. (Or if painting your nails or your toenails does this for you, try that.)
  • Have a password you have to type frequently? Pick one that reminds you of your current goal or hope or desire or dream. (Framing it as a sentence, taking the first letter of each word, turning a few letters into numbers or adding some punctuation works well to create it.)
  • Some people use mantras or words of power to help create a mindset that helps them move forward in hard times. Doing this well is beyond the scope of this article, but keep it simple, open-ended, and avoid negatives. (Marion Weinstein’s book Positive Magick has a classic chapter on this.)
  • Pick phone and computer wallpapers that remind you of your goals, passions, or focus of the moment. Use colour deliberately to help you. (Trust your gut on what you need more of.)
  • Consider creating little rituals in your day where you can pause, stop, and reflect on how things are going. Some people do this when making a cup of tea. Some keep a gratitude journal with three things each day. Some people choose a piece of jewelry to put on.

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Cleansing, shielding, filtering, and protection

In hard times, there are often a lot of complicated emotions around us, and for those of us who pick up on other people’s emotions, it can be overwhelming. I have several pages on my site that talk about specifics: energetic self-care, centering and grounding, and protection practices. The links below will take you to more details.

  • Establish a method of psychic hygeine to keep other people’s ick from getting stuck to you. A simple bath in salt water or with a salt scrub while imaging any ick going down the drain is a great start but there are many other cleansing techniques.
  • Even when it’s hard, many people find that having a cleaner living space helps them feel more secure physically and emotionally. If you can’t tackle everything, consider focusing on the space you spend the most time and your bed. You can use saltwater washes, essential oils, or incense to help energetically cleanse a space. More tips are on my home, sacred home page. 
  • You may find that centering and grounding will help you – centering helps you remember who you are, and grounding is taking in energy if you need some or letting out extra.
  • You may find it worth exploring techniques like pore breathing (breathing in good energy, breathing out unwanted things) or other breathing techniques.
  • Shielding is about making sure unwanted stuff doesn’t stick to you in the first place. It can be a complicated thing to sort out for yourself, because it involves different parts, but it’s often worth the long-term effort, especially if you regularly feel overwhelmed by emotions around you. (Filtering is a method of shielding that just turns down the volume of what’s coming at you.)

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Resources

Do you need someone to talk to? There are online helplines and hotlines for many different needs. One general one that gets great reviews is 7 Cups, an online peer listening resource. (It’s free, and the people listening have training in active listening.)

In the United States, in most places, calling 2-1-1 will connect you to community resources that may be able to help, or you can look up resources online. These places can direct you to specific organisations that are in your community or nearby you might not find on your own.

Many companies in the US provide Employee Assistance Programs. These are usually a benefit that’s free to the employee (and often their family), and which can refer you to resources like basic legal assistance, counselling, or someone to help you sort through what the next step is (like if a parent has a major health crisis, they might connect you to a social worker familiar with elder care resources who can tell you what the options might be.) Usually it covers a couple of sessions for free with a therapist.

Your public library is also an amazing resource: librarians can help you find local organizations, help for specific kinds of needs (like legal aid clinics) and much more, as well as distracting, soothing, or otherwise helpful books and materials.  If you have children in school, staff at the school will also know about many resources or can point you to someone in your community who can help more.

I’ve also been coming across some excellent other comments about self-care. Here are some you might find helpful:

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Questions?

Feel free to share this page widely or in other forms so long as you attribute it to me (Jenett Silver) and maintain the links back to my Seeking site http://gleewood.org/seeking/

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