The past weeks and months have been quite demanding and exhausting for many of us. The constant changes of the corona guidelines during the pandemic, the jugging between work and private demands, the uncertainty about the future and the lack of fun moments and vacation to recharge have taken an emotional toll on many of us.
In the past, busy periods left me feeling very tired when I finally did get that breathing space. While I was anticipating feeling better, I actually went through feeling overloaded, an energy dip, or even illness at first.
Paradoxically, when things get stressful, most people skip the things that nourish them and forget to take care of themselves. As a result, we can come out empty of energy on the other end. But how come that in moments when we most need to invest time into self-care, we forget about it or think it's optional? How can we avoid this recovery phase after it's all over, prolonging the fatigue we've been experiencing?
That which we call the doing mode has a strong pull. When we're focusing on "productivity", we think there is so much left to do on our list that we cannot "waste" one minute on ourselves. When we are very busy, our vision narrows down to a tunnel vision. We only see the things right in front of us instead of the whole picture. Consequently, our mind makes us believe that we can postpone self-care until later, when things are calmer. We feel that everything which is urgent, is much more important – forgetting that if we only "withdraw from our energy bank account" it will be empty at a certain point in time.
This postponement of rest and recharge can easily lead to a downwards spiral. The more exhausted we are, the less we take good care of ourselves - and the more exhausted we get. Often, this leads to a decrease of concentration and productivity and to an increase of worrying and negative thinking instead. Negative thoughts and emotions reinforce each other and provoke physical tensions, sometimes even leading up to inexplicable or somatic pain. What's more, tensions in the body can reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. Before we know it, we feel depressed and exhausted.
Switching to the being mode
How would it be like if you would simply pause at those moments when you start to feel overwhelmed? What if you could simply step out of the busy doing for a moment and switch to being?
Maybe you would notice some of your stress symptoms, such as bad sleep, bodily tensions or increased worrying. In our mindfulness courses, we ask people to make a list of their stress symptoms and share these with a person who is close to them. This way, they can alert you when they start seeing the symptoms. We do this because very often when we are stressed, we do not notice or ignore those symptoms ourselves.
In this situation, you could ask yourself: what do I need right now?
You could also question your thoughts, which are trying so hard to convince you there is no time for yourself. Is it really true that I have no minute for myself? And is it helpful to think this thought? What would I be or what could I do without this thought?
It is also important to remember that only when you are taking care of yourself, you can be there for others. You cannot give while running on empty. In the airplane, the standard advice is to put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others. It is the same for our wellbeing: when we are exhausted, we cannot take care of anyone else in a good way.
Some examples of self-care
So how can you take good care of yourself and feel less overwhelmed Can you remember which activities help you refill your energy reserves and nourish you?
Here are some of the things that help me when I am stressed:
- Walking in nature helps to reduce obsessive thinking and tune in to my senses. After a long walk, I feel refreshed.
- Eating nourishing and energising food is important to keep good health. I sometimes check in with myself how the food I just ate has influenced my energy level and, if needed, I adapt it next time.
- Massages and physical exercise are another important factor on my wellbeing list. Especially when things are very busy, I try to move enough to decrease the stress hormones in my body.
- Daily meditation is a nourishing moment for me. Since I changed my attitude from seeing meditation as something on my to-do list to a moment for myself, I have never skipped a meditation session.
- Meeting with friends is another deeply nourishing activity for me. Going out for dinner with people I love always boosts my mood. Talking to my friends about things that worry me generally makes those worries decrease or even disappear.
- Taking a retreat is part of my self-care package. A retreat gives me a time of silence, away from all the roles and tasks of daily life. I get rest and have time to slow down and reflect on what I want to keep in my life and what not. Every time, I eliminate things from my to- do list and replace them by activities that bring me joy instead.
- Investing time in hobbies is an important factor contributing to our wellbeing. For me, this is playing an the violin or reading. What are yours?
- Self-care also consists of standing up for ourselves, protecting our boundaries and learning to say "no" in a kind way. Kristin Neff talks about "fierce compassion" which is a combination of tenderness and fierceness. Both are needed for wholeness and wellbeing.
Whatever helps you fill up your energy bank account – make it a time for being where you step out of the doing and fully immerse in the activity that you have chosen. If you do those activities mindfully, you will be enjoying them even more and they will nourish you fully.
It is important to prioritise these activities in your planning and take them as seriously as an appointment at work – because self-care is not optional, it is vital to our wellbeing!
Sometimes, you may not even feel like doing them because you are too exhausted or down. It is actually in these moments that you need them most. Like the French say, "l'appetit vient en mangeant". So trust that after a while, you will start to enjoy them – just like the endorphins kicking in after 10 minutes of sports. It can be useful to have a list of nourishing activities to turn to when the going gets tough, in order to remind you of what gives you that much needed energy. You will notice that if you give yourself a little push at first, it will indeed be nourishing for you to step out of the busy doing and to engage in something you like for a while.
"I have a lot to do today. I need to meditate twice as much" was Gandhi's response to busyness.
So why wait until the busy period is over to refill your energy levels? Why not start right now and treat yourself to what nourishes you – avoiding recovery time afterwards and giving you real me-time to enjoy instead?