Self-Care in Times of Change
/ Xenia Pestova Bennett shares some insights into wellbeing in times of change, how we can respond to some of the challenges of lockdown in small and direct ways.
“I was feeling somewhat restored, but curiously detached now, and rudderless. I had no glimmering of a plan, and, in the face of what I had at last begun to perceive as a vast and not merely local catastrophe, I was still too stunned to begin to reason one out. What plan could there be to deal with such a thing? I felt forlorn, cast into desolation, and yet not quite real, not quite myself here and now.”
Even though we are not (yet) hunted by carnivorous plants, we can relate to the musings of John Wyndham’s protagonist in the 1951 postapocalyptic classic Day of the Triffids. How do we process our new and still-evolving reality? What if not only our way of being, but our very identity as creatives, artists, musicians, is called into question — how do we navigate the changing nature of work and life?
The answers will be different for each of us, but the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to help others is hopefully something we can all agree on. I like to think of self-care as stocking up a sturdy shed with tools. While we don’t know which tool will come in handy when, we can be prepared by familiarising ourselves with their use, keeping them in good condition and practicing using them regularly so they don’t rust.
Here are a few to try.
Make sure to get exposure to natural daylight. Even if you don’t have an outdoor space, find a way to sneak out early in the morning to avoid crowds and spend a few minutes in the local park, or even simply walk through quiet streets. In addition to addressing Vitamin D deficiency, we benefit from light exposure for mood and sleep regulation (which is also why we should switch off screens well before bed time).
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” states Parkinson’s Law. This is especially pertinent to online work. I suggest working with a timer if you don’t already. Allocate a task to a slot, set your countdown and focus with no distractions (switch off notifications)! Once the buzzer goes off, you HAVE to stop and take a break, even if the task is not complete. You will finish it next time you have a slot allocated to it. This way, we can create some boundaries and put a double bar line between “work” and “life”. I do 45-minute chunks followed by a short break whether I am practicing piano, learning a new synth, marking student essays or writing this blog post. The Pomodoro Technique is also helpful.
Do some movement during breaks to reset the brain and energise the body instead of scrolling through Instagram. There is no need to implement a whole complex routine here, just move for a few minutes — or even thirty seconds.
Try one of these (as with any exercise, make sure that you take responsibility for any health conditions or injuries):
Stand (or even sit) with your feet hip-width apart, soften the knees, release your arms by your sides and shake. Shake out all the tension from the shoulders down, shake upper arms, forearms, wrists, fingers. Try shifting your weight from foot to foot as you shake side to side. Remember to keep the breath flowing as we have a tendency to hold our breath when focussing on a demanding or unfamiliar movement. When you stop, pause and notice how the body feels: is there sensation of movement? Tingling? Increased circulation?
Standing with your feet hip-width apart, start moving your torso side to side, leading with the belly. Point your belly button to the left, then to the right. Keep the knees soft and the arms completely loose: eventually, the arms will follow the body and start “swinging” around by themselves like a propeller if you are sufficiently relaxed. Think of the movement as originating in the belly, in the core, the “centre” of your being (this our vital energy centre, according to many martial arts traditions. Add a little dip in the knees as you swing, allowing the arms to flop and slap wherever they like. When you’ve had enough, slowly and gradually come to a stop.
Author Alex Pang stresses the importance of rest and freeing our mind from the tyranny of digital devices in his best-selling books The Distraction Addiction and Rest. According to Pang’s extensive surveys on creativity research, our minds continue to solve problems and come up with better ideas if allowed to stop and process input. It is important to truly create space for this, which means switching off devices and notifications while doing something fairly demanding that is different from “work.” Find a lockdown hobby: read a book, cook something new and sufficiently challenging, draw a picture, go for your walk, take up knitting, learn to do press-ups in full plank, make a gecko art museum, do your arm-swinging exercise…
If you end up binge-watching Netflix instead, do not despair. Acknowledge the need to grieve and process the situation in your own way without berating yourself. The co-creator of the Mindful Self-Compassion Programme, Dr Kristin Neff reminds us of the importance being kind to ourselves. “Soothing touch” is one simple exercise to provide comfort. Try this when you first wake up as you lie in bed: lay one hand gently over your heart or on your belly and take some time to acknowledge whatever is difficult in your life right now. Be understanding with yourself, accept that you are doing your absolute best under the circumstances and with the tools that you have.
Research shows that slow breathing can elicit the parasympathetic nervous system response, or “rest and digest.” We rely on this response in order to return our system to equilibrium following each sympathetic “fight or flight” alarm call, an evolutionary survival mechanism which can be activated by real or imagined danger. Our blood pressure and heart rate rise while energy is diverted from non-essential functions. This is fine when we need to jump out of the way of a speeding motorbike, but not great if triggered every time we think about an upcoming meeting or get an email notification. Elongating the exhale can be particularly beneficial (you might find it interesting to check if you exhale fully when feeling nervous or elated). Try this (but remember to listen to the body and stop if breathwork makes you feel more anxious):
Equal Parts Breath (Samavritti Pranayama in Sanskrit)
Sitting, standing or lying down comfortably, notice the breath without trying to change it. What is the quality of the breathing like – rough or smooth, deep or shallow, short or long? What kind of texture and rhythm does it have, what’s the temperature of the air like? Which part of the body is it felt in most: the belly, the chest, the ribcage, the back..? Now, check in with the length of the inhale and the exhale. Is one longer than the other, or are they approximately the same? Start lengthening the breath. If the inhale or the exhale is longer, you can gradually match the counterpart to be approximately the same length. Try counting seconds, making each in- and out-breath approximately five or six seconds long. Continue for a few breaths. If this feels OK, feel free to experiment with introducing a tiny pause, a suspension, a fermata, at the top of every inhale and the bottom of every exhale. This can perhaps be 1 second long, or 2, or 3. Continue for a while, then allow your breathing to return to a natural rhythm. Notice how this makes you feel.
Observing the quality of the breath without controlling it is of course in itself a traditional meditation practice. There is no need to formally sit for long periods of time to reap the benefits of mindful awareness: even a few seconds or minutes can help. I remember waiting backstage before an important recital a couple of years ago, feeling so nauseous from anxiety I was certain I couldn’t go on without throwing up. Then I started paying attention to my breathing, heartbeat, sensations in my hands and arms. Gradually, I was able to come back to the body and to the space I was in (and managed to get through the performance). Try the “Three-Minute Breathing Space” with Mark Williams here.
Finding the right selection of self-care tools is a personal affair, which is why it is important to try several and then commit to those that appeal for a while, practicing them regularly. This is the only way to find out what works for you. Once you establish trusted go-to routines, you will have the possibility of bringing a sense of normalcy and grounding to an otherwise difficult situation. So, start building that shed – and may it always remain well-stocked!
Note: The cover image for this article is Trifid (2010) by Joe Trifid by Joe Utsler, used under a CC-by license. The photo of Xenia was taken by Carla Rees.