March marked the one-year anniversary of the WHO declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, and to say that it’s been a rough year would be an understatement. Whether we’ve lost loved ones, jobs, or simply the ability to distinguish between Sundays and Mondays, everyone is struggling under the weight of a constantly shifting “new normal.”
As a perpetually glass-half-empty type, I’ve responded to the challenge with my usual coping mechanisms of wallowing and complaining. But according Kirsten Bradbury, assistant professor of instruction in psychology at UT Austin, there are better options.
Bradbury, who is also a practicing clinical psychologist working primarily with children and parents, has observed the effects of stress on mental health long before the first COVID lockdowns began. Along the way, she’s assembled a number of evidence-based interventions and in 2017 and 2018 created a video series with Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services titled “Self-care Toolkit.” I spoke to her about how COVID and other recent stressors have affected our lives, and how we can reclaim some of what we’re so desperately missing.
What exactly is self-care?
Good question. Self-care is definitely one of those buzz phrases that lends itself to vague interpretations. A working definition might be that self-care is a set of techniques to help maintain health, manage stress and prevent burnout and depression. But while social media influencers often depict this in the form of bubble baths and manicures, Bradbury says that while such treats might provide a quick boost, they do little for long-term mental well-being. The tools she advocates are designed to be incorporated into our daily lives rather than a glimmering reward on the horizon.
“Think of self-care as being a lifestyle, as being something you strive for every day to take care of yourself in a foundational way,” she explains. “So that it’s not about when’s the next vacation, when’s the next break, when’s the next treat, when’s the next moment that I have a chance to give myself relief. But instead, you’re building a life that you need less relief from.”
Self-care tools come in a range of time-commitments and effort levels and most don’t require you to purchase anything. Bradbury’s videos cover everything from different kinds of meditation such as muscle relaxation and positive visualization to techniques for improving sleep. There’s even a video called “Calming Down” which details how to deescalate one’s own anger (you know, for after you check your Twitter feed each morning).
The tools we need now
“This is a slow burn process,” say Bradbury in describing the experience of the pandemic. “And for many people it’s shifted from anxiety, which was a big part of what we were battling originally — lots of uncertainty, lots of existential threat — to where now depression is the big thing we’re dealing with.”
She describes our collective situation as “depressogenic” in that if one told any of our stories to a mental health professional and asked them to predict the outcome for the individual, depression would be an excellent guess.
“And that same story applies to billions of people,” she says.
So, the tools we need right now are anything that can help prevent further descent into depression. These can include positivity and gratitude meditations, along with exercise, and any amount of social time we can manage, even if it’s virtual.
Bradbury is quick to acknowledge that, “everything in health psychology is easier said than done.” If you think you don’t have time for hour-long yoga sessions, you’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze in five or ten minutes of breathing and stretching.
Of course, even five minutes may feel like an impossible interruption when you’re in the midst of a frenzied workday and some bossy calendar reminder pops up asking you to drop everything and meditate. This is because it takes less mental effort to continue a task than to switch tasks, even if making that switch would help in the long run. But Bradbury assures us that taking self-care breaks gets easier over time as it develops into habit.
Another reason for why starting a self-care routine feels challenging is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The concept is usually represented as a kind of food pyramid for human motivators, with things like shelter and sleep and its sturdy base and loftier goals like creativity near the tip. According to Maslow, we won’t be able to focus on the upper tier goals if the more basic ones haven’t been met. So, choosing a self-care activity like playing music may not work out if you haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in weeks. A better strategy, says Bradbury, is to address what’s missing in your basic needs before attempting to work your way up the pyramid.
It’s also important to choose self-care activities suited to the time of day you plan to do them. If you need more energy during an afternoon slump, for example, physical exercise might be the best option. Whereas if your self-care window is likely to occur when you’re feeling overwhelmed, breathing and meditation could be a better choice.
Bradbury’s main piece of advice for those struggling to find time to take care of themselves is, “Don’t get sucked into all or nothing thinking. Aim for the things that you can do.”
I know. You’re sick of hearing exercise touted as the cure for all life’s problems. But there’s a reason it’s so widely recommended. While exercise won’t singlehandedly solve clinical depression, its benefits are broad and well supported by research. And, as with other tools, even a little exercise is better than none.
“If I had to only pick one self-care tool it would definitely be physical exercise,” says Bradbury. “It’s by far the one that I would say is going to keep you alive the longest. It helps with depression. It is the number one variable that’s going to get you the most bang for your buck.”
Call your mom
Something many people are low on these days, says Bradbury, is oxytocin. You’ve probably heard of oxytocin as a “love hormone” or for its involvement in childbirth and parent/infant bonding. But it can also be part of our stress response and has been shown to be protective against anxiety and loneliness.
So, how do we get our bodies to make more oxytocin? Well, under normal circumstances we could get a boost through physical contact with other humans, but it’s obviously hard to hug someone from six feet away. Luckily, there are work arounds. Studies have shown that just talking on the phone with a someone you feel close to (specifically kids talking to their moms, but I’m going to go ahead and generalize a bit) can provide benefits similar to seeing them in person. This is why it’s so important that we continue communicating with the people we care about even when we’re stuck in our separate physical spaces.
Hug your dog
Also on the oxytocin front, it turns out the positive effects of physical contact aren’t limited to human interactions. Touching dogs or cats, or really any mammal that isn’t likely to bite your hand off, also does the trick. And, for some people, even snuggling with stuffed animals can be enough to increase oxytocin production. Worried about looking foolish? Don’t be. Now isn’t the time to be concerned about the optics of a fully grown adult and a plush toy enjoying a movie night together.
Get out of your neighborhood
Another deficit most of us are dealing with is novelty. Usually, Bradbury explains, it’s kids that crave new experiences whereas adults are comforted by routine. But we’ve all been confined to our homes and neighborhoods for so long that even the most habit-driven of us are critically bored. To cope, Bradbury recommends simple interventions like going to a new location to walk. Also scheduling activities, even if you don’t get to all of them, can help prevent that feeling of days and weeks all blending into one shapeless mass.
Include your whole family (and then get the heck away from them)
While some of us are suffering from a lack of human contact, others (namely parents) just wish they had the ability to freeze time and get a few minutes of peace. Until such technology is available, your best chance at finding regular self-care time is to include your kids. They need exercise, novelty and sleep too, and you’re more likely to get these things for yourself if you can do them on their schedules.
Though Bradbury also encourages parents to create reasonable boundaries whenever possible. Carving out a sliver of alone time to regroup can be beneficial not just for a beleaguered caregiver but for the entire household.
“I like to tell people self-care isn’t selfish,” she says. “If you take care of yourself, you will be better equipped to be able to take care of other people.”
Adjust your expectations
A few days after I spoke to Bradbury, a massive winter storm swept through Texas resulting in widescale power and water outages. On the first dark night, I deployed one of the Self-care Toolkit gratitude exercises with decent success, but by day three nothing was helping. Maslow would surely have cited the absence of heat and water.
As with any psychological intervention, it’s easy to get carried away and expect self-care to transform us into superhumans impervious to pain and sadness. But for Bradbury that isn’t the goal. Part of being human is experiencing a range of emotional states, she explains, and the purpose of self-care techniques isn’t to eliminate negative emotions but rather to make us better equipped to cope with them.
“I would expect that people would have some times when they’re anxious. How can we not be right now?” she says. “And while I’m trying to help people to not be depressed, that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily trying to help people to not be sad, or to not grieve. There’s so much to be sad about, there’s so much to take on in terms of intense emotion. And to me being able to stay present, being able to be here and be actively engaged in whatever is happening, that in some ways is a better definition of functionality.”