So much is going on in the world, in our careers, and in our personal lives that it’s easy to feel fried. And while the term “self-care” can sound indulgent when so many people are struggling to survive right now, I’ve begun to see that it’s an essential survival skill for your mental health.
The pandemic. The election. The demands for social justice. The surreal divisions in our country. The sudden pivot to all things virtual. It’s not hard to see why, as a nation, we’ve turned to our vices against such a toxic backdrop for whatever personal crises we’ve also faced. In my own life – which often seems so shiny with book news on social media – there have been challenges. Both my Tía Isa and my mother-in law died unspeakably lonely deaths this year because of pandemic restrictions. Our middle daughter, a nurse working in ICU, contracted (and thankfully survived) Co-Vid two weeks ago.
So, yeah, this has been a year when I’ve had to remind myself that it is OK to make time to take care of myself and those closest to me.
Here are the top five things that have helped me.
Getting good sleep: For rest I turn to reading and ritual. I may read books written for children or I may venture into the world of books for grown-ups. Regardless, I make a ritual of warming some milk with vanilla and cinnamon (recipe courtesy of Nina LaCour’s novel, Watch Over Me) and let myself get transported to other worlds before I fall asleep. It doesn’t always work, but more often than not, I can go to sleep relaxed.
Being outdoors: Find fresh air. For me, time in the garden gets me sweaty, tired, and in touch with the natural world. Plus, it’s one of the few spaces where I don’t have to don a mask. My gardening hobby comes with a side benefit to my writing. I’ve figured out some of the thorniest problems in my manuscripts while digging out rocks or clipping back vines
Finding new ways to exercise: Face it. Sitting in your writing chair isn’t going to do your body any favors. I left the gym during the pandemic, but I’ve taken up walking about two miles a day to keep limber and to spare my back from hours of being seated in front of a screen. Twice a week, I also indulge in YOGA! Yes, all caps, mostly because I’m not particularly flexible or good at it. I’d been doing the practice available on the Downward Dog app, but then my son pointed me to Yoga with Adriene and I’m glad he did. She’s been sharing her practice since 2012. It’s free. She has videos for every type of person, including playlists. And, she often exercises with her adorable dog, Benji. Just looking at pets makes me feel better. Need I say more?
Setting boundaries: Saying no is really hard for me because I struggle with the idea that I’m disappointing someone else. But I’ve decided to face this faulty thinking head-on as part of self-care. This coming spring, for example, I’ve closed my calendar except for my publisher-arranged events and those commitments already under contract. I’ve cut back on my teaching, too. It will mean seeing fewer of you. But it will also mean that I can write quietly for a few months. The book world won’t forget me in a few months of rest and writing, I’m sure.
Staying connected with friends: Remember phone calls? Now is the time to make them. Just the sound of a friend’s laugh can lighten my load, so I go old school and key in their number to hear their voice.
Of course, everyone’s road to relaxation looks different. My pal, Lamar Giles, turns to gaming on his PS5. “Whether I’m pretending to be an NBA player, a soldier, a treasure hunting thief, or a former god I find gaming for an hour or so helps me de-stress and feel like I haven’t been stuck in my house all day everyday.
Writer/illustrator Angela Dominguez says that at the end of the day, restlessness and anxiety kick in. “I find exercising, specifically running, helps calm me down. Long walks and hikes help, too. I am also trying to savor the small things that make me happy. Jigsaw puzzles, FaceTime, extra cuddles with my dog, baking shows, and awful reality tv are just a few. It helps!”
My assistant, Kerri Poore, raves about the Calm app. Both she and her 10-year-old son use it to unwind at the end of the day. They listen to meditation experts guide them on learning how to meditate; or, they sit back, relax and listen to a 10, 20 or 30-minute “body scan” which helps them focus on their breathing. “I especially like sleep stories, which are for both kids and adults. I really recommend a story told by Idris Elba…”
Here are a few more expert sources on self-care: