Yes! You need to take care of yourself during a crisis. Don’t wait to address your mental health needs. I promise you, the results can be disastrous.
During the present COVID-19 crisis, we all need reminders on how to take care of ourselves. When disaster strikes, we easily forget familiar routines and ways of managing healthy self-care. April’s series will provide hacks for self-care–mental, artistic/academic, physical, and spiritual–during a crisis.
What Happens When You Don’t Take Care of Yourself
“You need to take care of yourself during Pedro’s health crisis,” my friend urged me as she handed me an envelope.
“Thanks,” I said, tiredness making my voice thready.
“Get some rest,” she ordered. “And seriously, take care of yourself!”
“Ok,” I assented, planning to ignore her advice just as soon as I could squeeze her out the door. If one more person told me to take care of myself, I would splinter into a thousand pieces—spewing hurtful shrapnel at everyone around me.
When I heard her car start up, I opened the envelope and laughed cynically. A gift certificate for a one-hour massage. I had no time for a one-hour massage. With Pedro in the hospital three states away, two elementary-school-aged daughters, and a full-time teaching job, I had no time to drive into town and lay on a table for an hour while someone tried to massage my troubles away.
I appreciated the gift certificate and the kind thought behind it, but I resented the advice. People didn’t understand that during a catastrophic crisis I didn’t have time to indulge myself. At any moment I could receive a phone call from Pedro or the hospital, warning me to rush down to California for perhaps the last visit.
I tossed the gift certificate on the growing pile of bills in my office and walked like an automaton to the kitchen to prepare supper. The girls and my parents would return home soon, and everyone would want supper.
Soon, I thought to myself, soon things will change. Pedro will qualify for a stem-cell transplant and his health will improve. Until then, I would keep on keeping on.
The Cancer Crisis
Our lives tiptoed around the cancer crisis. In six interminable months, Pedro had received a diagnosis (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), gone into remission, and relapsed with the cancer moving to his brain.
I thought I’d done a good job dealing with each new crisis as it popped up. But I felt more and more brittle as the months went by. People’s advice to just ‘take care of yourself’ felt like angry bees buzzing around my head.
I didn’t have time to take care of myself—I had a (dying?) husband and two young daughters to take care of. Later, after he got well and the crisis but a distant memory in our review mirror, I would take care of myself.
But he got well, and I still didn’t take care of myself. Somehow, in the midst of the crisis, of putting everyone ahead of myself, I forgot that I had needs, too. I gained weight (50 lbs), I struggled with depression (even after Pedro’s miraculous healing), guilt stood ready to taunt me.
Pedro regained his former health in a year. It took me seven years. Why? Because I didn’t understand how to take care of myself mentally during a crisis.
How to Take Care of Yourself Mentally During a Crisis
1. Acknowledge that You Don’t Have to do this Alone.
It never occurred to me to seek a counselor for myself during Pedro’s health crisis. I thought I came equipped to deal with whatever life tossed my way. It never occurred to me to join a support group for spouses of cancer patients. I thought I should just take it in stride—that sharing my fears and frustrations would make me weaker.
Just the opposite. Finding a counselor to help me navigate my emotions during Pedro’s illness would have helped me cope better during crisis mode. A support group would have helped me know that other people shared my feelings of despair and doubt.
2. Find a Crisis Counselor or Explore Short-term Solutions.
Crisis counselors know how to administer psychological first aid and help you determine what your next step should look like. Although the current COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t fall into the tornado or hurricane categories of natural disasters, it IS a natural disaster that wreaks havoc on routines, relationships, and finances.
If you feel as if you can’t handle the crisis on your own anymore, reach out to a hotline where crisis counselors stand by to help you.
Call the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Hotline: They have 24/7 hotline help dedicated to natural or human-caused disasters. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs at 66746.
Mental Health America has tips for helping you identify common reactions and how to cope with them.
3. Journal About Your Feelings
Journaling helps you process your feelings in slow-motion, which helps stop the barrage of negative thoughts. List all the things you feel as you hear about how the COVID-19 crisis has touched the lives of family, friends, or even strangers.
I can easily let all those fears overwhelm me and turn me into an automaton, just like when Pedro had cancer. But writing down my fears and acknowledging them helps me understand that I don’t have to become the sum of my fears.Journaling about my fears helps me understand that I don't have to become the sum of my fears. #journal #journaling #selfcare #crisis Click To Tweet
Fears can morph into little bullies that torment us day and night. They can make the present reality feel like a new reality that will never change. Check out this post on dealing with bullies for tips on how to bring perspective back into the equation.
We all love the known and comfortable. When a crisis hits, we need to take time to grieve the changes. We don’t need to wallow in our grief, but we do need to acknowledge it. During Pedro’s cancer crisis, I failed to grieve his loss of hair, his weakness, the loss of our comfortable routines, and the plans we had made.
Everything got put on hold for 10 months while he battled cancer. It took me years to grieve all that I should have grieved at the time. Don’t put off grief. Take care of yourself by giving yourself time and space to grieve. You don’t have to keep up a brave front during the COVID-19 crisis.Don't put off grief. Take care of yourself by giving yourself time and space to grieve. #grief #crisis #selfcare Click To Tweet
Right now, I grieve the changes forced on me—my students can’t come to school, I have to learn new ways of trying to educate kids who don’t sit in my classroom, and all of my summer plans have evaporated. Well, hopefully not ALL of my summer plans. I hope I can still make it to Alaska to spend time with our daughter and her family.
5. Find Community
If only I had joined a support group, I would have understood that other cancer-patient spouses had the same feelings I did. Instead, I isolated myself and ignored the well-meaning advice to ‘take care of yourself’ from my friends—certain they had no idea how I felt and no way of knowing what reality for me looked like.
The COVID-19 crisis affects everyone, which makes it easier to commiserate and share our feelings of frustration, grief, and anger.
Try not to hang out in negative communities, though. For every sobering site, visit two uplifting ones. Share funny memes, and take time to laugh.
6. Make it a Family Affair
In my own doubt and misery over Pedro’s illness, I failed to notice that our daughters needed help, too. They seemed to take the changes and health crisis in stride, but years later, they, too, suffered.
Don’t put off talking to your spouse and your kids about healthy self-care strategies. Openly share your feelings of angst, despair, and sorrow. Ask your kids how they feel. Come up with ways to take care of yourselves as a family.
If your kids have reached the age of reason, let them choose a self-care activity for each day, and help them understand that you need time for a self-care activity each day, too. The current Cornavirus crisis provides a learning opportunity for you to teach your children about the importance of mental self-care.
7. Look for Beauty Every Day
It sounds weird to suggest that you look for beauty every day. But beauty helps mitigate the darkness. Pause to watch a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Re-read a book that makes you laugh. Take time to examine the beauty of a grasshopper’s eye or the flame-yellow of a Hooded Oriole.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,Psalm 24:1
the world, and all who live in it;”
Find a verse of scripture that speaks to your soul and fills you with hope. Remember that you don’t walk through this crisis alone.
Your Mental Health Needs Your Involvement
Whatever you do, don’t think you can take care of yourself later, after the pandemic has passed. Now is the time to practice mental self-care and teach your family about its importance. Self-care isn’t a dirty word and you shouldn’t have to sneak around to take care of yourself.Self-care isn't a dirty word and you shouldn't have to sneak around to take care of yourself. #SelfCareSunday #selfcare #mentalhealth Click To Tweet
What ways have you discovered to take care of yourself mentally during the crisis?