My therapy session with Cora has its usual, harried beginning. She arrived ten minutes late, rushing into my office with her typical apologies; this week it was traffic, last week, a meeting ran late. But today she surprised me by telling me what she did on a rare personal day she took off work.
“Wait, did you say you were submerged?”
“Yes, it’s a floating rest pool.”
“What does it do?”
“It accelerates rejuvenation.”
“Oh, I have no idea, but there’s lots of research. And hey, if it’s fast, I need it!”
“So you lie in it . . .”
“Yes, for thirty minutes.”
“And . . . what?”
“It’s supposed to be as helpful to your body as three massages and ten hours of sleep.”
Cora is lit up, like she often is, explaining this to me. Our sessions are at 7:00 p.m., and she comes straight from the office. It often takes her half the session to stop vibrating from the relentless pace of her workplace. And I truly feel for her; her employer’s expectations are intense. Cora is wonderful at what she does, but she enjoys her job less and less, her sleep has become erratic, and her life with her family is suffering. I fear that Cora may think she has temporarily solved these problems with her thirty-minute float. As I consider how to continue, she absentmindedly reaches for her phone, checking the notification that has popped up on the screen.
“That can wait.” She looks up from her phone. “Anyway, I couldn’t spare the whole day… too much to do at home. So, speedy float it was!”
“Did it . . . work?”
“Oh, heck if I know! But I’m off the hook for self-care, right? At least for this week.”
Self-care has never been more important or more confusing to apply. In our work as therapists, we are all alarmed at the number of clients we see stuck in cycles of overwhelm > exhaustion > burn out > recover > repeat. Folks like Cora look to things like “speedy float” and spa days as the answer, and, while these things can be great, they are better for us when they represent replenishment, not recovery! We’ve bought into the messaging that self-care is something we can only do when we are checked out of our normal routine.
I have become passionate about reimagining self-care as an integrated part of our hour-to-hour and day-to-day lives. Self-care, at its best, is both DAILY and DOABLE.
Clients like Cora, (and let’s face it, many of us are a lot like Cora) spend much of their days revved up, running at 85 mph. And, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as we have plenty of slow mixed in. Yet I fear that 10-mph moments are a lost art. The majority of my clients pick up their phones without thinking in virtually all of the pauses in their days, injecting even more stress hormones into their already churned up bodies. I’m finding myself coaching my clients on how to do small things that will help them feel just a bit better. Understanding their bodies as a pot of hormone soup they are cooking each day has been a persuasive and empowering metaphor.
I remember a day one of my housemates accidentally made soup with one tablespoon of cayenne in it when the recipe had called for only one teaspoon. Our mouths were on fire and we had to stop eating immediately after the first bite. Our bodies can become something like that over-spiced soup when too much of the stress hormones are coursing through them. Just like soup with too much cayenne pepper becomes inedible, when we have too much stress of the hormones in our bodies, we feel anxious, irritable, and emotionally fragile. Seasoned chefs will tell you that an over spiced soup might be saved by adding brown sugar or potatoes to mellow and soak up some of that spice. Similarly with our bodies, we can change the way we feel when we add happy hormones – oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins – to our bodies.
Let’s run with this metaphor. Consider yourself to be a chef who is cooking a vat of soup in her body each day. The ingredients you have available are stress hormone blend (cortisol and adrenaline) and happy hormone blend (oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins). We are all starting the day with soup stock each morning. At some times in our lives, when things are going well and life stressors are at a minimum, that soup stock that you begin with each day is great! But at times in our lives when we are bombarded with stressors, the soup stock is not that great. It already has a lot of stress hormones in it; it’s too spicy before you’ve even gotten to work! At times like this, it will require more intentional effort to make a nourishing, tasty soup. You may need to create experiences that give yourself an injection of happy hormones throughout your day in order to feel better overall.
DAILY and DOABLE
We can create these experiences with small, focused interventions that can serve as the brown sugar and potatoes in your hormone soup on any given day. During COVID when my caseload of struggling clients was bursting at the seams, I made it a habit to stretch between sessions – a practice that inserted a bit of happy hormones into my body. I also recited a midday prayer, which brought me both perspective and redirected my thoughts and emotions in a way that was palpable! Doing these stretches and the midday prayer probably took a total of 6-8 minutes of my day, but made a big difference in the overall feeling of a day of counseling. They were my potatoes and brown sugar, making my soup taste better.
These are the kinds of interventions that I’m hoping will become the new way of considering what self-care really means. Too often, people think they don’t have time for self-care because they think of it as something like a spa day or training for a marathon! We need to know what to do in any given moment that will help ourselves when life is delivering way too much of the stress hormones. When I feel the impact of too much stress hormone, I can either scroll through my newsfeed and add more, or I can listen to an encouraging, upbeat song. I can check email and add more stress hormones, or I can do 50 jumping jacks and add some happy hormones. I can stew on anxious thoughts about my aging parents, or I can have a tickle fight with my kids.
Think about it. If a few minutes in a given hour feel pretty steady and good, then that hour will feel better. If a couple of hours in your morning feel pretty good, then that morning overall will feel better. If you have a morning that feels pretty good, then you might feel the impact on your entire day. Several days that feel more steady and good lead to a week feeling better, and so on.
So my first challenge to Cora, and to any who relate to her, is to learn to make tastier hormone soup without it taking too much time or effort. I started with the concept of a better break. Most of us take breaks. But if that break involves picking up our phone, it can keep us revved up as the phone jars us with anxiety-provoking headlines or sends us down clickbait rabbit holes.
A BETTER BREAK
A better break involves doing something that down-shifts us and injects some happy hormones into our hormone soup. My better break often involves sipping a cup of hot tea while I look out my office window into the tangle of trees and vines in the woods behind my office. At mid-day I have a reminder that goes off in my phone telling me to reflect for a moment on the fact that I’m deeply loved by God.
A better break could be anything that pulls you out of the intensity of work or family life and only needs to take a couple of minutes to do you a world of good. You could meditate, listen to music, play with a pet, hug a friend or partner, or do a sun salutation. The better break helps even out all the stress hormones coursing through your body with the addition of some happy, feel-good hormones. And a good balance of those hormones in your body is essential to your sense of well-being in any given moment.
Cora, after much coaxing, was eventually convinced to incorporate three better breaks into her day.
- She downloaded an app that guided her through a 3-minute spiritual meditation that she started doing in her car in the office parking lot before she went into work.
- She set a 10-minute timer at noon and allowed herself that time to eat her lunch without multitasking. This may not sound like much, but Cora had not stopped for lunch in the ten years she’d worked at her current job. She enjoyed the silence and worked toward mindfully focusing on eating and nourishing her body.
- Cora started listening to music while driving home instead of listening to the news, creating a lighter, more restful feeling to the end of her day; much better preparation for the evening with her young kids.
In session after practicing the better breaks, Cora reported,
“OK, I’m convinced! The change in the way I’m coming into the family/dinner hour is worth all the therapy we’ve done. With better hormone soup, I’m more present and patient. The better breaks are helping me know how to move slower in times like that when I don’t need to be moving fast! It’s like I’d forgotten how to do it!”
Cora’s interventions only took a few minutes to practice and made a big difference in how she felt. Why? Because she was cooking tastier hormone soup!
Remember, better moments lead to hours that feel better.
Better hours lead to days that feel better.
Better days lead to weeks that feel better.
And it all may start with a better break. Please use the comment link to add your own ideas for daily and doable self-care. We’ll all benefit from seeing them and our clients will, too!
|Author bio: Janice McWilliams is a therapist, spiritual director, and author. Her book Restore My Soul: Reimagining Self-Care for a Sustainable Life, teaches the better break and 22 other soul-restoring skills, integrating psychological insight and Christian tradition in a way that any reader can appreciate.|