As a psychotherapist, I’ve been counseling parents who are burned out by the pandemic — juggling work, parenting, partnering, and homeschooling — without any end in sight. Our daily lives have become a blur of these roles, which shift minute to minute on repeat, making it hard to eke out any time or space to tend to our own needs.
But this moment calls for a re-thinking of what the term “self-care” even means. Bubble baths and champagne are nice but at this point pretty irrelevant. What we parents really need right now are concrete strategies to help us conserve energy and build stamina for the long haul journey ahead. This is no longer about sprinting to the finish line — the day when all will return to “normal” — but rather pacing ourselves and gathering our energy reserves in preparation for the miles that lie ahead. Here are some ACTUAL self-care tools for parenting in pandemic times.
1) Borrow from the marathoner’s mindset.
Marathon runners learn to not focus on the miles which lie ahead, but instead to stay razor sharp about the current moment. And that’s wisdom for all of us right now. Our ability to function properly is hijacked when we get stuck in worry about what the future holds. So, when you’re ruminating or spiraling, can you teach yourself to stop and notice with your senses the small things that give you pleasure, even for 30 seconds at a time? One of my most calming daily rituals is making the morning coffee before everyone else is awake. The silence, the smell of the beans, the sound of coffee brewing and those first sips are worth sinking deeply into, bolstering me for the day ahead. While making dinner at the end of a long day, I also will build in a ritual, whether by having a glass of wine or sparkling water or just by stopping to take some deep breaths before the nighttime routine resumes.
2) Use a “safe word.”
Many of us are hitting overload as we juggle our roles as mother, partner, daughter, homeschool teacher, coworker… the list goes on. Early on in quarantine, I began doing something I discovered when my daughter was a baby: using a safe word. Whenever I noticed I was hitting my edge and about to lose my temper or burst into tears, I would say “banana” to my husband, signaling that I needed a brief time out to reload. Kids can do this, too; it communicates to everyone that it’s time to press pause and reset by doing whatever you need to do: hopping in the shower, getting some fresh air or just finding some solitude wherever you can find it (even if it’s in the closet).
3) Cut out — or create boundaries around — toxic relationships.
Are there relationships in your life that are adding unnecessary strain or overwhelm right now? Needy friends, disgruntled colleagues, or mama dramas? If the relationship is adding stress rather than value, consider boundary-setting techniques like not responding immediately (or at all) to a text or email, or communicating your needs such as “I have a lot going on and I need to take some time out to focus on myself and my family right now.”
4) Find your zone.
When your nervous system is in a calm state, you are in the optimal, green “resiliency zone.” In the green zone you are able to respond appropriately to life’s challenges without getting stuck. But current events have bumped many of us out of our resilience and into the “red zone,” where we feel anxious or keyed up because our fight-or-flight is activated and we’re too amped up to make decisions properly. On the other end of the spectrum is the “blue zone” — where you feel muted, or down and depressed. By actually visualizing these zones and identifying where you’re at in any given moment, you can make choices to help you regulate in either direction.
5) Take a social media fast.
Scrolling social media can easily turn into a tunnel that’s hard to climb out of. Set some boundaries for yourself by taking a social media fast to reclaim some of your free time so you can use it for something that really nourishes you (maybe social media does, but often it doesn’t). What else could you focus on instead of constantly turning to your phone? And no matter what, when I am on social, I’ll set app limits for myself just as I do for my 11-year-old.
6) Serve others.
Helping others isn’t only altruistic; it becomes self-care by lifting our mood and giving us a “helper’s high.” Baking cookies to bring to neighbors, gathering resources to donate to a shelter, or bringing a care package to a friend who’s struggling can snap us out of our daily frenzy and shift the attention away from our own struggles. A young friend of ours had surgery during quarantine and my daughter felt great joy in putting together a package for her, and was surprised by the huge boost in her mood from helping out a friend.
7) Try yogic sleep.
So many of us are struggling with sleep these days (I know I’ve been waking up at 3:30am many nights!), and for this I’d suggest trying yoga nidra, AKA yogic sleep, before bed. This practice has been shown to reduce anxiety and improve sleep by slowing the wavelengths in your mind as you enter a state similar to sleep. Check out the InsightTimer app for a guided yoga nidra meditation.
8) Create some structure in the kitchen — IF it helps you.
Many folks are talking about the “Pandemic 15,” and while I recommend letting ourselves off the hook for this, if you want to reset any of your habits and introduce some structure, a cleanse can be a nice way to do it. Would you want to cut out sugar, meat or alcohol for a period of time? Some nutritionists are offering 30-day cleanses to help us get back on track during this time when the kitchen is always at our disposal.
9) Practice compassion — not just for others, but yourself.
My clients often speak about feeling guilty about their own stress given the immense challenges that others are facing during this pandemic. Practicing self-compassion — i.e. treating ourselves the way we might treat a good friend — is an effective antidote to the shame and guilt we may feel and can be really soothing. Redirect from an inner critical voice to one of self-compassion by placing a hand on your heart (or any part of the body that feels tense), taking three deep breaths, and offering yourself a compassionate phrase such as “May I be kind to myself,” or “I’m doing the best I can in a difficult time.” Because you are.