By Danielle Noonan
I want you to Google the phrase, “self care.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I just did, and I see several articles from mental health websites, numbered lists about how to make plans and new strategies to try, cutesie graphics from Pinterest boards, and recommended videos that promise to teach me self-care in five minutes or less. I know the resources that are out there, and so do you. We have had these resources before the pandemic, and we will afterward. I know that there are yoga stretches and breathing exercises and phone apps and social media accounts and homesteading and DIY crafts and sugar scrubs and the Wonder Woman power stance. I get it. But it’s all easier said than done, right?
All of these resources meant absolutely nothing to me several weeks ago when my partner came home and found me sitting on my kitchen floor, silently and slowing eating a cold piece of leftover garlic bread. That, dear readers, is too specific to not be real. It’s real, and it happened. In that moment, you could not have paid me to stand up and do a Wonder Woman pose.
You may be wondering how I, as a professional, could openly share something like that--that I was feeling overwhelmed by powerful emotions or that I had hit a limit that somehow resulted in me numbing and avoiding and literally slumping onto the floor. I assure you that I looked nothing like the capable, put together staff picture that’s on this blog post. I am comfortable sharing this snapshot of life with all of you, my colleagues, and my boss, because it’s normal.
It is normal to have uncharacteristic behaviors, become emotionally dysregulated, and have a lower threshold for the amount of stress you can tolerate when you are experiencing an abnormal event. These are normal reactions to abnormal experiences. Before you can bring self-care into your life in a way that feels authentic and practical, we have to name and normalize what we are going through.
We are all getting a crash course in vicarious and collective trauma. Another way to say that is being side-by-side with trauma or being in the trauma “splash zone.” When something happens that is unexpected, sudden, forceful, and out of our control, that can be traumatic. When it changes our worldview and leaves us feeling disempowered or has a long-lasting impact, that can be traumatic. This pandemic that we are experiencing is traumatic as its own experience, as a trigger for those with trauma in their past, and as people living side-by-side with people experiencing the same discomfort in the season of self-quarantine. It is important that we acknowledge and name that discomfort before applying self-care strategies, because responding to trauma and responding to the stressors of our typical lives looks very different.
I’m an advocate. My role is to educate, support, and empower others. My expertise is in trauma effects, coping skills, and stress management. I have all of the knowledge and resources, and I still ended up on the kitchen floor. How? Because I wasn’t taking care of myself as someone who may have been experiencing traumatic events; I was using my standard toolbox of habits and proactive self-care as though life was normal. But it wasn’t. This means that all of my hygiene routines, my support people, my meal plans, my errand schedule, and everything that brings me a sense of stability and consistency were gone. I was still doing all of the things, but they stopped working because the context had changed. When our context drastically changes or it does for someone we care about, the potential for trauma responses exists.
People typically respond to trauma as a fight, flight, or freeze experience. This can be physical or emotional, and your brain will make a decision for you about how to respond when it senses a threat. “Fight” can look like physical violence, aggression, or even that resiliency we sometimes see when people are put under pressure and get an adrenaline surge. “Flight” can look like removing ourselves from rooms or conversations, running away. Emotionally, it can be numbing, avoiding, and not giving ourselves permission to feel. “Freeze” can look like immobility, feeling clenched and trapped, or dissociating from the situation and being unable to respond because you’re “zoning out.” In the case of the garlic bread time out, that would be an adrenaline surge waning, followed by emotional flight (“I will not feel or engage, because that feels hard and I don’t like feeling that. I will only eat this garlic bread and sit until I am forced to do something else.”). I smile now in the clarity of hindsight mentally picturing this.
When we develop a context and understanding of a situation, we can better respond to it. When the context changes, so do our responses. Self-care, then, is a natural cycle of negotiation between what we know works, what we’re learning doesn’t, and what we haven’t tried yet. The challenge of a global pandemic is that we don’t necessarily have a context. We cannot rely on the things we usually do to make us feel safer and keep us grounded. We cannot rely even on the new things we learn, because it could change. We are making it up as we go.
Let me share how I got off the floor and back on my self-care horse: The Guidelines of Improvisational Comedy. Improv comedy is about laughing and keeping a scene or skit moving forward. It’s about finding the narrative in a story you don’t know and not getting stuck. It is literally about making it up as you go, and guidelines of improv can help you make sense of that self-care Google search.
Guideline #1 AGREE / SAY YES - My partner said, “It looks like today was interesting. Let’s start with getting off of the floor.” Not all of us are privileged to have safe people in our lives to do this, but this is about acknowledgement which all of us can provide for ourselves with a bit of self-awareness. This could have easily been a passing thought of, “I need to get off of the floor,” and saying yes to that thought. First, agree with yourself that you are experiencing a something and that you feel some kind of way about it. “Yes, I agree that I am being challenged. I acknowledge and say yes to the need for self-care.”
Guideline #2 YES, AND - I stood up, and I said, “Yes, and I think I need to eat.” I moved the scene forward. After you’ve said yes to self-care, adding “and” helps us move forward and through the discomfort by putting some action to that thought. The action doesn’t have to be a yoga pose or a bubble bath. It absolutely can be, but you are the expert on what you need. Not the internet. Say, “Yes, and…” and see what comes next. This will help you take some control of your situation and feel empowered to contribute to what is to come.
Guideline #3 MAKE STATEMENTS - I continued, “I don’t want to follow the meal plan today.” Sometimes when we don’t know what to do or we are feeling like we’re not our best selves, we undermine our strengths with questions and apologies. I could’ve said, “What do you want to eat?” or “How was your day?” or “Can you help me make dinner?”. All of those are perfectly reasonable questions to ask in this example. They are also all ways that I would’ve put more on my plate. If I had asked a question instead of making a statement, then suddenly I am directing the conversation and feeling responsible for where it goes based on the answer, all while taking on the needs of others. When we make statements, we are making contributions and giving others something to respond to in order to make their own contribution. In this, we can share, set boundaries, and invite support into our situation instead of taking in feedback and not knowing what to do with it.
Guideline #4 THERE ARE NO MISTAKES - My partner says, “Okay, let’s do something else,” and the world felt a little lighter. Who said I have to follow a meal plan anyway? Me. As I said, this is a new context, which can be scary. However, it also means that there are no rules on what “right” looks like and no expectations other than the ones we are putting on ourselves to live up to. If we are making it up as we go, in the moment or over the course of several weeks, then we can stop comparing it to things that felt “normal” in the past. This is the new normal, and there are no mistakes when there is no template for how it “should” go.
I want to acknowledge that I am privileged to engage in this improv self-care. Many victims of crime and abuse have to make decisions on the fly about how one phrase in a statement or one mistake could escalate the violence and feelings of unsafety in their lives. A conversation about dinner could easily become a different kind of conversation. The guidelines of improv become a roadmap for how to stay safer instead. This is why we cannot approach self-care as though it’s indulgence or a simple set of things to do. Self-care is an intentional discipline to do what needs to be done in order to move the scene forward. When we neglect self-care, we might push through for a bit, but eventually, the scene comes to a screeching halt.
After the garlic bread incident, I was able to acknowledge that I was experiencing some trauma effects. Naming it allowed me to remember my improv strategy, give myself grace when it felt new and unknown, and get comfortable with the discomfort.
Yes, there’s a pandemic.
Yes, there’s a pandemic, and it won’t last forever.
Let’s take care of ourselves in the meantime as much as we can.
There’s no wrong way to experience your own story.